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Kovacevic: Hitting coach’s hat hangs on Pedro

I can recall Spin Williams, the Pirates’ erstwhile pitching coach, once telling me his job depended almost entirely on whether he would – or wouldn’t – be able to solve Oliver Perez.

Remember Perez?

The lanky Mexican lefty rang up 239 strikeouts in 2004 while routinely throwing 98 mph. But soon, mysteriously or not, the velocity fell. As did the numbers. And, just as Spin called it, he was canned in late 2005.

An assistant coach in any sport is a specialist by trade and, as such, can become the singular point man charged with squeezing the most out of athletes whose potential greatly dwarfs their performance.

532665_90x135This is Gregg Ritchie’s world now, too.

If you don’t know Ritchie, you should. He’s the Pirates’ hitting coach, overseeing the worst offense we’ve seen in years – let that context soak in – through this 8-10 start.

How bad?

• The Pirates are batting a collective .211. For you 19th century history buffs, that’s 19 points below the franchise low of .230 in 1890.

• They’ve scored 41 runs. The A’s are a distant next-to-last in the majors at 59.

• They homer every 64 at-bats, matching Kevin Polcovich’s rate in 1997.

Neil Walker doesn’t have an extra-base hit. He bats cleanup.

• No one’s bothered to issue them an intentional walk.

I could do this all day.

This is Ritchie’s world, just as it’s Clint Hurdle’s. The Pirates’ manager previously was the hitting coach of a loaded lineup in Texas. Both men work with the Pirates’ hitters, but neither has gotten much out of them. Not this year, not last year.

Quick, name one hitter on the 2011 roster who even improved.

“Obviously, we’re better than we’ve shown,” Ritchie said in a talk we had during the Colorado series this week. “As Clint’s said, it’s a matter of coming up with the big hit at the right time, letting yourselves breathe and not forcing the issue.”

That’s pretty much the Pirates’ stance on this start: They opened against a string of Cy Youngs, lost confidence and are now clawing to get it back.

To an extent, I’ll buy it. You won’t see six of the 13 position players bat .200 or lower all year. And Walker won’t stay at .224.

But I’ll also repeat what I’ve been saying for a long time now: Everything changes with an as-advertised version of Alvarez in the heart of the order.

Along with his own output, the benefits include protection for Andrew McCutchen, Walker dropping to fifth and others falling into places that make sense.

“I wouldn’t dispute any of that,” Ritchie said. “But I also wouldn’t doubt that Pedro has the talent and work ethic to make that happen. We’re starting to see signs of it now.”

Indeed, Alvarez is 5 for his past 15, with a bomb in both games of the doubleheader Wednesday. For a guy still stuck at .156, it’s a start.

It’s certainly a lot more encouraging than the piece in the new Baseball America that asks if Alvarez could become “the biggest waste of hitting talent in draft history.” It quotes scouts suggesting he’s already a bust, after all of 627 at-bats.

“Oh, absolutely not,” Ritchie said, laughing. “It’s still a small window we’re looking at, way early to be making a judgment like that. The capability’s there. Look, we see it every day.”

The exasperation and exhilaration that accompanies Alvarez’s swings at the plate and in general performance – yes, among fans, too — was on full display in the 48-hour set with the Rockies.

Tuesday afternoon, Ritchie reinforced a recent point of emphasis for Alvarez to stroke the ball the other way and, in the process, envision right-center as his new foul line.

“It forces Pedro to stay back on the ball,” Ritchie explained.

Alvarez took it into batting practice in a big way.

“Two balls off the monster,” Ritchie said, referring to PNC Park’s tall batter’s eye beyond center field. “It was amazing.”

Alvarez was shielded from a lefty again that night, and he opened Wednesday with one of those grotesquely passive three-pitch whiffs.

But his next at-bat saw a lasered out to deep left. Other way. Looked good.

The next saw a tying blast into the right-center seats. His revised foul pole.

And Game 2 saw him clang one off the real right foul pole. Because foul is the new fair.

“It’s all there,” Ritchie said. “It’s just transferring it to the game. It’s trust.”

