November 7, 2005

The New Hitting Coach

I've been putting off writing about the Twins' new hitting coach, Joe Vavra, mostly because I don't know anything about him. Vavra is a complete unknown to me, both as a person and as a coach, and other than reading what other people have had to say about him since the hiring there isn't much to base a potential opinion of him on.

Many Twins fans wanted Paul Molitor for the job, and apparently the Twins did too. However, there was certainly nothing guaranteeing that Molitor would have been successful had he taken the gig. After all, he struggled coaching the Mariners' hitters in his one season as Seattle's hitting coach, and being a great hitter is certainly far from a prerequisite for being a great hitting coach. The Twins' pitching coach, Rick Anderson, has done a tremendous job since being hired in the winter of 2002, and he wasn't exactly a Hall of Fame pitcher.

Perhaps more important than anything we could possibly know about Vavra the player or Vavra the coach is that he simply isn't Scott Ullger. Now, I happen to think that Ullger did a poor job coaching the Twins' hitters over the years. Whether you agree with that or not -- and I've certainly spoken to plenty of people who don't fault Ullger much -- I think it was fairly clear that a change needed to be made.

Take a look at how the Twins' offense ranked in the 14-team American League under Ullger:

YEAR     RS     AVG     OBP     SLG     HR     BB
1999 14 11 12 14 14 12
2000 13 10 13 13 14 12
2001 8 4 5 8 9 9
2002 9 5 8 5 8 10
2003 6 3 5 6 9 7
2004 10 10 9 9 6 7
2005 14 13 10 13 12 7

No one expected Ullger to oversee an offensive juggernaut on the Twins' payroll, especially given how much emphasis the team has placed on pitching and defense. However, under Ullger the offense finished in the top half of the league just once in seven seasons, ranking sixth in 2003. Twice they scored the fewest runs in the entire league, and another time they ranked second-to-last.

There are without question a number of different ways to put together a solid offense. I tend to lean towards the patience-and-power approach, but I definitely wouldn't have faulted Ullger for leaning another way. What I do fault him for is not leaning any way. Pick a season and the Twins ranged from average to mediocre (or worse) in just about every aspect of hitting.

In addition to the underwhelming runs scored numbers, Ullger had almost zero ability to coax power out of the lineup and had anything but a positive influence on the hitters' collective approach at the plate. The Twins did not hit home runs or draw walks under Ullger, and in the case of this season the hitters were neither aggressive or patient at the plate. Instead, they were simply passive or complete hackers.

If you're not going to hit for power, emphasize getting on base. If you're not going to be patient, emphasize making good contact. And if you're not going to do any of those things, at least focus on having solid fundamentals. As Twins fans learned the hard way this season, there is little worse than watching an offense that is inept at both the big things and the little things.

Finally, no discussion of Ullger's time as hitting coach can be complete without mentioning the lack of development the Twins' young hitters have had. First and foremost is David Ortiz, who essentially blossomed into a middle-of-the-order monster the moment he got away from Ullger. To what extent Ullger is to blame for that is unclear, but there is no doubt that Ortiz's power potential was not nurtured here.

Of course, guys like Doug Mientkiewicz, Bobby Kielty, Corey Koskie, and Cristian Guzman haven't exactly thrived since leaving Minnesota. Still, even within that group is Guzman, who showed almost zero significant improvement as a hitter in six seasons with Ullger coaching him, all despite the fact that he debuted at the age of 21.

Guzman was a hacker with a horrendous approach at the plate when he came up in 1999 and he was a hacker with a horrendous approach at the plate when he left last offseason. And the same general lack of improvement, development, and maturation can be seen in a number of the guys who stuck around, from Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones to Luis Rivas and Michael Cuddyer.

Hitters are more responsible for their progress than a hitting coach, but when a team is constantly bringing up talented young players they can't afford to have a coach who has such a lengthy track record of letting the growth of hitters stall. Did anyone really have any sort of confidence in Ullger's ability to help Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel reach their full potential, turn Jason Bartlett into a capable hitter, or pave the way for Joe Mauer's power to develop?

In my mind the answer was a resounding "no." With Vavra at least the answer is "maybe."

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Third Base: The Crossroads, Part One (by Steve Treder)

Pick of the Day (134-113, +$2,155):
Los Angeles -5 (-110) over Atlanta

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