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Who’s got the tougher job — the Twins’ pitching coach or the hitting coach?

Pitching coach Rick Anderson confers with pitcher Glen Perkins during a March 15 spring exhibtion game in Tampa.
REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Pitching coach Rick Anderson confers with pitcher Glen Perkins during a March 15 spring exhibtion game in Tampa.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson share an office in Hammond Stadium, so Anderson is often nearby when Gardenhire conducts his postgame interview session.  That created a curious situation earlier this week when Gardenhire was asked whether the pitching coach or the hitting coach of a typical baseball team has the tougher job.
   
With Anderson sitting 5 feet away, how could Gardenhire not side with the pitching coach? But Gardenhire, the former major-league infielder, went the other way based on simple arithmetic.  And Anderson agreed.

“The pitching coach doesn’t have as many guys per day that he has to go back and think, ‘How can I help this guy?’ ” Gardenhire said. “We can get 15 hits, and there might be two guys who didn’t get any. He’s going to deal with that every day.

“So I say the hitting coach has a tougher job, because he has more guys he has to deal with on a daily basis, whether it’s good or bad. The pitching coach normally has one or two, maybe three.”
   
A hard worker
At Hammond Stadium, Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra turns on the lights in the batting cages beneath the left-field stands at 6:30 a.m., 90 minutes before the clubhouse opens to the media and before most of the sleepy coaches and players straggle in. And Vavra’s day doesn’t end with the last out of the game. Last Sunday, when Vavra left camp because of a death in the family, marked a rare afternoon he wasn’t in the cages postgame with hitters requiring extra help.

“I’ve never seen a guy work like him,” Anderson, 52, said.   

Among baseball insiders, Anderson earned respect for his work with Johan Santana and, more recently, the Twins’ young starting staff.  Though never a self-promoter, Anderson gets props from TV analysts whenever the Twins are the national Fox game, or on ESPN. “You look at what he’s done the last seven or eight years, he’s been great,” catcher Mike Redmond. “We’ve had a lot of rookies come through here and pitch well for us. That’s not an accident.”

But the majority of baseball fans outside Minnesota couldn’t identify the Twins hitting coach if you spotted them Vavra’s first name.

Invariably, reporters only talk to the hitting coach when the team isn’t hitting. And that’s usually a precursor to the hitting coach getting fired. With more and more general managers choosing the coaches instead of leaving it to the manager, the hitting coach is a convenient fall guy when the GM tries to jolt a struggling team or an unpopular manager.

Joe Vavra, Ron Gardenhire
Courtesy of the Minnesota Twins
Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra and manager Ron Gardenhire

“By far, the batting coach has the toughest job of all the coaches,” Nick Punto said. “You’ve got 12 different personalities. I think batters are more mental than pitchers. A batting coach has to be positive all the time, because hitters go through spells where they’re not very good. If the hitting coach is not positive, and not willing to work with everyone’s personality, it’s going to affect every player.

“Joe Vavra is great at working with every different personality. Justin Morneau requires a lot of attention. He’s got a lot of routines. A guy like Mike Redmond has a few routines. At this level, it’s not about fundamentals and mechanics. It’s about being positive when you’re scuffling, and being someone who’s willing to work. That’s what Joe is.”

Joe Who?
No one outside the organization knew much about Vavra, 49, a Chippewa Falls, Wis., product, when the Twins promoted him from minor-league field coordinator to hitting coach in October 2005. Vavra worked in the Dodgers organization from 1987 to 2001. “When he got hired, a lot of people probably said, ‘Who’s Joe Vavra?’ ” Redmond said.

Even some Twins knew little about him. Torii Hunter said the Twins should have hired a proven major-league hitter like Don Baylor or Paul Molitor and openly questioned whether Vavra, whose playing career stalled at Class AAA, could teach him anything.

Actually, major-league experience often has little to do with the quality of the coach. Two of the most influential hitting instructors of the 1970s and ’80s, Charley Lau and Walt Hriniak, had undistinguished careers as major-league catchers. Hriniak, in 99 career at-bats, never had an extra base hit. But Lau helped turn George Brett into a Hall of Famer. And the high finish of Frank Thomas’ swing reflected a Lau/Hriniak trademark.

