It's too bad there's no MVC award for coaches. What kind of year is Blue Jays hitting coach Mike Barnett having? Nearing the halfway point of the 2003 season, his club leads the major leagues in batting average, hits, runs, RBI, on-base percentage, total bases and slugging percentage. Carlos Delgado's amazing season has helped, but everyone in the lineup is contributing.
The common denominator is "Barney," who refuses to take any credit for the results of his diligent efforts. "You can't do what we're doing without good players," he explained in a recent dugout conversation, after guiding his charges through batting practice. "We've got guys who are very talented, very intelligent, and they all have a fantastic work ethic."
Barnett, born 44 years ago in Columbus, was a catcher for Ohio University before a shoulder injury ended his playing career. After graduating with a degree in sports administration, his first job in pro baseball was bullpen catcher, with the Pirates' AAA team. Following three years in the same role with the Yankees' AAA club, George Steinbrenner, concerned that football made better use of technology than baseball, promoted Mike to the new position of Video Director.
"We were one of the first clubs to use video," he recalled. "It was used to analyze players mechanically, and for advance scouting. My first year doing that job in New York, it was Lou Piniella's last year as a player, then he became the hitting coach. I still thank Lou every time I see him for what he did for me. We would sit and watch film for two or three hours a day, and he taught me everything, A to Z. I still consider him the best hitting coach in the game."
As you might expect from a pioneer in the field, Barnett still relies on video to confirm his impressions. "It probably took me two years to fully grasp the mechanics of what happens in the swing, when things go right and when they go wrong. You're constantly learning, and I still look at a lot of swings, every day. Usually, when we're on defence, I'm up in the video room, watching the at-bats from the previous inning."
The coach spends plenty of time around the batting cage, talking to his players after each session, but also uses his extensive library to help hitters find their best strokes. "When we have a guy who's in a little bit of a funk, we might bring up a split screen of when he's going good and when he's going bad, and generally, you can see where things are breaking down. I try not to dwell on what guys are doing wrong; it's more getting them back to what they've done right."
In 1988, "Barney" left the Yankees to begin coaching at University of Tennessee, joining the White Sox organization two years later. After a couple of seasons as the hitting coach in Sarasota, he was promoted to AA Birmingham, where he tutored an "old" rookie pro who had achieved some notoriety in another sport.
"I still talk to Michael Jordan occasionally. People say he was a flop as a baseball player, but they don't realize he was a tremendous success. Had he chosen baseball instead of basketball in college, he would have been a Dave Winfield-type player. Michael hadn't played the game for 14 years, and he was basically a pitcher in high school, but he jumped in at the AA level, where most of your prospects are, so to do what he did was amazing."
Barnett's regard for Jordan is obvious. "He's a great guy, and I don't think I've ever been around anyone that has his work ethic. Dean Smith pounded into his head the importance of fundamentals, and he carried that into baseball, where he just hammered away, never stopped working. I can't say enough about Michael, and it was great -- every night, we played in front of a packed house."
There are common threads among the current Jays staff, including an Arizona connection. After eight years in the White Sox organization, Barnett was the hitting coach at AAA Tucson (the top Diamondbacks farm club) from 1998 through 2001, where his colleagues included Carlos Tosca, Brian Butterfield and Gil Patterson. Like them, he is a patient teacher with a quiet intensity.
Primarily responsible for his big-league batters, "Barney" tries to keep an eye on the entire Toronto system. "We see the minor-league hitters in the spring, and you do need continuity. Credit J.P. -- when we're drafting players, we want them to fit the mold, so it's not such a big adjustment for them. Merv Rettenmund, our roving hitting coordinator, does a tremendous job. I'd never met Merv until spring training, but he and I are right on the same page, so that makes our plans easy to carry out. When these players move up, they're hearing the same thing at every level, and when they get here, they understand what we're doing."
