FORT MYERS, Fla. — Presence. Command. Respect.
This is Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis.
Baseball folks know how this works. There are two kinds of coaches. There are the Nutty Professor/Joe Kerrigan meddlers, guys who didn’t perform well at the highest level of sports and spend the rest of their lives overcompensating by tweaking and tinkering with gifted professional athletes. Former Royals manager Jim Frey spoke for this group when he famously said, “We teach them to do a lot of [expletive] that we could never do ourselves.’’
And then there are the star athletes who stick around the game and try to make players better by lending experience and wisdom gleaned from years of success.
Say hello to Chili Davis, a three-time All-Star and three-time World Series winner who switch-hit his way to 350 homers over 19 seasons in the major leagues.
When Davis tells Shane Victorino to get his bat head out in front, Victorino listens. Hanley Ramirez will listen. Pablo Sandoval will listen. Even David Ortiz will listen.
And the young players? You should see the way they look up to Davis. Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Christian Vazquez are honored to get advice from an imposing slugger who swatted 20 or more homers in 10 big league seasons.
It’s not always easy for former stars to make the transition. Larry Bird and Don Baylor could do it, but Ted Williams could never understand why his young hitters had difficulty with Teddy Ballgame’s Science of Hitting. Maury Wills was good enough to win a league MVP award, but he was also perhaps the worst manager who ever lived.
Davis seems to be a natural teacher. He was the hitting instructor for the Pawtucket Red Sox in 2011 and spent the last three years as the Oakland A’s hitting coach.
“He’s got a credible message,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “Credible in the sense of what his personal experiences have been.
“He’s got a unique blend of being able to talk mechanics to a certain hitter and yet his root strength is in game-planning. What to look for. What is the out pitch of the pitcher on the mound? The volume of information that he has on guys in the league. And his delivery.
“He’s credible. He’s got their confidence and they listen to him and he’s got the ability to call b.s. He’s got very unique and well-rounded abilities as a hitting instructor.’’
“I know hitting, but there’s a lot more to being a hitting coach,’’ said Davis. “You’ve got to be organized and have your times. Each player requires some time to get to know him, and hear him, and help him get there.’’
“If I have a philosophy, it’s discipline, quality at-bats,’’ Davis said. “I’m into the cat-and-mouse games between the pitcher and hitter. I want the hitter to give himself the best possible chance to beat that pitcher.
“For me, it’s more of a mentality than a philosophy. I want them to get quality pitches and I want them to make the pitchers work if they are going to get them out.’’
Davis last played in the majors in 1999 (he hit a pretty famous home run off Pedro Martinez that year that we’ll get to later), so a lot of the Sox’ younger players don’t know anything about his career with the Giants, Angels, Twins, Royals, and Yankees. And he’s not one for bragging about “how we did it in my day.’’
“I talk to our hitters about my failures more than my successes,’’ he said. “I talk about why I struggled and how I got out of my struggles.’’
“If you talk to Chili, it didn’t happen just falling out of bed,’’ said Farrell, a big league teammate of Davis’s with the Angels in 1993-94. “He worked at it. Look at a guy with 350 homers, you think it just happened easy for him, but he’s always been a student of hitting. He works. It’s not like he’s flying by the seat of his pants just to give a message.’’
How does any guy come in here and tell Big Papi how to hit?
“Everybody wants someone to watch them and make sure they are doing the things they do,’’ said Davis. “I’m not going to walk in here and say, ‘David, we need to change your setup.’
“David Ortiz knows how to hit. Dustin Pedroia knows how to hit. Allen Craig knows how to hit. [Mike] Napoli. Those guys are going to tell me what to look for.
“I love talking to David. When David talks to me, it sounds like me talking to me.’’
Anyone who coaches hitting for the Red Sox is going to spend a lot of time with Jackie Bradley Jr.
“We’ve given him a couple of mechanical things to be consistent with,’’ said Davis. “He needs to see the contact, get his legs into it, staying over the plate, covering the plate. We don’t want him trying to hit for power. He can pepper the Wall and hit singles.’’
The struggles of Craig would put any coach to a test. Craig was one of the best hitters in the National League, then disappeared when he came to Boston.
“Allen Craig is a professional hitter,’’ said Davis. “I don’t care what happened last year [.128 in 29 games with Boston]. Allen Craig has been an RBI guy. He’s been a successful hitter. He’s a good hitter and I’ll go to my grave saying that.
“He was hurt last year, in a new league. He could have easily bowed out of ballgames and spared himself the embarrassment he went through. But he opted not to do that and that’s a character guy right there.’’
Davis has a place in Red Sox lore owing to his home run off Martinez at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 10, 1999. By some accounts, it was the greatest game ever pitched in Yankee Stadium (no small achievement given that perfect games were thrown there).
Against the defending world champions, Pedro allowed only one hit and faced only 28 batters. He retired the last 22 batters in order and whiffed 17 Yankees, including seven of the last eight he faced.
The only flaw was a second-inning fastball to Chili Davis.
“From watching him pitch to [Derek] Jeter, [Chuck] Knoblauch, [Paul] O’Neill, Bernie [Williams], and then Tino [Martinez], every first pitch he threw was in,’’ recalled Davis. “I made up my mind that first pitch, fastball in, was not going to get by me. I hit it hard.
“I’ve talked to Pedro about it. All that did was wake him up. He was electric after that. I don’t think we hit a ball hard off him after that. I’m glad I got him in the second inning.’’
Davis trusted himself on that night in New York. And that is what he will preach to his hitters.
“It’s about trust,’’ he said. “You work, work, work. And when you get into a ballgame, you’ve got to trust it.’’