Wally Joyner was a better hitter than most of the players he tutors as the assistant hitting coach for the Philadelphia Phillies. In 16 big-league seasons — mostly with the Angels, Royals and Padres — he hit .289/.362/.440. He logged 639 extra-base hits and had more walks than strikeouts.
Hired into his current position this past October, Joyner previously served as the hitting coach and as a roving minor league instructor for the Padres. He shared his thoughts on hitting — including how he approached the craft in his playing days — when the Phillies visited Boston earlier this summer.
Joyner on how he evolved as a hitter: “I wish I knew then what I know now. When I played, I relied on coaches, and I was a feel guy. I worked on things, but never learned the art of hitting or how to talk about it.
“When I became a coach, my biggest question was: ‘Do I have the eye to both see and correct?’ As a hitter, you didn’t have to see, you just have to correct. Everybody is different. They have their routines, and what makes them feel confident, and I was just like them. I hit my way, and the hitting coaches I worked with would help me get back to doing that.”
On how he approached different pitchers: “I tried to stay the same. For instance, when we faced a knuckleball pitcher, a lot of guys would move up in the batter’s box. I tried that early, but it was distracting for me, because then I had to go back. I didn’t like making changes. What I’d do is just find my place in the box, and from there everything was Groundhog Day.
“My approach was simple. It was see-ball-hit-ball, and use the count. There’s a difference between a guy who looks for a pitch and a guy who guesses for a pitch, and I tried to be a guy who looked. I put all of the equations into the pot and thought: ‘Here’s what I think he’s going to do, therefore I’m going to look for it.’ Depending on the situation, the equations were different. Through my experience, I could quickly go back to situations that promoted that thought.”
On hitting over .400, with more home runs than strikeouts, against Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris and Dave Stieb: “I think it comes down to wanting to compete against the players you think are the best in the game. Those guys were the best at the time, and I had a chance to face them. Roger Clemens is another one. You hope to rise to the occasion and win those battles as often as you can.
“You need to understand what a pitcher is throwing. Dave Stieb was a fastball, Frisbee guy. Bert Blyleven was fastball, big curveball. Jack Morris was fastball, split-finger. But here’s what it is: I never looked for the second pitch. The best way to hit a good breaking pitch is to hit the fastball. I’ll give you an example: Over my career, I had success against knuckleball pitchers. A guy came up to me once, right before I faced Tom Candiotti, and asked ‘What‘s your secret?’ I said, ‘My secret is that I wait until it’s 3-1, then I hit his fastball.’
“I remember Steve Finley struggling over a three week period when we were in San Diego. Steve was going out there and trying to hit the pitcher’s best pitch. If you do that, you’re going to pull your hair out. What you want to do is get ahead — get into a hitter’s count — where you can get a fastball. That’s what we all hit best. We are — and I can’t imagine any team not being — a fastball-hitting team. We want to hunt, and hit, the fastball.”
On aggressiveness and selectivity: “You want to be aggressive. It’s not about being passive and hoping. You want to work the count, but you also want to be ready for the first pitch. Any time you step into the batter’s box, you’re a hitter. You’re not a taker. You’re not a seer and a hope guy; you have a plan.
“Domonic Brown is someone we wanted to be more aggressive and confident. We want him to look in a location, and when the ball comes into that location, take care of it. Hit it hard. The only thing we have control over, as a hitter — which is not a lot — is trying to get a pitch we can hit hard. A pitcher’s number-one responsibility is to get hitters off-balance. It’s that yin-and-yang, pull-and-tug competition, where a hitter is looking for his pitch.
“When I played, I walked more than I struck out. I walked about 50 times a year, which wasn’t a lot — about once out of every 10 at bats — but it was enough to let the pitchers understand I wasn’t going to just be swinging. I was fairly selective. Did I swing at first pitches? Absolutely. But did I also swing at eighth pitches [of an at bat]? Yes. One of the best at bats I remember was a 13- or 14-pitch at bat against Ron Davis, in my first year. I hit a home run. Did he throw nothing but fastballs after five pitches? No, he threw everything. You fight those off; you battle.
“I’ve heard that the Houston Astros have a philosophy where, when you get to 3-2, you give up. Now, I understand that’s not really their philosophy. It’s more that, if a pitch is coming and you don’t think you can hit it hard, you don’t swing at it. I think you should, and fight it off, because the next pitch might be better.
“With less than two strikes, if you’re looking for a pitch on the inner half, and you get something away, you don’t have to swing just because it’s a strike. My philosophy is there should never be consecutive pitches where your strike zone is exactly the same. It’s either going to shrink, because you have the advantage, or it’s going to expand because the pitcher got ahead of you. If the count is 1-0, we shrink it a little bit.
“The reality of it is that there’s a scouting report on everybody in baseball. There are scouts, there’s video, and everybody knows what a guy can hit and what he can’t hit. The key for a pitcher is to hit that spot where you can’t hit it, and the key for a hitter is to not swing at that pitch. But the pitcher is 60 feet away, so he’s sometimes he’s going to miss that spot. That’s your opportunity.”
On plate discipline and two-way streets: “It’s all about mental confidence, mental understanding, and reps. We do soft-toss daily, and I don’t just throw them down the middle. I throw them in, I throw them away, I throw them up and down. I want these guys to develop strike zone recognition. That 3-2 pitch can be anywhere, and you’re going to have to protect.
“We go over counts. Now it’s 3-1. Where are you looking? Tell me, and when I throw it there, I want you to take care of it. If I throw it somewhere else, and it’s a strike, you have to take it because you’re not looking there. Your advantage is rare, so when you get an advantage, look for a location, and a pitch, and if it’s one-plus-one, you should be able to hit it hard. That’s what I learned in my career, and as a coach, it’s what I talk about.
