Sometimes it is nice to sit down with a member of the local sports landscape and pick his brain a bit about why things are the way they are. Thankfully, with the radio show every day, this is an opportunity I am afforded frequently.
Wednesday, Clint Hurdle stopped by for 20 fascinating minutes where we were able to pick his brain and try to understand how he sees baseball and hitting and the Rangers. I have re-listened to it a few times to try to absorb all of the nuggets from a very impressive baseball mind.
Hurdle's biggest challenge seems to be following the legendary Rudy Jaramillo as Rangers hitting coach. For many years, Rudy fashioned the Rangers offense in his image, and had a large percentage of the area eating out of his hand when it came to the way that he did his business.
So, was it difficult to follow Jaramillo for Hurdle and how did he break the ice with his players this winter?
"I guess I didn't give that much thought on who I was following. Rudy had a great program in place, and it wasn't like I had to come in here - hammer and nail - and try to build an ark.
"I think there is a lot dependent on the approach on the person coming in. I am a big believer that the presentation can make or break your message. The way you approach people. One of the things I tried to do is establish a relationship first over the phone. Immediately, I called the guys - everyone I could call. I hoped to get 5 to 10 minutes. The shortest conversation I had was 27 minutes one went to about 50 minutes.
"Once it started going, it went. And everybody across the board, they were honest. Very black and white. I wanted to ask, Who are you? What kind of hitter are you? What kind of hitter do you think you can become? How do we bridge that gap? We threw it all out there, and then came in over the winter and spent a lot of 'hands on' time with the guys. And then watched a ton of videotape from preceding seasons, especially last season. You know you hit a bunch of homers, but you strike out over here. Your on-base percentage is this. Your runs scored was this, your doubles were here."
That led us to his approach with Ian Kinsler thus far. Kinsler had a very interesting and odd 2009. On one hand, we marveled at a second baseman having a 30/30 season. On the other hand, many of us were disgusted at times with the wasted at bats where it appeared he was obsessed with trying to hit homers and the question of whether or not those 30/30 numbers were serving to make the offense better or just to give Ian an impressive stat sheet?
Here is what Hurdle told us about dealing with Ian:
"First, you develop a relationship. You ask him some questions. Talked about the ‘09 season and the ‘08 season. What kind of hitter do you think you are? What kind of hitter do you want to be? Why did we have the ground ball/fly ball ratio? Did it involve trying to get too many balls in the air and to run the ball out of the park? You need honest input. I got it back. He is a special player who plays with an edge that is very unique. And one of the conversations we have already had this season is that you cannot play with that edge if you are running out fly balls all of the time. "
"The way he has gone about his business this year has been unselfish. You know one of the things I challenged each of the players this year is that 'you are going to have to give up something personally for the betterment of the team and to make the group stronger.' For Ian that might be driving the ball out of the ballpark. He is still going to do that - he isn't even 100 percent now with his ankle - but look at his pitch selection and the number of pitches per at bat. We talked about this season being a 40 double/100 runs scored season. And he may even get to 100 runs despite missing five weeks."
Whether it is Ian or any player Hurdle deals with, I find it interesting that players have two masters in baseball. They must listen to their coaches and managers, but inside they are listening to that voice in their head that knows how they get paid when it is time to do a contract - 30/30 seasons are easy to point to in a negotiation and that equates to money. Moving a runner over doesn't always show up when it is time to account for a personal contribution from a player.
Also, when performance suffers and criticism is heard, sometimes certain players go into a bit of a shell. So, we went on to find out from Hurdle about how to deal with those sorts of mixed messages:
"Sometimes there are disconnects ... because there are misconceptions. And we, as human beings - especially males - we have this great way of dealing with things when we mess up. Hey, (we will say when things are not going well) I have done such a good things of screwing things up, I am going to get out of this myself. Everyone else leave me alone. I am going to isolate. I am going to figure it out. Don't want any help. Don't need any help. And (when that happens) we just talk about trust and awareness - accountability and responsibility. There was as much conversation about human life and getting along. Being unselfish. And about 'the chain being as strong as its weakest link' and some of these clichés that a lot of these kids have never even heard. "
After managing in a similar spot for much of this decade, Hurdle thought he recognized some of the issues going on here when it came to hitting:
"I'm coming from an environment that had some similarities as far as we developed our own talent, while building an offense. The Blake Street Bombers (Colorado Rockies)? We had a team where we could send four or five guys to an all-star game at the drop of a hat, and they would go and get their hats and shirts and go to the all-star game and then we would finish in third or fourth place.
