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How much do hitting coaches matter? And what the Pirates are seeking early in free agency (cross off Marlon Byrd)

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LEBO - Jay Bell decided to leave the Pirates for the Reds’ bench coach position late on Monday. I’m not sure if Bell was unhappy in Pittsburgh, or if he views this as stepping stone to a manager position, or if he just really wants to work with Bryan Price, whom he knows from his time with the Diamondbacks.

But, Bell, who was in part blamed for the Pirates’ stagnant offense of 2013, is gone. (I’m told Pirates assistant hitting coach Jeff Branson is an internal candidate)

The Pirates have offensive voids at right field, first base and shortstop. But perhaps the new void at batting coach is an opportunity to improve.  How much impact can a hitting coach have?

In the NL, the Pirates ranked ninth in runs, 11th in batting average, eighth in on-base, sixth in slugging, third in strike outs and third in home runs in 2013. OPS+ was kinder to the Pirates, as the Pirates ranked 10th in baseball in OPS, which adjusts for park factors.

PNC Park is a tough place to produce runs but the Pirates’ offense was at best inconsistent. So can a hitting coach make much of a difference?

Many are inclined to think hitting coaches often add little or marginal value. What is more important is individual batting talent and the thousands and thousands of reps the player had taken before reaching the major leagues.

But I think the right hitting coach can make a difference.

Sean Foley was recently ranked as the No. 2 golf coach in the world. He coaches a number of top players like Justin Rose and Tiger Woods. Foley had some interesting things to say about coaching during a recent interview with Charlie Rose.

“‘People go, ‘Are you going to change his swing?’ You can’t change it. You have studied enough of the brain to know there is not going to be any changes of the swing. You’re going to insulate neural circuits and what have you, motor memory…

“A lot of times it’s just about like what I said to Justin Rose on the morning of the Sunday of the US Open. I got up in the morning … I sent Tiger a note and Rose a note. I wrote, ‘Let’s remember, Justin, this a super important day. Let’s not pretend you’re somewhere else (on a practice round). Let’s face the fact we are there. It’s going to take a lot of energy to pretend you’re somewhere you’re not. So accept it. … Pressure is a privilege.”

Mechanics do matter of course. Golfers have to be sound from “hip high to hip high,” in their swings as Foley says. He wants players to have steep landing angles on approach shots and uses a radar device to measure them. But the real value in a swing coach is perhaps elsewhere. It’s reducing the clutter, it’s the psychological.

Now they are different games. The golf ball is stationary, a baseball moves upward of 95 mph. But they are both very individual games, too.  Psychology, confidence are critical to success. And Foley’s approach reminded me of the one hitting coach who did make a big difference in 2013: George Brett.

On May 30th the Royals fired their hitting coach and replaced him temporarily with Brett. Most of the young Royals hitters were struggling when Brett came on board, including their most valuable asset: Eric Hosmer.

From the Kansas City Star:

“(Brett) few mechanical things to fix. (Hosmer’s) stride was too big. He was too close to the plate, choking off those long arms. But mostly, Brett saw a broken hitting soul.

Others saw it, too. Executives from other teams. Scouts who remembered feeling goose bumps on their arms watching Hosmer’s pure, natural swing — much of it natural, the rest molded into a wicked combination of violence and control with long days in a batting cage back home in Florida.

Where did that player go? What happened?

How did a talent worth $6 million out of high school and the cover of Baseball America while in the minor leagues turn into a dinking, dunking, slapping singles hitter?

Brett had an idea. General manager Dayton Moore did, too. So after Moore finally convinced Brett to take the hitting-coach job with Pedro Grifol as his assistant, he didn’t say anything about the swing or the leg kick or the arms.

“Rescue us mentally,” Moore told Brett.

Look at what Hosmer did after Brett’s hire

Eric Hosmer through May: .261, 1 HR, .653 OPS

Eric Hosmer since June 1: .322, 15 HR, .883 OPS

Brett, along with Kevin Long in New York, are examples of excellent hitting coaches who understand hitting, and understand it’s as much a mental process as a mechanical one. They must also be excellent communicators to have players buy in. For instance, Bell and Clint Hurdle wanted Pedro Alvarez to better use all-fields but he has remained a pull-heavy hitter. Is he unwilling or unable? Does he need someone else to deliver a message? Maybe a new voice can make an impact.

PIRATES ARE TARGETING ‘HIGH UPSIDE’ PITCHING

I spoke with an agent last night who believes most of the Pirates’ early free agency calls have focused on “high upside” pitching.

What I think that means is the Pirates are looking for pitchers that struggled to prevent runs but showed an above average strikeout rate or groundball rate, suggesting that perhaps their ability to prevent runs is better than what their ERA suggested.

Trust FIP, not ERA.

This is a similar approach the Pirates took with Francisco Liriano  and it’s a prudent one … but you just can’t expect to hit on every ‘high upside’ lottery ticket to the degree the Pirates hit on Liriano.

I also wonder what it means for the chances AJ Burnett returns to the club. Looks like Plan B is becoming more and more likely.

REPORTS: BYRD SIGNS WITH PHILLIES

I think the Pirates had some interest in retaining Byrd on a one-year deal as a bridge to Gregory Polanco, but Byrd has reportedly reached a two-year agreement with the Phillies for $16 million Tuesday. I doubt the Pirate were interested in entertaining a multi-year offer.

Byrd was a useful piece for the Pirates in 2013, he impacted games in September. But the Phillies are likely buying high on a player who is 37 and has a PED suspension in his past.

-TS

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