Communication key aspect of McGwire's job
Dodgers hitting coach has knack for helping players find comfort zone
Mark McGwire can't help but smile when thinking about the time work begins for him each day as the Dodgers' hitting coach.
"My job starts in the morning right after I take my kids to school," McGwire said. "I come home, look at some video of the pitcher we are going to face and make some notes. I then come to the ballpark, look at some at-bats from guys the night before and then go into the cage with the players."
After spending three seasons as the Cardinals' hitting coach, McGwire is in his first year in the role for the Dodgers. While he said it took some time to adjust to Los Angeles, it's been a learning experience he's thoroughly enjoying.
"It is the same approach in both places, but it just goes back to knowing hitters," McGwire said. "Some players have been up here for a short amount of time, while other have been around for seven, eight, 10 years and have their own approach. It is me learning them and understanding them and then communicating things and playing off each other.
"It takes time to learn each person and what kind of hitter they are and what they are like. Communication is huge. Lots of it. They are all terrific hitters, but like I've said to them, Rome wasn't built in a day."
That can definitely be said for this year's team. After struggling the first few months of the season with a 38-43 record and a combined team batting average of .256 through June 30, the tide began to turn come the second half of the season. Since July 1, the Dodgers are 52-23 with a combined batting average of .275, something that helped them secure the National League West.
"A hitting coach is a thing where it is a blend of personalities, and he has to deal not just with the hitting side, but with guys and the way they are feeling and coping with success or not having it," outfielder Andre Ethier said. "He has stepped right in and made guys feel comfortable and knows how to talk through things."
Once things began to click for players at the plate, you could not only see it in their balanced, compact swings, but in their body language. They felt like they were going to succeed.
Entering Monday, the Dodgers have the third-highest team batting average in the NL at .265, the fourth-highest on-base percentage at .327 and are fourth in hits with 1,400.
"I think it took a little while for guys to get comfortable with him and for him to get comfortable with the guys, but I like what Mark does, and John [Valentin], too," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "They are a pretty good team of preparation, mechanically and how we try to attack pitchers. I like the talks that we have that goes along with that. It hasn't always gone exactly how we want it, but I like the way that it has been."
When it comes to the technical side of hitting, McGwire stresses three major things: put the ball in play, stay up the middle and be ready to hit from the first pitch on.
McGwire also focuses on the importance of plate discipline and knowing the strike zone. He joked that when he was a player, you figured out how a guy would pitch you by being in the batter's box. Now, players are able to watch boatloads of video to understand the tendencies of pitchers.
"He's worked with me about going up the middle and even going the other way," outfielder Carl Crawford said. "He gets me to stay within myself. His whole thing is about approach, your approach to the at-bat or a certain pitcher or whatever he might see with a team."
It doesn't matter if someone is a rookie who's been up with the team for a week or a 10-year veteran who's been through it all -- McGwire puts time in with every player to help with the nuances of their swing. Just ask Scott Van Slyke, who's been up and down with the Dodgers much of the 2013 season.
"He is really good about learning guys' swings, and learning what their strengths and weaknesses are and reminding the players of what they are capable of doing," Van Slyke said.
"The main thing he has always said to me is to keep my hands moving until I have to run. I've never heard that before, but it helps to think about your hands a little bit."
However, McGwire continually stresses to players that it isn't just about mechanics, but the mental approach during each plate appearance.
"Something we talk about all the time is passing the baton. Adrian [Gonzalez] to Hanley [Ramirez] to Andre," McGwire said. "You have to think, 'I might not be the guy at this time, but I'm going to hand it off to the guy behind me and let them do the damage.' That is about blending together as a team and an offense."
McGwire also believes that the same keys to success exist for hitters who are struggling or thriving.
"When things aren't going well, it is easy to fall into a trap of what the pitcher is trying to do to you instead of what you want to do to him," McGwire said. "I like to stress that to guys, especially when they are struggling, 'You are in control of your own destiny. Don't let that guy control it.'"
Plenty of players also talk about McGwire's approach towards them and how different it is compared to previous hitting coaches. Crawford said he finds it refreshing to be able to go back and forth with McGwire, listening and asking questions. Ethier feels the same way.
"He is so much more simple compared to other hitting coaches I have had," Ethier said. "There isn't a lot of emphasis on anything too much, other than getting in there and getting to see the pitcher. You have tons of video to look at, and he always tells us to talk to him if we have any questions. He has gone over them extensively and done all the advanced scouting reports and knowing what guys tendencies are."
Dodgers utility player Skip Schumaker, who worked with McGwire in St. Louis and now Los Angeles, said that's how he's always been.
"He is so good about saying positive and not getting down on yourself. He knows how hard this game is, because he played it for so long," Schumaker said. "He knows what a slump feels like and the grind of an entire season. He knows the ups and downs of it. When you have a coach who has been through it all, it makes him that much better."
During a 16-year career, in which he was a 12-time All-Star and hit 583 home runs, McGwire learned what motivated him best. Now those lessons and credentials have become an important part of his effectiveness and the Dodgers' success this season.
"With a guy having a career like that, you think he would know a little something about hitting," Crawford said. "He has our attention from that alone, and he works with us all individually. Especially on this team, you have a lot of characters to deal with."
Quinn Roberts is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.