Can we trust that this week’s version is the real Pedro?

Ritchie had better hope so. This could be his Oliver Perez.

Comments

  1. Dan1283 says:

    Fabulous. Thanks for this. Good to see some optimism, however guarded, surrounding Pedro. Have a great vacation, DK.

  2. Naje says:

    Well, this is what I miss on the PBC beat… deft touch, yet again. You get the game. You get the people who play and coach the game.

    Can’t wait till they start winning and we get to read stuff like this about the Bucs everyday; just like we’ve had in the past month with your Pens coverage.

    Enjoy the week off… you’ve earned it.

  3. Naje says:

    You know, all last year I kept talking about Alvarez trusting those who are working with him…that his methods alone were not good enough. He seemed to fight and fight and fight the changes that Ritchie and Hurdle were proposing; not outwardly, but within himself. Lack of trust? Probably so. In light of what Ritchie said about trust, well, that confirms it.

    Just re-read the piece and that “Foul is the new fair” line is a classic… DK style.

  4. john paonessa says:

    Is there any thoughts of putting mcgehee or jones in the #4 spot pedro in the 5 hole and walker at 6 with the way walker is going that will be less protection for pedro than he normally gets batting 7th

  5. Keith says:

    God bless you DK. While you go from covering one of the best NHL franchises, you then flip the script to the worst baseball team. Granted, you do give us long suffering fans something to hope for. You should really write political campaign speeches. :-)

    DK: Um, not really sure how to take that. Wasn’t attempting anything with that piece other than painting the most accurate picture in forming a view. Alvarez could fail. Ritchie could be fired for it. Those really are the undercurrent there.

  6. aglebagel says:

    @ john paonessa

    I know that in many comments sections, it’s the norm to eschew punctuation and capitalization, but around here I think most appreciate its inclusion, as it makes your comment that much easier to read. That said, I’m completely with you on your proposed lineup change. :)

    @ DK

    As more of a baseball fan than hockey (and therefore a closer follower of the Bucs than the Pens), it’s good to have you “back” full-time for awhile. Concerning Pedro, what has his reception been like at PNC recently? Personally, I’m trying to send so much positive energy towards him that I’ve been tempted a couple times to include him in my prayers. Seriously. An asylum indeed.

  7. J says:

    Fire Arians….oops, I mean Fire Ritchie!

  8. JT says:

    I read an article on Joey Bautista and I believe the hitting coach in Toronto. He was talking about how Bautista was a natural pull hitter. Thats where his power was and every coach that he come across until he made it to Toronto tried to get him to stop pulling the ball. Once Bautista got to TOR none of the coaches tried to get him to hit the ball the other way, and look at him now.

    I’m not saying this same approach would definitely work with Alvalrez, but hes seems to be a natural pull hitter. He seems to be thinking to much at the plate and I have to think that the coaches hammering away at hit to start driving the ball to opposite field is a factor in that. To me thats something that comes with experience. Just let the kid swing the bat, he can hit. Once he gets comfortable at the plate in the majors, then you can start tweaking. But they never let him get comfortable before they started changing things. Hence why he did good his first time up with the team. It was too late in the season to start changing things, he just hit. Then last year, they had him totally screwed up. Just let him get comfortable first.

  9. TJA says:

    Well said, Dejan. I have said before and specifically suggested after Game 1 of the DH Wednesday, on this blog, that Ritchie will soon have a target on his back. The pitchers on this team have done a tremendous job in the first month and they really deserve better support from the offense. It is very frustrating. All that being said…we know the manager, as indicated, is a “hitting instructor”, too. Hurdle had a monster lineup in Texas, but our guys should be able to hit the ball a bit, also. Hope they have a good weekend in Atlanta and then St. Louis. Yikes!

    And hoping everyone has a great weekend, too!

    DK: Merci.

  10. NMR says:

    My, my, my…I seem to remember taking my share of criticism during spring training for suggesting that Ritchie share the blame for the Pirates hitting woes, specifically Pedey.

    Who’s this Kohvahchevick guy and what does he know anyways???