“I think it’s very important for a coach to allow players to come to you, especially if you’re a new coach. Don’t just come at them double-barrel and force your philosophy on everybody. Everybody’s philosophy is different. There’s not a correct way to hit. There’s not just one way — there are many philosophies — and it’s up to a hitting coach to have many philosophies, so with those different individuals, you can pinpoint which philosophy goes where. You also have to be very sensitive to each individual. If that hitter isn’t interested in listening, and he isn’t ready to make some adjustments, then you’re wasting your time. It has to be a two-way street.”
On bat speed, contact areas and strikeouts: “If you’re hitting .300, it’s a trigger, and if you’re hitting .200, it’s a hitch. It’s that simple, and it’s all about timing. A hitch is when you’re late and a trigger is when you’re on time. But if there are too many moving parts, it’s hard to get to that place consistently. You want to be able to duplicate your swing so you can call on it in the seventh inning, the ninth inning, the 12th inning.
“You need consistency, but hitting is abstract, because of the unknown. In my opinion, if you have 600 at bats in a year, you’re probably going to be perfect 50 times. The other times you’re going to be out front, you’re going to be late, you’re going to get jammed, you’re going to hit it off the end of the bat. Maybe 50 times is a little low, but with all the ingredients that go into it… a pitcher you’re used to seeing throw 94 [mph] decides to throw 90 this time. You’re not going to know that, so your timing is going to be off. If you’re a little late, you might be right on. But if you’re right on for 94, then you’ll be out in front.
“If I can enlarge what I call the gray area — the contact area of a hitter’s swing — to make him more of a contact hitter, I think he’s going to be more successful. If you put the ball in play, lots of things can happen. If you put the ball in play hard, a lot more better things can happen.
“Bat speed isn’t just swinging, it’s swinging at a pitch with intention. You can have bat speed and keep the barrel in the zone; that’s the gray area I was talking about. It’s bat path and angle. Bat speed isn’t in and out of the strike zone, it is pulling from the front side, allowing the barrel to get into the strike zone as quickly as possible, and staying there as long as possible.
“I disagree when someone says a strikeout is OK, that’s it’s only an out. That said, if a guy is a big strikeout guy, but he hits a lot of home runs, you don’t try to change him. Leave him where he is. That’s the type of hitter he is. You don’t want nine clones. You want a guy up in the bottom of the ninth who has a chance to hit a home run and end the game. Instead of having three singles to win, you have one swing of the bat. Now, he might strike out, but that’s the excitement of baseball. And if everybody is the same, everybody can be pitched to. Reggie Jackson was who he was because of the excitement. He had strikeouts and he had big hits.”
On being 2-for-17 with eight strikeouts against Tony Fossas, and 2-for-24 against Bud Black: “One of my weaknesses was changeups, and Tony also had deception. He threw the ball starting behind me, so I was maybe bailing a little, and the ball was sweeping. I was going one way, the ball was going the other way. I ran out of bat.
“Buddy shook my hand the first time I met him, when I became the hitting coach. He said, ‘Buddy Black; nice to meet you. You were 0-for-17 against me.’ I found out that wasn’t actually true. I had two hits off him. But he was crafty.
“You just see the ball differently against different guys. I think I hit David Wells pretty well. It was just comfortable hitting against him. I don’t know why, but I saw the ball. Other hitters had trouble and didn’t see him.”
On numbers and trying to understand baseball: “Numbers can be misleading. I could have been 2-for-24 against Buddy Black with 20 line drives. Sometimes you’re simply unlucky. Strikeouts will tell you a little more when you’re just looking at numbers, mano-a-mano. A lot of strikeouts tells you a hitter probably isn’t picking him up very well.
“Batting average is something you always look at. Batting average can be deceiving, but if you’re hitting .400 against somebody — while you may not be hitting the ball hard — you are putting it in play. Even if you’re hitting duck farts over the third baseman’s head, you’re battling.
“Walk rates can be deceiving for a young player. When I was with the Padres, we drafted a guy who had a great on-base percentage, but there was a reason why. He had a slow bat, so balls he should have put in play, he was fouling off. Then they’d end up putting him on first. I’m not interested in walks so much as the entire package. Do you hit for power? How are you with runners in scoring position? What is your ratio getting the guy in from third? You don’t always need a hit. Brian Downing is someone I learned a lot from. He’d give himself up to move the runner from second to third. His batting average was never really high, but he could play for me any day of the week because he knew how to play the game. You need to understand the game.
“My biggest pet peeve with what’s happening in baseball is that people think they can figure it out. You can’t be absolutely correct, every time. It can’t be figured out. Baseball is abstract; it’s not linear. There isn’t an equation you can put in that explains baseball. You can’t say, ‘If I do this every time, I’m going to win.’ That’s not true.
“You could have a Double-A pitcher come up and go against the best pitcher in the game, and on any given day, he could win. The opposing team might hit 27 straight balls right at somebody.”
On the art and science of hitting: “Hitting is a science, but it’s also an art. In the first week of spring training, you can look at guys swinging and think, ‘Really? You guys are big league ballplayers?’ They don’t have their bat speed and coordination yet. But then, six weeks later, those who have perfected it separate themselves. That’s science.
“The art of hitting is the beauty of it. You’re anticipating and duplicating. It’s like a paint brush. Duplicating that swing is hard to do, and that’s what separates the guys who can play every day from the ones who can’t. Part of my job is helping guys get to that point. It‘s an ongoing process.”