Don Baylor was equally adept at hitting baseballs and getting hit by baseballs. The erstwhile slugger was plunked 267 times, ranking him fourth all-time, and he banged out 2,135 hits, including 338 home runs. In 1979, as a member of the California Angels, he led the American League with 139 RBIs and captured the MVP award.
Baylor is also adept at teaching hitting. Currently in his third season as the hitting coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, he previously served in that capacity for the Brewers, Cardinals, Braves, Mariners and Rockies. He managed the Rockies from 1993 to 1998 and the Cubs from 2000 to 2002.
David Laurila: What was your hitting philosophy when you played?
Dan Baylor: Going all the way back to when I was in high school, I didn’t strike out a lot. What I swung at, I usually hit. I popped up, grounded out or hit a line-drive somewhere. “Bat, meet ball,” was my philosophy.
When you play in the minor leagues, you kind of get an idea of who you are, and by the time you get to the big leagues they have expectations for you. When I was coming up with the Orioles, Frank Robinson was in right field. He was well into his 30s by then and I was kind of picked, along with Merv Rettenmund, to take his place. As a young guy, all of a sudden you have that pressure of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. That’s kind of how the baseball world evolved for me.
DL: Was Robinson a mentor to you?
DB: Frank was a great mentor for me. He was for a lot of young players — and for veterans, as well. He taught you what to do in certain situations. He was a clutch player, there’s no doubt about it. With the game on the line, he wanted to be the guy. I kind of grew into that. Come the seventh, eighth, ninth innings, I wanted to be the guy to decide the ballgame.
DL: Tony Perez has said that with a runner on third base, all he cared about was the RBI. It didn’t matter if he made an out in the process. Is that a good approach?
DB: That’s what I’m trying to teach the young players today. A sacrifice fly beats rolling over to third and not getting the runner in. A manager hates that more than anything. An unselfish hitter thinks middle-of-the-field and maybe reacts to a ball inside. Maybe he turns on it and hits it out of the ballpark. But to leave that runner on third always bothered me. If you lose a game 8-7, or 5-4, you know you could have done something about that.
That’s how guys like Tony Perez approached it. I watched Tony for a long time as a young player. He was in that lineup with the Big Red Machine and he was the RBI guy for that club. I had a chance to play with Tony in winter ball, and I picked all those guys’ brains. It’s important to drive in runs for your club. You want to be a run producer.
DB: Dewey was going to hit the ball in the middle of the field, hard, or the other way. If you tried to trick him, he might hit it out of the ballpark. Both of those guys were good run producers. Jimmy hit into a lot of double plays, but only because he wanted to get that guy in. He was going to hit the ball hard somewhere, and a lot of times it was to the shortstop for a 6-4-3. Good right-handed hitters are often going to do that.
DL: Evans was more likely than Rice to take a walk with a runner in scoring position. Is that a better approach?
DB: You need to have that approach. You need to be willing to take that base on balls, especially if it’s to get a guy who is swinging the bat better than you up to the plate. Absolutely. You can’t be selfish. That said, if you’re an RBI producer.… I was always selfish. I wanted that run produced by me. I wanted to be the guy that everyone wanted at the plate when the game was on the line.
DL: It was said Wade Boggs could have hit a lot more home runs had he changed his approach. The same has been said of Ichiro.
DB: I’d throw Rod Carew in there, too. He was the best at putting the ball in play, and he could hit a home run if he wanted to. The year he won the MVP, I think he hit close to 20 homers. That was the only time, but he could have done it a lot more, as could Boggs. I’ve seen Ichiro take batting practice and hit it as far as anybody. But these guys know their game. It’s to hit doubles and get on base.
It depends on how you make out your lineup. Boggs could have hit third. He’d take his bases on balls — and you knew he’d get his 200 hits — but he could have hit home runs if he wanted to be that kind of hitter.
DL: As a hitting coach, what is your role in helping a young hitter find the approach that best suits him?
DB: You watch them. That’s what I do, and with some of these young guys it will take two years, or even three, to really understand who they are and what they can do for their team. You try to make projections.
When I had Corey Patterson as a young guy, I asked him what his expectations were. It was 30 homers and 100 RBIs. I looked at him as a player like Oddibe McDowell, who played in Texas and hit 10 or 12 home runs. I wanted Corey to keep the ball out of the air, but he was one of those guys who wanted to pull everything. I think he learned, later on, that he wasn’t going to be that kind of player. You have to be patient with the young guys and try to convince them of the best approach. At times, they can end up getting really messed up with their swing.
DL: Ted Williams once said more mistakes are made hitting than in any other part of the game. Do you agree with that?
DB: He was one of my heroes when it comes to thinking at the plate. When I was coming along, “The Science of Hitting,” by Ted Williams — the way he thought and his process — was big.
Most young guys today… strikeouts have gone through the roof. They just care about one thing, and that’s hitting the ball out of the ballpark. There are a lot more things about hitting than hitting it out of the ballpark. The guys you fear the most are the ones who can put the ball in play, but also hit it out of the ballpark.