  11. JAL says:

    Morning links on the Wakeup Call thread

  12. NMR says:

    @JT

    Great post.

    I still beleive that learning to hit the ball to the opposite field makes you a better hitter, for the reasons DK and Ritchie explained above, but at what point does it become a matter of diminishing returns?

    I’m not suggesting Pedro has reached that point, but the Bautista analogy has to be in the back of your mind.

    @naje

    Do you have any information to back that up? Didn’t Pedro start completely altering his swing last season, culminating in the 3-stances-in-a-day spring training game DK wrote about?

    Do you really think that after being extremely successful at hitting a baseball his entire life to the tune of becoming the second overal pick and earning a $6m contract, that Pedro would one day wake up and decide to start swining a bat differently without instruction?

    Smells fishy to me.

  13. Naje says:

    NMR–

    Yes… that’s what I was referring to… all of the BP and extra hitting he took with Hurdle at ST in 2011. It was clear then that: 1. Alvarez was out of sync with his swing (out of shape, too); 2. Even then Alvarez was fighting, resisting what instruction he’d be given. Not an out and out “I’m not doing it this way,” but resisting/not trusting the instruction from his head to his body to his swing… perhaps he had it in BP, but he trusted none of it during games.

    And they didn’t completely alter his swing… they changed his approach to cover the colossal holes in his swing (inside corner up-and-in, and the huge hole on the outer-third of the plate), as well as in pitch recognition and understanding how to control an at bat. Lots of scouts consistently mentioned the huge holes in his swing as far back as his college days. He got by on extremely quick hands, raw power and aluminum bats.

    Alvarez got by on his natural talent for years. He got hot for a month in 2010, got lazy/undisciplined with his training that off-season, came to ST in 2011 and was not good. When MLB pitchers caught up to him, he was lost. Something had to give… he had to learn a lot of things about his swing, pitch recognition and combating/competing against MLB pitchers. It was a lot to take in mentally and that can really cloud an athlete’s ability to perform. BUT, once that stuff sinks into the mind and then moves into the body and he’s comfortable with all of that, then you see good results.

    He never learned how to do that until Hurdle and Ritchie challenged him to do it. That’s a huge amount of trust involved for a No. 2 overall pick who had been so successful for years doing things his way or his old coach’s (coaches’) way.

  14. NMR says:

    Naje

    I respectfully don’t buy it.

    The hole in Pedro’s swing comes from the loop created when his bat head dips. Remember that deliberately over the top practice swing ritual last season? Thats why he isn’t able to get around on the pitch up and in. His bat head lags behind.

    No offense, but I seriously doubt you’ll find any hitting coach who would tell you adding a toe tap would fix that. Approach type mechanics are all about timing. Look at all the goofy stances and manerisms in the sport and yet just about every hitter ends up in the same position the instant he starts the bat forward.

    Go through the timeline on youtube some day when you’re bored. You’ll see Pedro is going back to his approach in 210, the one he had at Vandy. Quiet, little movement.

    Strikes me as odd that he would revert away from that, only to be taught to go back.

  15. NMR says:

    Regardless, I enjoy the baseball talk.

    I completely agree that he doesn’t trust his mechanics at the plate. That trust comes with thousands upon thousands of muscle memory building repetition.

    Hitters are remarkably similar to golfers in that manner. Swing mechanics are incredibly hard to change.

    Thats in a nutshell why I think the coaching of Pedro has been so ridiculous. I don’t see how anyone could imagine he could institute THAT much change in one year.

  16. Naje says:

    NMR…

    I understand your point, yes… but he brought this on himself. He was out-matched over and over… the toe tap was a desperate move for a desperate hitter who couldn’t hit anything. He didn’t trust his eyes, couldn’t recognize a pitch and was consistently fooled by anything other than a straight, slowish fastball.

    I agree with you that he’s much more quiet now… head’s still, hands still, trusts what his eyes are seeing and has a better command of his zone (it’s still relatively small, though). In recent weeks, he’s not lunging for the breaking balls… he’s taking the ball to the opposite field (remember the 400 foot shot to the wall in left center in AZ?)… and he’s putting a smooth swing on it.