"HooYah," Hurdle said with some level of sarcasm. Sending guys to the all-star game is not what this game is about to Hurdle. He went on to explain that this is what happens in a lot of places, including in Arlington, and how to try to get a title.
"To win championships you have to pitch and play defense. There is no other way to get it done. And find an offense that can score in different ways and beat No. 1s and No. 2s in other teams' rotations and beat a closer now and then. You can manufacture as well as slug. You can get a walk and string out innings by seeing pitches. That's the offense we needed to build to go along with what the steps they took forward last year off the mound and on the defensive side of the ball."
There, in one paragraph, Hurdle strung together what always bothered me about the Rudy Jaramillo approach that I have seen over the last decade: People would show me the wondrous way that everyone had career years while playing in Arlington, but nobody could explain why the team still failed offensively.
"Bob, they lead the American League in Runs scored! How can you say the offense is to blame!" And my response would always be that the Rangers did not seem to know how to score runs when they needed them most - against the best pitchers in the business, they were more likely to strikeout 12 times, rather than put six runs on the board. In other words, it has always been my premise that Rudy knows hitting, but he didn't understand the art of offense at the level the Rangers needed.
Hurdle said it above. You must be able to slug. But you also must be able to manufacture. Slugging looks very nice on a stat sheet, but total runs scored seldom equates to the most wins. There is much more to offense. When do you score them? When you need them? Or just putting the finishing touches on ringing up 14 runs against someone's No. 5 starter?
Next, we went on to Josh Hamilton, and how it is that he has somehow returned to his 2008 form after a 2009 where he looked rather lost most of the time.
"You know one of the toughest questions I have come across being a hitting coach and a manager is that a lot of players when they get here just don't know who they are. He is a classic case for me of a young man who didn't know who he was. What kind of hitter are you? And he told me. I asked what kind of hitter do you think you can become? And he told me. So, then I asked How are we going to get from Point A to Point B? What is the definition of a coach? Well in the 1800s it was a transport system to take someone from Point A to Point B that couldn't get there on their own. And that made sense to him. I told him I have had some experience with some dynamic skill sets that may have had some sort of a glitch here or there and something that wasn't working consistently.
"Because the big thing for Josh has been consistency - and lack of it. So how can I help him get to a consistent hitting position? Because his skill set is so unique that if I can help him get to that consistent spot, it will just take over and play. And the toe-tap was not the answer for me. I watched it through spring training and on tape. After 50 games, we just sat down and had a heart to heart. I told him the hottest I have seen you is 3-4 days, and I have seen you inconsistent for up to 7 straight. For us to be good and to have a good offense, we need you consistent in the middle of our offense making things happen.
"At the end of the day, the toe tap, it wasn't like he was married to it. But, ballplayers sometimes would rather be in a bad relationship than no relationship. And this is something he had grown up with and had some success with. And combine it with the dynamic Home Run Derby, and the presence that had on him ..."
How about coaching Vladimir Guerrero?
"Easiest guy I have ever worked with in my career. We have worked probably since spring training started one session where we did video work for 10 minutes. But the misconception about him is this: He very rarely burns at bats. Less than anyone on our club and I would bet anyone in baseball. The back of his baseball card has those numbers for a reason. Regardless of what you see, to have that violent hack and that number of strikeouts - that doesn't make sense. The ability to drive in those runners with that hack doesn't make sense. One thing we talk about in hitting is with runners in scoring position, you need to focus on the big part of the field. You want to 'gap-to-gap' them because there is more room for production. You talk about a 'No Pul' concept. And you can count the times that Vlad has pulled the ball to third base with runners on base on one hand this year and he has had so many opportunities. He is the best guy I have ever seen."
I could have talked for two more hours with Hurdle, but he had to get back to his work. But, I left the conversation wondering how underrated that move was this winter, for the Rangers to get a new voice in to work with the bats.