I know they have the split-finger now, which wasn’t around on a constant basis when I was coming along, but guys swing at a lot of balls in the dirt and chase a lot of pitches. At the same time, enough pitchers make mistakes that they’ll hit them out of the ballpark. Earl Weaver never liked strikeouts. A lot of times you want to start a runner, but you can’t because the hitter is a strikeout guy. I try to get our guys to think more about the middle of the field.
DL: Do you have a specific hitting philosophy?
DB: I do. Some guys like to take first-pitch fastballs. Guys like Carew and Boggs could do that, because they were going to get the count to 3-2. That’s how they worked. But with other guys, if you can get on a first-pitch fastball, get on it. Young guys today are looking more for breaking balls and end up getting fastballs. My philosophy is to get on the fastball.
DL: Do you like your hitters to look for pitches in certain zones?
DB: You can look in zones once you know what you’re doing up at the plate. You can’t go up there thinking pull, pull, pull on every pitch. That’s when you really start knowing yourself as a hitter, when you start hitting in zones. My thing is that if you’re looking for a fastball in a certain part of the zone, why swing at a breaking ball? And I always tell them, “If you’re looking for a breaking ball, make sure it’s a strike.” I don’t necessarily care if they’re looking for a breaking ball, but it better be a strike.
DL: If you’re looking for a fastball in, and you get one away — or vice versa — should you attack it or take the strike?
DB: You should lay off of it, unless you have two strikes on you. The first pitch is often a pretty good pitch. A lot of times, as you go deeper and deeper in the count, the odds end up against you.
DL: Who on the team has the most-mechanically-perfect swing?
DB: That’s why we practice every day, trying to perfect what your swing is. We all have ugly swings from time to time, there’s no doubt about that. Someone with a classic, home run swing would be Jason Kubel. He has that Harmon Killebrew swing where the ball just never comes down until it’s over the fence. He hits those high, majestic shots.
Aaron Hill has a real nice pull swing. He can also hit the ball the other way. There’s [Paul] Goldschmidt. All of these guys work on what makes them good. Everybody works on the perfect swing, but I don’t think there is one classic swing anywhere in the game. Tony Gwynn is no longer playing.
DL: Who made a notable adjustment last year?
DB: Aaron Hill. He had come over from Toronto the year before. They had kind of given up on him. He had hit 30-something homers for the Blue Jays. The ball jumps off his bat for a little guy. You think you’re going to throw the ball by him, but you can’t.
[The adjustment was with] his hand position. Guys have to get their hands in the right spot. Once he found that right spot, he was off and running. It was just a little thing with him. His swing is easy to fix.
DL: You won an MVP in 1979. Did you make any adjustments that year?
DB: I actually hit the ball better in 1978. Everything fell for me in 1979. Line drives weren’t caught. In ’78, I remember [coach] Jimmy Reese would sit on the bench and shake his head, because every night it seemed like I’d hit a line drive that was caught.
I got off to a good start [in 1979] and that’s the main thing. I always tell guys how important that is. May, June, July and August are different. April was always a tough month for me. It was cold in a lot places, and once the weather got hot, so did I.
If you hit .210 in April, you have to come back from so far. My focus has been to get guys off to a good start. You try not to give away those early at bats when it’s cold. You have to try to grind them out. In April, when you’re in a Cincinnati, or a New York, you have to really battle.
DL: Does a hitting coach need to be a psychologist?
DB: Every day. Every day you have to tell everybody how good they are. It’s no different from when I was a player. You need your coaches to be with you and give you support every day.
DL: What will Turner Ward’s role be this year?
DB: Turner is going to work with base running, and he’s going to help with the outfielders, because we don’t have an outfield coach. He’s also going to help me with some of the guys. We have so many guys who love to hit. [Martin] Prado is a workaholic. [Willie] Bloomquist, too. It helps free up time for me to be with guys. Everybody needs attention.
He’s another set of eyes that will help me identify a problem before it even starts. He was with Goldschmidt for a long time in the minor leagues, as well as Adam Eaton. Guys like that. He’ll help us identify some things early.
DL: Does a hitting coach need to be proactive?
DB: I hate for guys to struggle, but sometimes, if you’re going to get through to them, they have to struggle a little bit. That’s how Adam Eaton was last year. He tore up the minor leagues, then came to the big leagues and… you have to make adjustments here. If you don’t, you’re going to find yourself back in the minor leagues. That’s just the way it is.
DL: Do you watch the game the same way as a hitting coach that you did as a manager?
DB: I look at it the same way. I watched guys taking batting practice [as a manager]. I got that from Gene Mauch. I’d pick Gene’s brain about what he was watching for in batting practice. He wanted to know — if he needed to call on someone to hit the ball the other way, could they do it? Things like that.
DL: You’re on a coaching staff loaded with former great hitters. What are the conversations like?
DB: We have fun together and try to help each other with every facet of the game. As a hitter, Matty [Matt Williams] was going to try to pull the ball, more than anything. Tram [Alan Trammell] was going to hit the ball the other way, because he was No. 2 in the lineup a lot of times. We talk about things like that. If you’re going to be successful… that’s how we were in 2011. We all talked about hitting. We talked about the game.