    As Hurdle has said over and over, it’s confidence with him. Maybe Hurdle and Ritchie tried to correct those holes in his swing in ST 2011 and that caused some of the problems. I don’t know… but it seems like he’s had a year to digest everything, work with his new coaches and trust whatever approach he’s been working on.

    But again, I agree with you in that he’s back to something similar to the approach he had when he was hot in 2010. Quiet at the plate, confident and not trying to do too much… letting the bat and his natural power do the work.

  17. Naje says:

    NMR….

    Funny you mention the golf swing because I was going to mention that in post #16… exactly the point. Even though he’s gone back to nearly an identical swing as 2010, it seems a little more compact (not Presley-style-compact) and precise. I think we’re beginning to see an even more polished approach from him and that can only help him continue to put bat-on-ball…with authority. As soon as he masters that muscle memory and start applying that “nasty intent” to his swing, well, the fans at PNC may well be putting up a “Splash” count.

    Or better yet (according to Ritchie’s new mantra of “right center is your new right field foul line”), a “Batters Eye Blast” count…

    Good stuff, NMR…

  18. RobertoForever says:

    Dejan,

    Agree on Ritchie. Sometimes guys like that get defined by things out of their control. But that’s major league big money sports these days.

    Wondering if the Angels hitting coach is on the hot seat. They have 6 players batting terribly but collecting 60 million this year.

    Lastly. Your stats are not correct. Bucs have scored 41 runs, are batting. 221, and hit HR’s every 52 AB’s. Looks like your stats service is 1 game behind.

  19. Admittedly, I am not any kind of expert on batting stances, swing mechanics, or seeing the pitches clearly, but after being a teacher for 36 years in the public schools, I think I’m a bit of an expert on “human behavior”. I recall when Pedro came up and all the HUGE expectations that were placed on him. To hear it told, he was going to be Clemente and Stargell all rolled into one. Talk about a lot to place on a KID. As fans, I think we must always remember that many of these Pirates are young and just getting their legs underneath them. Coming up in September when nothing is on the line,and starting opening day with the weight of the franchise on your shoulders, are two vastly different things. I say, let’s give the kid a chance to breathe , and hope that what we’ve seen the past few games is a preview of what’s to come. As a teacher I recall many times “the light would come on” for a student and it always amazed me how one day could be so different from the day before. Let’s hope that’s what we’re seeing from Pedro. Let’s Go Bucs!!!!!!!!

  20. RobertoForever says:

    @john paonèssa

    Walker is only batting cleanup half the time. In 18 games, McGehee has already batted cleanup 7 times, Jones 2 times, and Walker the other 9 times.I think Clint is still feeling out the best lineup. He has only reused the same position player lineup twice.

    And I could care less if your spelling or punction is correct.

  21. Naterosboro says:

    “This could be his Oliver Perez.”

    Wow. Depressing way to end the column in more ways than 1.

    There goes my half-full glass.

  22. NMR says:

    @Naje

    You’re absolutely right in that Pedro brought this on himself and takes ultimate responsibility. I just think its remarkable how big of a difference a single coach can make on a persons performance in this crazy, complicated, humbling game and thus enjoy talking about it.

    The beauty of the situation is that, as you said quite well, this could be the start of Pedro “figuring it out” and the last year and a half will be nothing more than colorful history behind the great success of Ritchie, Hurdle, and Alvarez. Ritchie’s “right center is your new foul line” could be Toronto’s “open up and pull the ball”.

    I’m certainly pulling for them.

  23. JRay3 says:

    @ DK – thanks for the very informative piece, especially the inside talk of some of the adjustments they are working on with Pedro.

    You make a great point, the team’s confidence at the plate had to be a bit broken early on facing some of the best pitching in all of baseball. Twenty hits in the DH against Colorado can hopefully be some small step to gaining that mental edge.

    Looking forward to seeing Burnett in action for his second start, an opening game win to the series would star this road trip off on the right note.

    Let’s go Bucs!

    DK: Danke.

