How confident are you in the White Sox ability to build and plan an offense?
Honestly, it’s a relevant and snark-free question that could easily have a lot more to do with your reaction to Todd Steverson, the man the White Sox will reportedly hire to be their new hitting coach, than the information immediately available on Steverson has to do with his actual ability to be an effective major league hitting coach.
2013 must have stripped my confidence bare, since in Steverson, this stranger who has spent the last decade being a company man in the Oakland Athletics minor league system, these pained eyes can only see that the Sox resisted the easier route of just promoting within and invited someone familiar with another organization’s approach. Or that they sought a coach from an organization both flush with recent offensive success and synonymous–perhaps to an overblown degree–with a forward-thinking and statistically aware approaches to generating runs.
Alternatively, they could have spent the offseason pining for the wisdom of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Maybe these are minor accomplishments, the absolute baseline of standards they had to fulfill to adequately respond to last season’s disaster, but they were also the pratfalls it was easy to see the Sox stumbling into. The relief that they didn’t helps ease the familiar discomfort of some of Steverson’s quotes about approach in the interview he gave to the Modesto Bee in 2012, which in the era of constant fear of the ‘Old School Coach’ bogeyman, could raise some alarm bells.
“At the same time, we were getting our walks in the organization, but we weren’t scoring many runs behind it, which means we needed to not only walk and get our on-base percentage up, but we also needed to learn how to drive guys in when need be and not be passive in certain situations where you have to be aggressive. Sometimes you may have to go out of the zone, understanding what a pitcher is trying to do to you.”
Being aggressive, not being passive in RBI situations, even swinging out of the zone when necessary; it’s all the kind of talk that must be a prerequisite to getting hired as a member of the offensive coaching staff of this organization. But it was also prefaced by a statement about how high on-base percentage leads to runs, and runs lead to wins, and the sentence began with “obviously.”
It might hurt to hear, but there are some clear signs that a different context is in place when the A’s roving minor league hitting instructor laments overly passive hitters and when Jeff Manto talking about being spooked of the double play. The White Sox would be the team to find him if he existed, but let’s bet against there being a rogue coach tearing through the A’s organization for a decade seeking to uproot Moneyball wherever he found it. For now.
While we can only use the information available to us, the philosophy of the hitting coach isn’t going to save the offense or determine Steverson’s success. His ability to identify problems, develop solutions and communicate with his hitters through every stage to earn their trust will be more important than if he reads FanGraphs. Because as exciting as it might be to see the Sox pull in some new blood, Manto didn’t get fired because the White Sox suddenly found his approach untenable, but because his results were abominable. The 2013 White Sox weren’t fatally flawed or doomed by archaic ideas about run production, they were incompetent. Their hitters didn’t come off misguided, but abandoned.
Adam Dunn, Manto’s biggest advocate, may have toyed with scrapping his patient approach at Manto’s suggestion, but it became an attractive idea because of the death spiral his offensive production was in. And as an established veteran with easily diagnosed problems, Dunn’s the best example of Manto being handed broken eggs and asked to make an omelet, but undoubtedly not the only.
It’s a shame to rehash the limitations of a hitting coach alongside the announcement of the deserved ascension of Steverson to a big league coaching position, but if he’s really ready to be an MLB hitting coach, he should be prepared to see his reputation die at the hands of his personnel.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan