At the All-Star Game, Dodgers first base coach and former Red Sox minor league instructor George Lombard crossed paths with Mookie Betts. The topic turned to Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers, with whom Lombard worked in both organizations.
“[Betts] said, ‘George, he is the man.’ From everything he told me, guys love him over there,” Lombard said at the All-Star Game. “It sucks for us, because we lost such a good person, but happy for [Hyers] to advance like that in his field and to be loved by everyone.”
As the Red Sox prepare to face the Dodgers in the World Series, the decision a year ago to hire Hyers away from the Dodgers (for whom he spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons as assistant hitting coach to Turner Ward) represents both an easily overlooked aspect in the making of Boston’s path to the World Series and a potentially significant asset in the Red Sox’ efforts to beat Los Angeles in the Fall Classic.
Hyers is in his first full season as the Red Sox hitting coach, but when the team tabbed him for the role, it brought in a familiar presence whom several players knew well. As the Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator from 2013-15, Hyers worked with Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, and Christian Vazquez as they made their way through the farm system. When Hyers went to visit several of those players over the offseason, it represented the continuation of a relationship rather than a new one.
“He was part of these guys’ development. It’s not just him showing up,” observed Yankees bench coach Josh Bard, who was on manager Dave Roberts’s staff with Hyers in Los Angeles. “He had the relationship with Andrew and with Mookie and all those guys. It’s pretty remarkable what they’ve done.”
However, the conversations Hyers had with players when he returned to Boston were very different than the ones he had as the team’s hitting coordinator.
In the span of two years, the game had changed – or, at least, the way that the game was discussed had changed. Statcast had popularized data-driven concepts – spin rate, exit velocity, and launch angle, among others – that were no longer viewed with distrust if not outright contempt by players.
In Los Angeles, an organization with one of the most far-reaching commitments to research, analytics, and data-driven concepts, Hyers received an exposure to the game’s new language. So the way he discussed hitting proved eye-opening for his new/old players.
“You could tell that he’s gotten a different knowledge of what hitting is all about,” said Bradley. “All of those things he’s discussing now, it comes back to how much information we have now with analyzing spin rate, vertical angle of the pitcher, the movement. We have all this information now. He’s able to speak more fluently with what we need to hear and what allows us to make an adjustment mentally.”
For Hyers, the opportunity to work with the Dodgers front office and Ward gave new words to ideas he’d long held about hitting. Yet in a way, the most significant influence for Hyers was Justin Turner. Much like J.D. Martinez, the Dodgers’ best hitter remade his swing and his offensive approach to transform from a marginal big leaguer who almost signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox in 2014 to one of the best pure hitters in the game. The way Turner discussed hitting, and the way Dodgers hitting consultants Craig Wallenbrock and Robert Van Scoyoc (the duo with whom Martinez worked in the 2013-14 offseason to remake his career) analyzed swings, were revelatory for Hyers.
He became comfortable with a different hitting vocabulary. At the same time, with Turner and some of the other Dodgers players, his eyes were opened to the amount of information that players were comfortable absorbing as part of their efforts to game-plan for opposing pitchers.
“There were some [Dodgers] players that wanted more information. You presented information and they were like, ‘We got this. We want some more,’” said Hyers. “Justin Turner was a big influence on me, how he changed his career, changed his swing. He’s such a good communicator about the swing. He saw things a different way. There are some guys I met out there who changed the vocabulary a lot, put some pieces together.”
Hyers also saw players who, at times, got overwhelmed by the information he and Ward tried to provide. There was an art to game-planning, not only to discovering patterns in what pitchers were doing – and their vulnerabilities – but also to figuring out how much an individual player could digest in the batter’s box.
A meal loses its luster if eaten to the point of illness. In Los Angeles, Hyers discovered that there was no end to the potential courses he could serve, but that there were times when a third dessert did no one any good.
“How does an organization give information out without giving [players] too much, where it really hurts their progression?” Hyers wondered. “How you do that, I think, is the next wave of coaching. It’s there. Players want to know it. How do you simplify, not get so technical that they lose it by the time they get to the batter’s box? How do you simplify the important things so they can understand and so it can be usable in a game without killing the athleticism, the reactions, and the flow of their natural ability?”
The search for that balance and the eagerness to translate information into the terms that best resonate with individual players have been part of a Red Sox hitting culture that drew raves for its game-planning both en route to leading the majors in several offensive categories (including runs) during the regular season and that took a sledgehammer in the ALCS to an Astros pitching staff that had been the big leagues’ best during the regular season. With the Red Sox, Hyers and assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett have played a significant role in striking that balance and helping to translate information into terms that best resonate with individual players.
Hyers and Barkett aren’t alone. Based on his experience with Turner, Chase Utley, Corey Seager, and others in Los Angeles, Hyers gained an understanding of the power of player-to-player conversations about hitting, something that he’s welcomed and fostered with the Red Sox. Hyers is comfortable deferring to the perspective of players like Martinez, Mitch Moreland, and Mookie Betts in hitters meetings, knowing that no information is more valuable than that coming from a player who has actually seen the action of an opponent’s pitches.
Hyers is also considered gifted in taking data about those pitches and translating it. He doesn’t merely say a pitcher features a two-seam fastball. He lets hitters know that if a certain righthander starts it on the arm-side edge of the plate it will reach the plate in the middle, the sort of detail that helps hitters to narrow the lanes where they’re looking for pitches.
Now, Hyers has a chance to help shape the Red Sox’ pursuit of four more victories. He possesses intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of most of the Dodgers’ players from his two years in LA, so much as Red Sox bullpen coach Craig Bjornson (who’d been with Houston before this season) proved an asset in how the hitters game-planned for the ALCS, Hyers has a chance to contribute to the pitching staff’s preparations for the Dodgers.
“Obviously I know their hitters really well,” said Hyers. “I’ve been gone a year, and hitters do change. Some of the information I have is useless, but I know some things that possibly can help out to create some game plans to help us win.”