THT interview: Ken Joyce

Ken Joyce lives and breathes baseball, is an excellent coach and hitting instructor (currently for the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Blue Jays)), and is a great guy as well. I would like to thank Ken for taking some time to answer questions about his time in baseball and some young prospects on his roster.

THT: You played college baseball at the University of Southern Maine, which has a pretty strong standing as a Division III program. Can you tell me about your experiences there, and how it prepared you to enter the coaching profession?

KJ: My playing experience at The University of Southern Maine certainly prepared me for my coaching career in many ways. We did not have an assistant coach my junior and senior years, and as a co-captain of the team I was responsible for teaching the infielders both offensively and defensively.

Head coach Ed Flaherty allowed me the opportunity to become a coach while playing for him and the confidence I gained by teaching my peers also made me a better baseball player. I stayed on at USM as an assistant coach after my playing career and learned more about dealing with every aspect of the game. We always stressed being a fundamentally sound team and that background has enabled me to make the transition into the professional game.

THT: When I was in high school, you helped me a great deal with my swing. I always credit you as being the one who most positively influenced my swing, and for getting me looked at by MLB teams as a high school senior. What advice would you give to coaches who are trying to fix young players’ swings, or their approach at the plate?

KJ: The best advice I can give coaches is to keep it simple. Hitting is difficult enough by itself and I strongly believe we can confuse players by trying to do too much. I have always said that hitting is the most over-coached, under-taught skill in baseball. We have all heard the clichés related to the swing, yet not many coaches can actually back them up with proper instruction or explanations. If you can get a hitter to be on time, on plane with the ball while swinging, and have good rhythm to transfer the weight out through the bat, good things will happen.

THT: You started out your professional coaching days in the Florida Marlins organization. How did that opportunity arise?

KJ: I happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right people making decisions. The Portland Sea Dogs came into existence in 1994 and the newly named manager of the team was Carlos Tosca. While working as a middle school teacher, I read an article about Carlos that mentioned he had never played baseball professionally and was now managing for the Florida Marlins in Double-A.

My mind began to race and I saw a connection with Carlos that he had played for the late Jack Butterfield (former baseball coach at UMaine) while at the University of South Florida. It was Jack Butterfield and John Winkin who had influenced Ed Flaherty, who I had played for in high school and college. Long story short, I introduced myself to Carlos Tosca and volunteered to catch bullpens and throw batting practice for the Sea Dogs. It became my summer job and was an opportunity for me to learn more about baseball.

Carlos introduced me to John Boles, then farm director of the Marlins (who also never played professionally), and John hired me in 1996 to become the Double-A hitting coach for the Portland Sea Dogs when Jeff Pentland was promoted to the major leagues. I will be forever grateful to Carlos, John Boles, Jeff Pentland and the Portland Sea Dogs family for allowing me the opportunity to be part of professional baseball. I can honestly say that I may not have been good enough to play at the professional level but certainly found my way into the game.

THT: Since joining the Blue Jays organization, which players you have coached have shown the most progress in their hitting skills? Which players have impressed you the most with their overall hitting abilities? How about opponents?

KJ: The Blue Jays organization does not get enough credit when it comes to player development. We have had several players come through the system in my seven years here who have helped our major league club as well as others. Alexis Rios, Aaron Hill, Russ Adams, Curtis Thigpen, Ryan Roberts, Adam Lind, Robinzon Diaz, Gabe Gross, Guillermo Quiroz, Kevin Cash as well as several others.

I would have to say the Lexi Rios is the most talented of the hitters I have worked with in this organization. There have been many players on the other side of the field that have impressed me throughout my seven years in the Blue Jays organization. Grady Sizemore, Ryan Howard, Jacoby Ellsbury are just a few.

THT: Are there certain pitchers in the Double-A system right now that you and your players really find to be outstanding and tough to hit?

KJ: Well the Yankees have several good arms in their system and lead the Eastern League in ERA for a reason. Phil Coke, Chase Wright, Jason Jones are certainly future major league pitchers. Other pitchers who have impressed are Michael Bowden and Daniel Bard with the Red Sox, David Hernandez, Chris Tillman and Bradley Bergeson with the Orioles, Joeseph Martinez with the Giants, to name a few.

