One of Don Baylor’s biggest challenges as the Angels’ new hitting coach will be to help Josh Hamilton regain the swing that made him the American League’s most valuable player in 2010 but deserted him for the first four months of 2013.
“One thing about my style is that we try something for a while, and if that doesn’t work, we don’t keep pounding our head against something that doesn’t work,” Baylor, 64, said in a conference call on Thursday. “I think he’s a real key to the offense. We have to get him on that path to success. He’s had it before. He just has to recapture it again and believe in his swing.”
After signing a five-year, $125-million deal with the Angels last December, Hamilton, a five-time all-star, hit .250 with 21 home runs, 79 runs batted in and 158 strikeouts, and it could have been worse if not for a decent finish.
Hamilton was hitting .217 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs on Aug. 7 before recovering to hit .329 with five homers and 27 RBIs over his last 45 games.
Baylor hopes his philosophy of “staying in the middle of the field, putting the ball in play” will help Hamilton boost his average and cut down on his strikeouts.
“I don’t harp on guys about strikeouts, but that’s not one of the things I really condone,” Baylor said. “If guys think it’s OK to strike out 120, 130 times a year, that bothers me. You can’t start runners if guys strike out. That kills you. Put the ball in play, and something might happen.”
Sometimes the source of a message can be as important as the message, and because of that, Baylor’s words might carry more weight than the coach he replaces, Jim Eppard, who had success with several players but spent most of his 12-year playing career in the minor leagues.
Baylor, who signed a two-year contract with the Angels, played parts of 19 seasons in the big leagues, hitting .260 with 338 homers and 1,276 RBIs, and he was the 1979 AL MVP when he hit .296 with 36 homers and 139 RBIs for the Angels. He has also spent 22 seasons as a major-league manager or coach.
“It’s not just his knowledge of hitting -- his presence is going to be very important for us,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “I don’t know if there’s a guy who commands as much respect as Don does walking into a clubhouse or into a meeting with hitters. Everyone stands up and takes notice of what he’s saying. That’s one of the reasons we’re excited about having him.”
But Scioscia said that wasn’t necessarily the reason the Angels decided not to retain Eppard, who hit .281 in 82 career major-league games.
“A coach has to earn his stripes whether he played in major leagues or not,” Scioscia said. “There’s a lot of great major-league players who aren’t successful coaches, and some of the best coaches who connect with players and get the most out of them are guys who didn’t player higher than A-ball or double-A.
“The presence Don brings is not the fact he played in the major leagues. That’s a small part of it. It’s what he’s done as a manager, as a coach, and the respect he’s gained as a teacher. That’s what’s important and where Don excels.”
Baylor spent the past three seasons as Arizona’s hitting coach and was asked to return in 2014. But he said when Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto, who pitched for Colorado when Baylor managed there in the 1990s, called, the pull of returning to Anaheim was too strong.
“It was really interesting negotiating with a GM who was your closer at one time, but when he called, it was a good conversation, and I just knew we were going to get it done,” Baylor said.
Arizona Manager “Kirk Gibson was great to me, we had a nice group of guys there, but having the opportunity one more time with the Angels, I didn’t want that to slip through my fingers,” Baylor said. “I made the decision I should take this opportunity right now.”