It's not easy to describe Mike Barnett's philosophy of hitting in a sentence. "We want guys to be selective, work the count, work deeper into counts," he begins. "They're hitting off the fastball, up out over the plate, reacting down and in. If we're sitting on the fastball, we can cover that speed, we're in a hanging breaking-ball range, we're in a hanging changeup zone."
The Jays work just as hard on the mental aspect of hitting as the physical mechanics. "With the thought process of staying up the middle the other way, it gives you a chance to adjust to anything the pitcher can throw you. Ideally, pitchers would like to pitch you up-and-in, low-and-away. If they execute those pitches, you're going to have a tough time getting hits. So we try to change those tables -- we look up and out over the plate, react down and in. Those are more mistake zones, and our guys have done a fantastic job maintaining that approach and waiting for their pitch."
When it was suggested that some of the newcomers, especially Frank Catalanotto, have always hit that way, Barnett readily agreed. "Again, that's where J.P.'s done a great job, getting guys with tremendous character, who fit right into the type of offence we want to have."
The coach's greatest contribution has been getting some veteran hitters to adjust to new ideas. In particular, Greg Myers arrived as a dangerous pull hitter, who never hit for a high average. "I think he's having fun," says Barnett with a grin. "He's up around .350 and doing a great job. Instead of being a dead-pull guy, he's taking what the pitcher's going to give him. If they make mistakes inside on him, he's going to turn on them, and run the ball out of the ballpark. Greg's very selective at the plate; you don't see him swing at many bad pitches. Now, he's able to cover the whole zone."
Carlos Delgado is also using the whole field this year, and rewriting the club record book. Barnett shakes his head in admiration. "He's our marquee player, and does everything so well. In batting practice, he and Frank Catalanotto, who hit in the same group every day, get into these little games. Just today, Carlos -- who hit one off the glass last night -- was asking Frankie if he wanted to try bouncing a few off the restaurant. Frankie wouldn't buy into it, because it's not a home-run hitting contest, they're trying to work on things, maybe doubles down the left-field line. There's a little bit of competition in there, but it's one way they prepare themselves for a game."
After looking at video from 2000, Mike convinced his cleanup man this spring to stand up taller in the box and keep his weight back. Delgado claims to be more comfortable, with a better path to the ball. Ever modest, the master praises his prize pupil. "Carlos, his first couple of rounds in the cage, always goes the other way. He's trying to hit home runs up the middle -- you rarely see him pull the ball."
"Barney" nods appreciatively at a mention of Chris Woodward's tenacity in a memorable April plate appearance, fouling off pitch after pitch until he drew a walk off Casey Fossum to spark a big two-out rally. "One of the best at-bats of the season. Sometimes, you have a 15-pitch AB and end up making an out, but we're not so concerned with the result; that was a very good example of what we're trying to do. Generally, when Fossum gets up around 85 pitches, he starts losing his command and his stuff. We go over these things in the advance meetings."
Told that some Batter's Box readers don't understand why supposedly patient hitters still swing at the first pitch sometimes, Barnett explained, "What we talk about is not swinging at a strike if it's a pitcher's strike. If it's down and away at the knees, give him that one. The major league average for guys putting the first pitch in play is something like .354, so it does seem like being patient is a contradiction, but it's all a matter of getting good pitches to hit. If a mistake presents itself on the first pitch, you jump on it. More often, we're going to work deeper into counts to get those pitches. Early in the year, people were complaining we struck out too much. But if that's a byproduct of going deep into counts, we're doing our job, trying to get the starter out of there early."
The Blue Jays' successful season is a result of teamwork. The front office has made excellent roster moves, the manager presides over the most harmonious clubhouse in memory, the hard-working coaching staff is proving their reputations as teachers, and the players are producing. Toronto has a Cy Young candidate and the MVP favourite, but nobody's having a better year than Mike Barnett.
This completes an exclusive four-part series of interviews by Kent Williams with the Toronto Blue Jaysí coaching staff, including chats with Brian Butterfield, John Gibbons and Gil Patterson.