Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers thrives on intimate communication with his players. To Hyers, hitting is sort of a collaboration, an open forum where a collective group of ideas are meshed in the hopes of creating a finished — and successful — product on the field.
Oftentimes, those ideas often are generated in hitters’ meetings or the video room. But in the wake of COVID-19, that has all been limited, with Hyers mainly having to meet with hitters individually. Hyers’s job can be broken down into two parts: hitting coach and psychologist. In this shortened season, much of Hyers’ his work has relied on the latter.
“Players are trying to get three hits in one at-bat,” Hyers said before the Red Sox suffered a 10-8 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays Sunday at Fenway Park to conclude the 10-game season series at 5-5. “It’s that pressure of producing, and it’s not just producing for stats. I think it’s producing for the organization, for their teammates. I think there’s this added pressure of wanting to do well in a short period of time.”
The Red Sox hitters haven’t been exactly terrible this season. Collectively, they entered Sunday’s game ranked 10th in the league with 191 runs scored and eighth in batting average (.260). In their five-game series against Toronto, they scored 29 runs, following up a season-high five home runs in Saturday’s 9-8 walk-off victory with four more in Sunday’s marathon setback that lasted 4 hours 23 minutes.
Where the team has struggled is getting on base. They began Sunday tied at 17th with the Oakland A’s in on-base percentage (.323). They have shown little discipline at the plate leading up to this series finale against the Jays, chasing pitches 33.9 percent of the time, fourth most in all of baseball.
The team has also scuffled in its ability to get its lineup clicking at the same time, particularly the heart of the order. Rafael Devers is hitting just .252 on the year (though he’s batting .308 in his last seven), while J.D. Martinez is at .227 with just four homers after Sunday’s 0-for-5 game. In the four games prior, Martinez appeared to ratchet up his production, going 7 for 16 with a homer and a double.
“J.D. really worked on his hands the first part of the summer camp and the first part of the season,” Hyers said. “I think he got his path to where he wanted it [to be], but he lost his lower half. The last three or four days, he’s really concentrated on his hips.”
Hitting is rhythm and timing with equal parts in that, is also patience. As Hyers pointed out, a shortened season can amplify a struggling hitter’s angst.
Consider: In a normal season, the 42-game mark would fall toward the middle of May, giving the Red Sox ample time to establish their timing and rhythm in the batter’s box. But with just 18 games left, Sox hitters are now staring down at a season that, from the outset, was labeled a box-to-wire sprint. Now, each team is dealing with the same reality, and some have thrived. But the Red Sox have struggled to adjust.
Nevertheless, judging a player’s underwhelming season off a small 60-game sample would be misleading, which begs the question: Should a season like this even be considered legitimate?
“That’s a tough question,” Martinez said with a smile last week. " I rather not answer that one, if you get my drift. I just think you truly can’t judge the success of a player, or what the player is, in two months. All you really need is one hot month and you’ve had an amazing season.”
Hyers’s job is unquestionably more difficult this season. Certainly, the pandemic pause has created a communications barrier between coach and player. Hyers still has to figure out a way to learn and understand the swings of a lineup that has seen a high rate of turnover in personnel this year.
Moreover, Hyers is also having to strike a balance between when to hone in on a hitter’s mechanics and when to give the player a mental break.
“More times than not, we want to shut things down and allow the talent to work,” Hyers said. “But I think players in general want to overanalyze and, as a coach, you’re trying to help them see some ways to improve and get back on track. I think it’s our human nature to try and find that answer.”