The Thankless Job of Tampa Bay Rays Hitting Coach Derek Shelton
In a baseball game, the pitching coach visiting the pitcher is a common occurrence. Like a worried parent, they hover, coddle and encourage their charges, trying to squeeze out every last ounce of performance they possibly can. It isn’t the same with hitters. They are not coddled. Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton doesn’t sit down next to Wil Myers after he’s struck out for the umpteenth time on a slider down and away and say, “You get the idea you can’t hit that pitch yet?” For that matter, Joe Maddon doesn’t go to Wil and say, “Stop sucking. You’re depressing Longo.” Usually, as my fellow RCG writer, David Egbert, noted in a recent article, the hitter just sits there and pouts. The questions must be asked: how important are hitting coaches? What is their role? Can they really make or break offenses?
From a strictly observational perspective, hitters are a more stubborn lot than their pitching counterparts. Except for Grant Balfour or Carlos Zambrano, rarely do you see an overly emotional pitcher. Anger is the antithesis of being a successful pitcher. To quote H.A. Dorfman in his book, The Mental ABC’s of Pitching, “An angry pitcher loses his capacity to think – to rationally assess the problem at hand.”
A hitter has less of a need to be rational. Sure, hitters must recognize, gauge, and logically assess whether or not to swing, but they are trying to club something as hard and far as they can, not deceive. For that reason, hitters and pitchers stand at the opposite ends of the physiological spectrum. I do not suggest hitting coaches are meaningless, but it should be noted that major league baseball teams didn’t regularly employ hitting coaches until 1975. Furthermore, few of the “great” hitters have ever made the transition to teaching.
It must be said that a hitting coach can not really teach players how to “hit”. They can never teach them how to bust a slump or how to take a pitch to the opposite field. Though they can show them proper technique and preparation, the execution is the hitter’s sole responsibility. Even so, the most undeniable logic will be met with skepticism if it is not approached with an open mind. How else do you explain a player hitting into a shift constantly? The whole left side of the diamond is open. The fact of the matter is, even with proper technique, a hitter will tend to hit a certain way. A hitting coach’s job, then, ultimately begins and ends with a hitter’s mind, to make sure he understands the yes and no of hitting. Yes, I can hit that or, no, I can’t. But can these lessons happen during games?
It’s difficult to say, honestly. Ted Williams once said, “You want to be a good hitter? Watch the good ones; they’ll show you everything you need to know.” Think about it. How does a hitter learn to hit a pitch down in the zone when Mom always obliged and put them right down the middle for him? Perception and recognition. Pitchers find holes in swings. Ask Wil Myers. The holes in Wil Myers’s swing have been harped on by everyone and their mother. But that hole is not the hole he has to fix. He has yet to recognize what he can do with breaking pitches. Derek Shelton can recommend mechanical changes so Myers can hit that pitch, but at what cost? Myers’ rapid ascension through the minors came when he opened his stance and became better able to turn on the inside pitch.
Ultimately, the role of the hitting coach is no different than his pitching coach counterpart–it is their pupils that differentiate them. A pitcher listens and adapts, whereas a hitter practices and decides. Pitchers are taught to be more malleable. They can be grouped as a collective. Moreover, they have a catcher supporting them during the game. Hitting is a more of a “me” endeavor and, as with the manager, when things are going wrong, it is easier to fire the hitting coach than the starting line-up. With that in mind, Derek Shelton is doing nothing wrong and the Rays have no reason to let him go.