Q&A: Lloyd McClendon, Seattle Mariners Manager

Hitting is in Lloyd McClendon’s blood. The Seattle Mariners hope some of it flows into an offense that scored the third fewest runs in the American League last season. Infusing Robinson Cano into the lineup will help make that possible, as will the expertise of the club’s new manager.

The highly-regarded Howard Johnson is Seattle’s new hitting coach, but McClendon’s influence will be inevitable. He spent the past seven seasons as the hitting coach in Detroit, and previously served in that capacity for the Pirates. This is the second time McClendon has moved from the batting cage to the manager’s office. He did so with Pittsburgh, so he knows how to separate the two positions.

McClendon shared some of his philosophies during this week’s winter meetings in Orlando.

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McClendon on managing: “Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned [since managing in Pittsburgh from 2001-2005] is to stand back. Get your players prepared to try to win a ballgame, then get out their way. Let them play the game. I was a young manager my first time around, and my intensity probably overshadowed my players at times. I think it’s important to stand back and let them do their thing.”

On giving up outs: “Depending on the situation, the good old fashioned bunt still works, but only to a certain extent. I’m very reluctant to give up those outs. There are factors that come into play. Is the guy swinging the bat well at that particular time, or is he in a slump? Can having a productive out in this situation help him in his next five at bats? But I hate giving up outs.”

On working counts: “For the most part, that comes with knowledge. It comes with years of playing. If you look at this year’s Red Sox team, they had some guys who had been through the wars. David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli — guys like that know how to work counts. It’s a talent. A lot of young players don’t understand the difference between working the count and working for a walk. Those are two different things. The guys in Boston understood how to work the count.”

On having a good approach:
“I’m a believer in knowing who the guy is on the mound — what he’s capable of doing and what his tendencies are. Is he a sinkerball pitcher or a fly ball pitcher? Is he a strikeout guy? If he’s a strikeout guy, maybe you want to approach him a little differently. If he’s a guy with heavy sink and has problems controlling the strike zone, maybe your approach is a little different. It depends on who is on the mound that day.

“Scouting, statistical analysis, film — all of those things come into play. You want to make sure your players are studying, and preparing themselves from a mental standpoint. You need them to take an approach and make sure those things are in place. You have to make sure they’re happening. Once they have that knowledge, let them go out and do their thing.”

On separating roles: “Hitting coach is the hardest job in all of baseball. Don’t let anybody tell you any different. Having the opportunity to step back, away from it, is very relieving in a way. But it’s in my blood. I want to see guys do well. If I see a guy making a mistake in a certain area, we’ll certainly try to address it.

“I’ll communicate that to my hitting coach and let him tell the player. I think that’s important. Listen, I was a hitting guy, and the last thing you want is somebody coming up while you’re trying to express something to a hitter and telling him what he’s doing wrong. I think a manager has to tell it to his coach and let him convey it. Let that credibility come from him.”



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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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chuckb
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chuckb
2 years 9 months ago

“Hitting coach is the hardest job in all of baseball.”

He knows better than I, of course, but I wish he had explained that statement a little. I would think that managing and being a pitching coach are both more difficult than being a hitting coach. I wish he had elaborated on such a peculiar statement.

B N
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B N
2 years 9 months ago

Probably it’s one of the hardest because you have some of the least control over it. You can tell a pitcher to mix up his pitches differently, but what do you tell a batter? The batter has to react to the pitch, much of which is practiced instincts (so they can take a long time to change). I’m not sure that I’d endorse his statement (the positions are probably all relatively non-comparable), but I can think of reasons why it might be valid in some respects.

maguro
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maguro
2 years 9 months ago

That just means the job is inconsequential, not hard.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 9 months ago

When a hitting coach is expected to get results, hard is probably an appropriate word.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 9 months ago

Could he be referring to the cliche “hitting a 90mph fastball is the hardest task in sports”? I dunno, I think of it as consisting of several different parts. Hitting the ball hard is the ultimate goal, but you also need to coach on when to swing or not. And coach the actual physical motion that leads to that good contact. Maybe something about pitch sequencing, but it gets into a game theory situation where if you think some pitch must be coming, they should throw something else, and so on – eventually it’s all random. So even if you did guess right on which pitch was coming, it was probably luck.

There was an article a little while back on what you might expect each coach to know about sabermetrics that gave some good thoughts on what each coach’s role is. Can’t find it though. Basically the conclusion was that most coaching roles are based on a result like “ball hit off bat at high velocity and levelish trajectory = good.”

