A few months ago I wrote in these pages that there is a secret to hitting, and that Tyler Colvin, “lacking either the native intelligence or the proper coaching, has not been able to follow the clues that lead to that secret.” Rudy Jaramillo was Colvin’s only hitting instructor with the Cubs, just as he has been the only coach of Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney. In grading an instructor, it can be misleading to look at how the veterans are doing, since they have received advice from many sources and since experience is itself an effective teacher. Look at the youngsters. Are they thriving, and do they look like they are well coached?
When Larry Rothschild was with the Cubs, I asked the same question concerning three pitchers who were trained entirely under him, Zambrano, Wuertz and Marmol. Did they appear to be well coached? All three were talented, and things had started out well for them, but they didn’t seem to be able to progress. Both Wuertz and Marmol had problems using a fastball effectively and became “slider happy,” in the phrase of TV announcers Kasper and Brenly. When Marmol lost his job as closer early this season, new manager Dale Sveum indicated that he couldn’t keep putting a pitcher out there who threw sliders on three-and-oh. Mechanics aside, there is something wrong with the mindset of a pitcher who shakes off the fastball on a pitch where he knows the hitter is not swinging. When your players have the wrong mindset, it may be time to change coaches.
Barney is in his second full year as a major-league regular while Castro, just turned twenty-two, is in his third. It’s too early, both in the season and in their careers, to draw conclusions about how they are progressing. I’ll just note that Sveum does not seem to be getting what he hoped for from either of them, since both have been demoted in the batting order. Barney started the season at #2, now he’s 8 (or 7 when Koyie Hill is in the lineup). He just doesn’t get on base enough for someone at the top of the order. Castro began in the prestigious #3 hole, but while he always cranks out a lot of singles, he only has nine doubles so far, about one a week. So Castro has been moved back to #2, a slot more suited to a singles hitter. Someone else will have to drive in the runs.
Both players are free swingers. Both get their share of hits on pitches out of the strike zone. So far, they have not answered Theo Epstein’s call for hitters who are “selectively aggressive”: selective so they can get into hitters’ counts, aggressive when they do. Asked his own hitting philosophy in the wake of Jaramillo’s firing, Sveum said yesterday: “You’ll get your walks if you don’t swing at pitches that you can’t hit out of the ballpark — that’s my philosophy.” Barney and Castro swing at pitches that they think they can hit, period.
Chalk it up to youth, at least in Castro’s case, and leave the hitting coach out of it. Tyler Colvin, however, was 25 when he followed up a promising rookie season with one in which he produced the lowest batting average in the NL and was demoted to Iowa for fifty games. The new front office saw Colvin’s recent numbers and his career trajectory and bundled him off to Colorado with LeMahieu in exchange for Ian Stewart, whose contract will expire at the end of this season and who has done nothing with his bat to earn an extension. When Stewart leaves, the Cubs will have gotten nothing for Colvin, a first-round pick in 2006. That’s a big deal. When a first-rounder slugs .500 as a rookie and then falls off the end of the earth, you’d like to ask somebody, What happened? Would it be impolite to ask the hitting coach?
I said about Colvin last November that he “may have missed his chance with the Cubs and will likely have to go elsewhere to learn the rudiments of hitting.” That process might be underway in Colorado. It’s hard to know what to make of a three-game hitting spree, but I found it interesting that Colvin hit his fourth home run in ten at-bats on a day that the Cubs announced Jaramillo’s firing.
(Note on the title: it’s a reference to the 1965 pop hit “Cara Mia,” which, like an old Cub player, sticks in memory for mostly bad reasons.)