  24. TKrise says:

    @DK — Just curious if Greg Ritchie did anything following the 2010 season that was different than what Don Long did in 2010 with Alvarez. Or was it simply pitchers making an adjustment to Alvarez following the 2010 season that he and Ritchie have yet to figure out?

    DK: It’s not so much that the instruction changed. It’s that the league adjusted to Alvarez, found a weakness, pounded it, and he didn’t adjust back.

    That said, Long had a fairly lengthy list of hitters he made better. He made Jason Bay and Xavier Nady very wealthy men, for example. Thought it was a bad idea to fire him at the time — baby with bathwater — and still looks bad today.

  25. Leefoo says:

    Dejan sent me a link to this via email. How do you find this blog from the Sports Page? There is no “Blog” Link any more.

    Or am I missing something?

    Foo

    .

  26. BenderHeel says:

    For an organization that purports to demand accountability, the Pirates front office and coaching staff certainly go a long way to diminish that stated goal with all of their excuses, justifications and lack of imminency with Alvarez.

  27. RobertoForever says:

    @Carla

    Love the post and agree 100%. Give him some time and our full support. I think he has it in him to reach his full potential.

  28. JRay3 says:

    @ Leefoo – I go in through the Bucco Blog and than a link will appear on that page in upper left for all blogs, I than click into that to get in. There maybe an easier way but I have not found it.

  29. Leefoo says:

    JRay3……..where’s the link to the Bucco Blog?

    Foo

    .

  30. AJS says:

    ESPN tells me the Bucs have scored 41 runs not 35. But the point still stands that the offense is terrible.

  31. JRay3 says:

    @LeeFoo- Here is the one I have used to get in.

    http://blog.triblive.com/bucco-blog/2012/04/24/patience-key-against-moyer/

    If you to go to the Trib Live site and click to get into sports in the Pirates section on the right is the Bucco Blog stories, I click on one of those so I can see All Blogs in the upper left. Hope that helps.

  32. tmp444 says:

    Everyone — just bookmark this:

    http://blog.triblive.com/dejan-kovacevic/

    That will take you to DK’s main page everytime.

  33. Arriba Wilver says:

    How do you bookmark? :-)

  34. Ryan (Nor-Cal Stlrfanrc) says:

    I had to get the link sent as well….

    Let’s see what Pedro can do, maybe this small sample is what he’s capable of. I don’t see him as a .300 hitter ever, but who saw Joey Bats hitting 50 HR’s?

    Anyone else still upset that the Pirates signed Erik Bedard at $4M and not resign Maholm at $9M or even the contract he got from the Cubs? I know its early, but are we really surprised PM has an ERA around 8?

  35. JohninOshkosh says:

    @JAL:

    Thanks for the Paul Sullivan Chicago Tribune link this morning. It referenced Lee Elia’s famous meltdown rant with reporters 29 years ago. Easily one of the great moments in baseball history. Decorum prevents me from posting a You Tube link of the profanity laced rant, but if you are too young to recall it, I highly recommend searching for it.

    Are you going to be posting morning links next week? You are just about to get to the sixties in your music link themes-soon to be in my wheelhouse-the eighties.

  36. AJS says:

    As to how to get to this blog…As someone pointed out to me the other day on every page if you scroll all the way to the bottom there is a column that says “Features” under that you will see “bloggers.” Click on that and the entire list comes up.

  37. PigLegs Robinson says:

    It’s with young power guys like Pedro Alvarez that I really miss Willie Stargell, and the great influence and teaching he could have given.

    What Willie needed early in his career was a timing mechanism, which he invented as his pump swing. Willie and Joe Morgan were friends in the minor leagues, and both of them figured out a timing mechanism that would work for them, Willie coming up with his unique but very successful windmill pump, and Joe Morgan deciding on his unique chicken wing-jerk. It worked wonders for both of them.

    This is what Pedro needs, a timing mechanism to help him stay back. What he doesn’t need though is to stop pulling the ball (just as Joey Bats didn’t need to stop pulling the ball).

    God, I miss Willie Stargell. But maybe they could bring in Joe Morgan at least.
    Is the Pirates management bright enough to do this? Sadly I doubt it.

 
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