• Exclusives

    Can New Hitting Coaches Restore Braves Offense?

    By Kent Covington

    In recent weeks, fans have frequently lamented the fact that the Braves haven’t done anything to upgrade their disappointing ’11 offense so far this winter.

    But that’s not necessarily true.

    Atlanta signed two guys by the names of Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher. They are the Braves’ new Hitting Coach and Assistant Hitting Coach, respectively.  Now the question is… How much of an impact will they have?

    Tell ya what; we’ll get back to Walker and Fletcher in a moment. First, let’s a take a quick look at the hitting coach soap opera in Atlanta over the past couple of years.

    Despite the fact that Atlanta led the league in on-base percentage and ranked, quite respectably, 5th in the NL in runs scored in 2010, the Braves opted to replace Terry Pendleton as Hitting Coach. As Braves GM, Frank Wren, put it “We felt it was time for a new voice”.  (Pendleton remained with the team as First Base Coach.)

    Enter Larry Parrish.  In Parrish’s first and only season as Braves’ Hitting Coach in 2011, the Braves slipped in all major offensive categories, including runs scored, team batting average and on-base percentage.

    2010 Braves Offense:

    Runs 738 5th
    AVG .258 6th
    OBP .339 1st

    2011 Braves Offense:

    Runs 641 10th
    AVG .243 13th
    OBP .308 14th

    How much of that was Parrish’s fault?  There’s no quantifiable answer to that question. We can only guess.  But if this Atlanta offense rebounds in a significant way in ‘12, many will certainly conclude that Parish deserved a good bit of the blame.

    Larry Parrish's tenure as Braves Hitting Coach was short lived.

    As of now, I have no opinion as to the rightful division of blame. I do think fans sometimes assign too much credit or blame for a lineup’s results to that team’s hitting coach. However, hitting coaches do make a difference on some level, or there would not be one drawing a paycheck from every team in Major League Baseball.

    As fans and commentators, I think it’s difficult for us to judge the performance of a hitting coach. Sometimes players play though nagging injuries that hinder their performance.  Other times, a player may develop a mental block that all the sound advice in the world can’t overcome.  Then there are those players who simply don’t listen.

    One classic example of the not-listening problem is a story Terry Pendleton tells of an interaction with former Braves center fielder, Andruw Jones. Jones, who was notoriously “pull-happy” at times, was turning a batting practice session into a left field homerun derby. Between swings, Pendleton interjected “Ya know, there’s a lot of hits in right field.”  Andruw responded “They don’t pay me to hit singles”, to which Pendleton countered “Well right now they’re just paying you to catch the ball, because you ain’t hittin’ worth a damn.”

    Of course, just as a hitting coach doesn’t deserve blame for player struggles outside of his control, he also does not deserve all of the credit for positive results. In Terry Pendleton’s case, the Braves apparently felt that while the offense was solid in 2010, it could be better, and that “TP” was no longer the right person to lead the offense forward.

    It’s impossible for us outside observers to know exactly how great of an impact, one way or the other, a hitting coach has on his ball club. But team management is certainly in a much better position to gauge performance, and I trust the judgment of the suits in the Braves’ front office.

    Considering the fact that Parrish was promptly canned at the conclusion of the ’11 season, it’s safe to assume the Braves brass were not satisfied with his efforts.

    Over the winter, Frank Wren has stated in multiple interviews that he wanted to see the lineup return to a more patient approach; to battle and “work the count” more frequently. In commenting on the hiring of Greg Walker, wren said the following:

    New coaches will be tasked with getting OF Jason Heyward on track

    “We wanted someone who had recent major league experience in this role.” Wren added that they were looking for a candidate who “had a reputation for understanding the swing and an ability to communicate. Ability to communicate was a real big factor. And, finally, a philosophy that matched what we want our hitters doing going forward. Greg epitomized all three.”

    Whether Greg Walker, with the assistance of Scott Fletcher, turns out to be the perfect man for the job remains to be seen, but we have a pretty good idea of how fans while measure his success.

    Job #1 in the minds of many will be to help Braves right fielder, Jason Heyward, fulfill his enormous potential.  Fans would also like to see Walker help LF/3B Martin Prado rebound from a disappointing season, marred by both infirmity and under underperformance.  And finally, those of us who pay attention to such things very much share Frank Wren’s desire to see a return to a more patient approach and a healthy team on-base percentage.

    There can be no doubt that Atlanta’s offense significantly underperformed in 2011.  Especially when you consider that the ’11 lineup, having added Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman to the mix, was more talented than the ’10 squad.  So even if Wren and Co. are unable to add another bat, if Walker and Fletcher can help this lineup play to its full potential, the Braves may be quite happy with their only additions to the offense this winter.

    P.S. Before you go, check out the Lineup Card on the BravesWire homepage with headlines from over a dozen Braves news/opinion sources.