Conversely, few hitting coaches owned better credentials than seven-time batting champion Rod Carew. But the Brewers forced Carew out in 2001, when Milwaukee hitters broke major-league record for strikeouts, even though the Brewers bettered club marks for homers and extra base hits two years running.

Twins players and staffers are fiercely loyal to Vavra because he keeps players upbeat and never cuts corners. 

“You go through ups and downs,” said two-time American League batting champion Joe Mauer said. “I know my swing, but it’s always nice to have somebody outside looking in. When you’re struggling, it’s great to have another pair of eyes around to have a look at it.

“Joe’s been great. He’s pretty much there for whatever you need. He’s got a good idea about what I’m trying to do at the plate.  He comes ready to work, and he’s there when you need him.”

Added Redmond: “I think if you ask any player what you want in a hitting coach, it’s to be positive. That’s why Joe Vavra is the best. He’s a terrific worker, and I almost feel sorry for him at times. We’ve got to bring his lunch to him in spring training because he’s always out in the cages. I’ve never heard him say no to a guy.”

Do you agree with the Twins’ consensus on whether the pitching coach or hitting coach has the tougher job? Leave your comments below.

This spring, Redmond sought out Vavra because he felt discombobulated at the plate. Vavra compared video of Redmond in 2006 and this spring and noticed Redmond’s feet were 4 or 5 inches farther apart than they used to be. That prevented Redmond from shifting his weight properly and slowed his swing. With that one small correction, Redmond felt more comfortable, and his hitting improved.

“Joe and I will drive home after a game,” Gardenhire said, “and he’ll already be talking about the two guys he’s going to help out tomorrow because they’ve been struggling or whatever. He’s relentless, to the point where I have to tell him, ‘Back it off, you’re going to kill yourself.’ ”

Low-key ‘Andy’ relishes seeing young staff develop
Anderson, too, puts in volumes of time teaching pitchers and catchers to think their way through situations. Anderson’s low-key manner reflects the influence of Mel Stottlemyre, his pitching coach with the 1980s New York Mets who later won four world championships as Joe Torre’s trusted right hand with the Yankees.

“He let you go out and do it,” Anderson said. “If you failed a few times, then he’d be there for suggestions. I liked his approach, because he wasn’t overbearing and he didn’t pound on you every day about situations, mechanics and whatnot.”

Though young pitchers require more attention than veterans, Anderson relishes his work with Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins and others. “It’s rewarding to work with young kids, see them go out and apply it, see them grow as young pitchers,” he said.

Most of them understand the one or two mechanical glitches that they’re prone to, and how to fix them, sometimes with a stage direction from Anderson.

“Mechanically, I’m always kind of battling the same thing,” Baker said. “My front side is real high. It helps me be more deceptive. But if my back side isn’t matching it, I can’t bring the ball down. When he sees it, he tells me, and I make the adjustment. All he has to say is, I need to get where I need to be. I know exactly what that means.”

From Anderson, Blackburn learned the hitter often telegraphs what pitch he’s looking for. A righthanded batter focusing on Blackburn’s slider, which breaks down and away from a righthanded batter, might “cheat” by leaning across the plate. The counter strategy, Blackburn said, is a fastball on the inside corner, a pitch the batter probably can’t handle and might even take because he isn’t expecting it.

Joe Nathan started his pro career as a shortstop in the Giants organization, so he’s dealt with hitting and pitching coaches. The tougher job, he said, depends on the day and how well the players are doing. “If you talk to one coach, one day, things are great,” he said. “Talk to him 24 hours later and you may get a different answer.”

But when considering the time commitment, Nathan said the hitting coach has the harder job. “He’s probably got to log in a few more hours than the pitching coach,” Nathan said. “He can throw batting practice until the cows come home. Pitchers, we can’t throw that much. Our arms would fall off.”

Pat Borzi, a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, writes about sports for MinnPost.com.
Do you agree with the Twins’ consensus on whether the pitching coach or hitting coach has the tougher job? Leave your comments below.

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