THT: Travis Snider seems to be a good prospect with very good power. How do you project him in the major leagues if he eventually gets there? Are there any current MLB players that you could compare him to in terms of his overall approach and ability?

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KJ: Travis is a very unique individual for a 20-year-old prospect. He is a very mature 20-year-old that has dealt with some issues and personal loss over the past few years. Despite having to overcome a great deal off the field, Travis’ development on the field has accelerated. He has become a very mature hitter this season after starting the year with an injury to his left elbow.

His strikeout numbers were up early as he was not able to utilize his back arm in his swing. Since his recovery, he has improved his swing path and displays tremendous power. I would say that you could compare his power to Prince Fielder even though Travis is not physically the same size. Travis Snider will be a front line major league player for many years.

THT: Are there any players currently on your roster who might be late-season call-ups to Toronto? Initially, players that come to mind are outfielder Travis Snider, second baseman Scott Campbell, and reliever Zachary Dials.

KJ: Unfortunately many of the young prospects we have in the Toronto Blue Jays organization will not be called up in September. That, of course, in not written in stone. The organization has a tendency to take their time bringing players to the major league level until they are ready. All of the players listed above have a chance to be major league players at some point; it just may not be in 2008.

THT: On the pitching side of things: With the recent season-ending injury of Dustin McGowan, do you know if there a possibility that we will be seeing starting pitcher Brett Cecil as a September call-up?

KJ: I am very impressed with Brett Cecil and his development this season. He has matured as a person and as a pitcher and has a chance pitch at the major league level. He is still a work in progress and has been promoted to Triple-A to continue his development. He needs to learn to command his fastball more consistently to both sides of the plate and to the lower part of the strike zone. He has very good breaking balls and a deceiving change-up that are very effective keeping hitters off balance. Since he has been promoted to Triple-A, he may find himself with an opportunity come September to pitch in Toronto if he continues his development.

THT: Scott Campbell is having a tremendous season for the Fisher Cats, with an average around .330. His on-base percentage is nearly .430, though! What makes him so dangerous? Is he another player to watch in terms of a possible promotion in the near future?

KJ: Scott is a professional hitter who has a good approach at the plate. From his daily maintenance program to his batting practice to his games, Scott has a plan and stays within himself at all times. It has been a pleasure working with him and watching his development. Being from New Zealand, Scott was not exposed to baseball very much while growing up. He has certainly taken advantage of his opportunity with the Blue Jays to put himself on the map as a prospect. We are very proud of what Scott has accomplished and look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

THT: What do you like most about your position as hitting coach for the Fisher Cats?

KJ: I have always said I have two passions in this world, baseball and teaching. I am fortunate to come to work every day and do both. That, along with the proximity of Manchester to my hometown of Portland, Maine, makes this a dream job in professional baseball. It is nice to have family within driving distance while working for six months away from home. I also feel privileged to work with the professional athletes that come through the organization. It is like a family atmosphere all season long as we work and travel together.

THT: Which current major league player are you currently in awe of when you look at his overall offensive abilities?

KJ: There are many major league players who I admire for their abilities to hit. I think Albert Pujols may be one of the best hitters in baseball. Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Matt Holliday, Chipper Jones are also players I enjoy watching hit.

THT: Do you use current major leaguers as examples when you are instructing the younger players in the intricacies of hitting? If so, who?

KJ: One thing I try to do is individualize the development of the hitters I work with. It is difficult for minor league players to try to emulate what major league players are doing. I believe when teaching hitting that it is important to stress that the proper swing path is the same with all hitters despite different set-ups. If the player is on time (getting the front foot down early before the swing) then the hands fall into place and the lower half takes them to the baseball.

THT: I have had the pleasure of knowing you and playing on your teams in the past, so I know what a great baseball mind you have. I could see you eventually having success in coaching at the major league level. Is this an aspiration of yours?

KJ: I believe that everyone who has a job would like to reach the top of their profession. That can be said in business, education and certainly in baseball. The major leagues is certainly a long term goal of mine, but I also know how difficult it is to make it there. I am in a very good situation working as an instructor in the minor leagues. I come to work and learn something every day and pass along knowledge I have learned from others.

My strengths as a coach include my ability to teach and communicate. That, along with my preparation and organizational skills, may give me the opportunity to advance someday. Most of all, my passion for what I do, teaching a game that I love, has already opened doors for me to be here now.

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