Balthazar
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Balthazar
2 years 9 months ago

With both a pitcher’s motion or a batter’s swing, you are dealing, first and last, with the player’s neuro-muscular memory. The way the person moved is ingrained, both by their neuro-physical capacities and thousands and thousands of repititons. Changing something is HARD. A natural movement can’t be ‘guided’ in awareness because thinking is far to slow and specific for a rapid and movement. (That’s what’s meant by ‘don’t think, just do it’ or ‘I was thinking too much.”) Particularly when the motion is complex and done at speed, there are lower parts of the nervous system which become involved also, at the reflexive level, which can override both learned motions and intended ones.

That’s a long way of saying that it is very hard to master a new kind of motion. Pitchers, like golfers, at least have the advantage that they get to start their motion at rest, initiate it when they want to, and get in a rhythm. Baseball batters have to react extremely quickly to a rapidly moving object where the other player is trying to distract and confuse their ability to discern that movement (within the rules). Squash balls and badminton birdies move faster, but the racquets in both sports are far more useful as ‘bats,’ so it’s probably not wrong to say that hitting a baseball square with a baseball bat is very nearly the toughest ‘rapid reaction’ in sports. A batter’s swing has to be highly automatic, then. . . . But per the above, the more automatic that swing is, the harder it is to change something in it. Even if that something is obviously, hideously, counter-productive. One can see a major flaw in a batter’s swing, and tell them exactly what they have to to to fix it—and it may take 1500 swings before they can. Or 15000. By which time they may be out of a job, and their hitting coach is long since out of a job. If they can ever change their swing in that way.

Then there’s the whole ‘want to’ aspect. Players at the major league level have a particular swing which they’ve retained and perhaps refined over years, even decades. That swing got them to where they are. Even if that swing prevents them from succeeding in certain ways, against certain pitches or pitchers, there can be a lot of mental resistance to changing ‘what got them there.’ Because one can wreck a swing as well as improve it, particularly if the timing of the thing goes wrong. That resistance can be both deliberate and unaware, but it may completely lock down a player’s capacity to execute a change. Multiple advice, multiple agendas, whether conflicting or not, again confuse a player’s ability to settle on a smooth, automatic, near reflexive motion.

In that context, the success rate for refinements by a batting coach with a major league player has got to be very low. And of course, orgs fire batting coaches in a VERY arbitrary manner for failings completely beyond their control. Batting coaches do matter, it’s just a very difficult assignment within which to achieve notable success, and almost impossible to achieve consistent success.

I don’t know that I’d call it the hardest job in the game, but it’s certainly a difficult one, and one in which the coach has to put his own ego away before Day One. Everything he says may be ignored; everything he says may be implemented as well as possible; he STILL may be fired at any time regardless. Myself, I think coaching pitching is ‘harder’ in that pitcher’s are so dependent upon coaches to keep them in sync and in the groove. Pitching coaches seem to have more latitude to achieve success but their guys need them even more; that has to wear on a coach. I can see being a hitting coach as being the least satisfying coaching position though. That’s not what McClendon said, but maybe a part of whay he meant.

And I’m glad to hear Lloyd admit he needs to stand back a bit and let guys play.

ms
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ms
2 years 9 months ago

Maybe it’s the inherent high rate of failure of hitting? First off, hitting is hard. Second, you as a hitting coach are preaching things that players may or may not buy into and even if you are dead-on right about something, it won’t result in obvious success probably half the time (getting a hit/walk/not making an out/making the pitcher empty his trick bag), making the hitters slow or reluctant to adapt/understand the value of what you are teaching…it takes a pupil and a teacher with perspective to make it work…and you have to be patient, understanding and a good communicator to make it work at all anyway. Maybe that’s what he meant? I’m not sure either, but that’s how I understood it…it stood out to me too.

Patrick
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Patrick
2 years 9 months ago

Arguably the hardest thing to do in any professional sport is hit a small round ball with a small round bat as the objects are moving towards each other at effective speeds of ~200 mph.

