PHOENIX – Connor Dawson is a psychologist, gatekeeper, analyst and strategist. And also a hitting coach.
“There’s just so much out there for a man to do that wasn’t there 20 years ago,” Dawson said.
Dawson, 28, is one of two new hitting coaches for the Milwaukee Brewers hired along with Ozzie Timmons after Andy Haines was fired in October. Haines landed in Pittsburgh, part of a remarkable reorganization for one of the most high-profile positions on a major league coaching staff.
A whopping 17 teams changed batting coaches in the offseason. The Brewers, Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners opted to give the title to two people after previously going with one and joining the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers.
That compares to four managerial changes — Mark Kotsay at Oakland, Buck Showalter with the New York Mets, Oliver Marmol for St. Louis and Bob Melvin at San Diego — and four changes with the pitching coach title.
“The batting coach is by far the toughest job for the staff, including the manager. Definitely,” said Tony La Russa, the 77-year-old Chicago White Sox Hall of Famer manager.
“The other guys have to work but thugs hit every day and there are a lot of them. And try to get it right, keep it right. I don’t know if they’re just worn out, I don’t know. …You see a long lasting hitting trainer, man, you can’t give him enough credit.
The widespread hitting coach changes came after the major league batting average fell to .244 last season, the lowest since the year of the pitcher in 1968. There were a record 2,664 more strikeouts than hits, with the gap of 1,147 increased during the pandemic. shortened 2020 season and 784 in 2019, when strikeouts surpassed hits for the first time.
“We’re at a stage where other areas of the game are offering some concrete ways to move forward, and we’re still looking at ways that we think can help players,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said . “We try a lot of different things and I think that’s why you see the coaching cycle. And that’s because it’s a really difficult job.”
Today’s batting coaches do much more than just batting coaches, a daunting task in and of itself as it involves knowing the swings of every positional player on the roster – a group that most likely varies dramatically in size, strength and experience.
They also help their players find the right mindset for a task that usually leads to failure. They sift through an ever-growing body of information to determine what is useful to each batsman and what can be discarded. They determine how their team plans to attack an opponent’s pitching staff.
“At the big league level, a lot of guys know what makes their swing. They know how to formulate a game plan,” said Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly. “So I think a lot of that is reassurance and provides information. Basically, we have as much information as we can to help us move forward when we’re struggling and find ways to make adjustments over a long season.”
Dawson said he felt his job was about 30% coaching as opposed to 70% working on psychology and mindset.
“Honestly, they’re so intertwined and overlapping that it’s really a full-time job,” he said. “It’s hard to separate the two just because you can’t have one without the other.”
The Cubs are their fifth hitting coach since 2014 after hiring Greg Brown in November. Brown, 41, has spent the last two seasons as the minor league hitting coordinator for Tampa Bay.
Assistant coach Johnny Washington was hired in December, and manager David Ross made it sound like he’d extend to much of the team’s coaching staff.
“We talk a lot about hitting, and sometimes we can get a guy to talk about whatever kind of hitting coach we’re with,” Ross said.
A big reason for all the changes in hitting coach is the evolving technology, with the industry working to catch up with the advanced data available to big league pitchers.
As the tools are introduced, some trainers are better placed to make the most of the new information.
“You have a lot more measurement and data and technology that we’re trying to implement into the batting department that’s already been built into the pitching aspect,” Ross said. “Knowing how to read those scores, how to speak that language, and still be able to relate to players is a whole different skill for a lot of people who’ve been in the game for a long time.”
AP Baseball writer Ronald Blum and AP Sports writer David Brandt contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
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