Mark McGwire returned to baseball in 2010 for a few reasons. First, because uber-loyal manager Tony La Russa wanted him back. Second, because he missed the game after being away for nine years. Third, he felt he had some knowledge to contribute.
Who would have guessed that McGwire had a knack for coaching? Hitting gurus of the past such as Charlie Lau, Walt Hriniak, Dave Magadan, Lloyd McClendon and even the Dodgers own Manny Mota where certainly not considered Hall of Fame caliber players. It has been said that great hitters have difficulties being hitting coaches. There have been plenty of Hall of Famers that lent their talents to teaching the hitting craft. Some with more success than others that included Rod Carew, Eddie Murray, Duke Snider, Wade Boggs, Ted Williams Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb.
Scott Hatteberg addressed this in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, saying that Jim Rice wasn’t capable of teaching hitting to lessor talents because he couldn’t relate to the weaknesses of hitters such as Hatteberg.
There was nobody that knew the art of hitting a baseball as Ted Williams. He could talk a players ear off about the subject and he’d spot a hitter’s weaknesses after watching a few swings. One thing he couldn’t do was teach natural talent. When Bobby Doerr sought out his teammate for help during a slump one year, Williams identified his problem immediately and said his bat speed was off a tad. For months on end, Williams would walk by the batting cage when Doerr was working and say “more bat speed Bobby, more bat speed,” to which Doerr would reply, “I can’t swing the bat any faster, Ted.”
Looking back at the history of the game, some of its greatest hitters ever were very influential hitting coaches. Rogers Hornsby had his failures as a manager, but was able to influence a number of great hitters in a positive way. He founded a hitting academy and operated it for years after his major league managerial days were over. He is credited with teaching Ted Williams to wait for a good pitch to hit, a trait that the Splendid Splinter followed to his last days as a hitter. Hornsby’s students over the years included Moose Skowron, Ted Kluszewski, Joe Adcock, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Billy Herman and others.
Ty Cobb in his first season as Tigers manager guided his team in hitting and saw their collective team batting average raise from .270 to .316 in 1921. Six years later when he was hired to manage the Philadelphia Athletics, their team batting average raised 42 points to .303. One of Cobb’s players, Fred Haney, who also turned out to be a successful manager in his own right, had this to say about Cobb’s ability to teach and lead his team many years later:
“I played for him on the Tigers for four years…and what I got was an education in advanced baseball. He knew everything about the game and he got more out of his players than he had to give. I’m proud to say I batted .352 as a rookie (1922) under him. (Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 1975).
So I think it’s fair to admit that great hitters with Hall of Fame credentials are able to teach their skills and some are even able to relate to hitters without the natural skills they possessed as players. In McGwire’s case, we all saw it first hand. Even more impressive was that he did it without any minor league experience in coaching. It’s fair to say, McGwire had an immediate knack for teaching hitting on the major league level. La Russa saw something in Big Mac and when Mark arrived in Jupiter, Florida at Cardinals camp he promptly announced, “I’m going to pour myself into this job.”
The results were immediate for the Cardinals. David Freese, Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig all credited McGwire with getting their Major League careers as hitters on track. Craig, who cracked the Major League lineup for the first time in 2010, (McGwire’s first year as hitting coach), has developed into a patient productive lifetime .300 hitter. His OBP is a full .50 points higher and he blasted 22 homers last year. Carpenter, in his first full major league season last year had an on base percentage of .365 and was a Rookie of the Year candidate. Freese improved as a hitter during McGwire’s tutelage to hit 20 homers with a .372 OBP last year. We all know he was a World Series hero in 2011.
All three hitters have one McGwire trait in common; they work counts and accumulate walks, something Dodger hitters could improve on significantly. Take a look at the 2012 Cardinals numbers comparing their batting averages to on base percentages. These numbers are a direct correlation to a teams ability to work counts and get walks:
- Yadier Molina .315 BA, .373 OBP (an additional 68 points)
- Allen Craig .307 BA, .354 OBP (47 points more)
- Daniel Descalso .227 BA, .303 OBP (76 points more)
- Rafael Furcal .264 BA, .325 OBP ( 61 points more)
- David Freese . 293 BA, .372 OBP (79 points more)
- Matt Holliday .,295 BA, .379 OBP (84 points more)
- Jon Jay .305 BA, .373 OBP (68 points more)
- Carlos Beltran .269 BA, .346 OBP (77 points more)
- Skip Schumaker .276 BA, .339 OBP (63 points more)
- Matt Carpenter .294 BA, .365 OBP (71 points more)
Those are significant statistics that explain why the Cardinals were one game away from the World Series last year and winners of the whole enchilada the year before. If McGwire is half as successful in improving the Dodgers OBP as he was doing so with the Cardinals, the Dodgers will run away with the division. If we watch a player such as Dee Gordon improve his OBP to the .330 range, we’re looking at a true leadoff hitter for years to come.
With all the late season acquisitions and major roster changes that the Dodgers have had over the last six months, adding Mark McGwire to the coaching staff just may be the most significant move they have made over that time frame. If the Dodgers hitting approach can change, and by that I mean their 9th place OBP of .317 could move to around .335, the ball club will win the division, I’m convinced of it. McGwire’s Cardinals in 2012 led the league with a .338 OBP. A Dodger team with a patient hitting approach will markedly improve. If McGwire reaches the vets and convinces them to buy into his program, the sky is the limit for this veteran ball club.