Small tweaks with a pitcher can result in immediate noticeable changes to his pitches. Small changes with a hitter can be disastrous or extremely good but it takes a few hundred at bats to find out which it is.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 9 months ago

I’ve often argued that hitting in baseball is the hardest general thing to do (not counting very specific feats like hitting a hole-in-one). What other task is considered well-done when completed successfully 30% of the time?

joser
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joser
2 years 9 months ago

Impregnating a woman? (fecundability runs about 20% in healthy women under 30, and goes down from there)

Schuxu
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Schuxu
2 years 9 months ago

Once you factor in all the hard work that needs to be done to just get the chance of getting to that 20% you certainly have a point.

Westside guy
Member
Member
Westside guy
2 years 9 months ago

“I hate to give up those outs.”

The proof is in the pudding, of course; but hearing him express this sentiment is very welcome news.

joser
Guest
joser
2 years 9 months ago

Yeah, but I think every manager is going to say that, especially in the vacuum of the offseason. What counts is what habits they fall into during the season, and particularly what they do in the heat of the moment with a man on first and a high OBP guy headed to the plate.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 9 months ago

In the past for this site, have you posted the actual question you asked? Because I feel like this is too heavily edited, and loses context or followup questions. For example, the working counts thing ended with “…difference between working the count and working for a walk. Those are two different things.” But there was no followup as to what he personally defined the difference as. Or do these take place via email or something where you can’t do followups easily?

I guess in my mind I imagine you sitting there 60-minutes style with some prepared questions, letting them riff, and asking followups when the interviewee mentions something interesting. But in this format, I can’t tell how the interviewee got to the points that they were making. Or what the logic was behind the question that they were prompted with.

Something along the lines of “Team X walked (or swung often at pitches out of the zone, or whatever) often (or not) last year, how will your philosophy influence your team’s approach at the plate?” Then we could tell why McClendon is talking about working counts, that it is somehow relevant to a result the team had in the past, and how it could be relevant to the future results that they will have. Or maybe I’m off base and the interview was just generically seeking “how he thinks” without regard to what that means for Seattle’s team.

As an aside, on that particular “working the count” section – if he is successful (or if players are capable of being coached, i.e. change their behavior), McClendon should be able to help the Mariners. Last season, they managed to be 8th in BB rate, while simultaneously 26th in OBP. How they accomplished that? By being 26th worst in K rate, and having the 2nd highest fly ball rate resulting in abysmal averages. (29th in BABIP didn’t help, but below average BABIP is going to be a way of life in Safeco, combining with fly balls in ? of all at-bats doesn’t help) They were also in the lower ?rd of the league in swing %. So basically, as a team – Don’t swing, and if you do, hit it sky high.

McClendon’s comment about “working for walks” appears to be in congruence with this tidbit – that the Mariners hitters were taking walks but also striking out a ton – not “working the count,” instead trying to get a walk. His philosophy would presumably be different, changing his team’s swing habits, etc. But the caveat there is that the team as a whole wasn’t very good at even hitting the ball (28th in contact %), which presumably hurts your ability to “work a count,” (If my guess of what he meant by working a count – David should have asked – is right) and we don’t know that he can actually teach them to be any different, since coaching effects are notoriously difficult to measure.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 9 months ago

I guess when I entered one third as one over three, numerically, my browser auto changes it to a symbol and I subsequently post “? of all at bats” instead of “one third of all at bats.” same with “lower third of the league.”

Stupid technology.

B N
Guest
B N
2 years 9 months ago

I think working for walks doesn’t work because pitchers will only nibble if they think you can hit it. That’s why Juan Pierre, despite being interested in walking more, found it pretty much impossible due to pitch selection issues. No 3-2 in the dirt for him. This basically means you have to show you can crush the ball in favorable counts in order to scare pitchers enough to risk walking you to avoid that. Or, in other words, Votto.

B N
Guest
B N
2 years 9 months ago

I also doubt that he can work wonders for these guys. From what I’ve seen, teaching guys to make contact and lay off junk is one of the hardest skills in the game to improve. For every David Ortiz who puts it together, there are a hundred Wily Mo Pena’s who just can’t make that leap. If he could improve those skills by even 3%, that would be pretty impressive, in my opinion. It would also be washed out by random noise.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 9 months ago

Yeah, I can’t really think that he will do that much for them. But it sounds like he wants the right thing, instead of current trends that seem to be “swing hard for them Dingers.” Which is a positive, I guess.

Brian
Guest
Brian
2 years 9 months ago

He’s right being a hitting coach is the toughest spot in baseball cause when your team is swinging the bats well they get no credit but when the team is slumping and not hitting the hitting coach is the first person to bite the dust.

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