Inside the Minnesota Twins' two-day hitting summit
FORT MYERS, Fla.--For two straight days, the ideas and the theories flowed freely, as did the laughter. Gathered in a spacious auditorium at the Twins' spring-training complex Fort Myers, Fla., was the organization's entire amateur scouting staff...
FORT MYERS, Fla.-For two straight days, the ideas and the theories flowed freely, as did the laughter.
Gathered in a spacious auditorium at the Twins' spring-training complex Fort Myers, Fla., was the organization's entire amateur scouting staff along its full hierarchy of hitting instructors, from newly hired hitting coach James Rowson to minor-league hitting coordinator Rick Eckstein and on through the system.
Torii Hunter, the Twins' new special assistant to baseball operations, frequently interjected his opinions and experiences as well, which only increased the humor quotient.
"The hitting summit was fantastic," said Twins amateur scouting director Sean Johnson, who joined the organization in 2002. "It was everybody putting their heads together and communicating at a level I haven't seen in the past. It was kind of a rolling discussion that was not present before."
The brainchild of chief baseball officer Derek Falvey, who kicked off the wide-ranging discussion as part of his first visit to the Twins' spring home, this groundbreaking gathering on Jan. 19-20 had a variety of aims, starting with maximizing the top overall pick in June's amateur draft.
The Twins have held that slot just two other times in their history: 2001, when they grabbed catcher Joe Mauer out of Cretin-Derham Hall, and 1983, when they failed to sign college right-hander Tim Belcher, who went on to win 146 games in a 14-year big-league career.
"That stuff is infectious," Johnson said. "It was encouraging to me, and I'm not even a hitting guy. This is a chance to change the way we do things, just the culture, not that it was a bad place before and this is so much better. It's just that we want to explore how we can get better."
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
For starters there were the introductions. From there came the connections and the shared stories, which quickly opened the door to talk of hitting drills and philosophies and cautionary tales and famous breakthroughs.
Rowson, hired out of the New York Yankees organization, knew Eckstein a bit from their time as big-league hitting coaches with the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals, respectively.
Hired last July, Eckstein filled a position that had been left open for a season and a half following the departure of longtime hitting coordinator Bill Springman, whose contract was not renewed in September 2014.
Former Twins outfielder Chad Allen, who had interviewed for a spot on Paul Molitor's coaching staff, will be back as the hitting coach at Triple-A Rochester. Former Twins minor leaguer Steve Singleton, who spent last year on the Gulf Coast League staff, will move up to Class A Fort Myers to replace Jim Dwyer, who retired.
Brian Dinkelman returns at low-A Cedar Rapids, but the Twins are still looking for a hitting coach at Double-A Chattanooga with Tommy Watkins becoming Kernels manager.
"More than anything I wanted to sit down and get to know all the guys," Rowson said. "It was a meet-and-greet and an exploration of ideas. I wanted all the hitting coaches to be able to voice their opinions."
Jeff Pickler, hired last month out of the Los Angeles Dodgers front office as a major league coach and player-development liaison, attended the summit as well. He will serve as the point man between manager Paul Molitor and his staff and those running and working in the farm system.
Should a young hitter need help with a particular swing flaw or area of weakness upon his demotion, Pickler will likely be the one conveying that to farm director Brad Steil, field coordinator Joel Lepel and the coordinators.
Pickler, a former scout himself, also addressed the amateur scouts about things to look for in potential draftees on the hitting side.
How does Rowson, with assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez also at his disposal, see using Pickler this season?
"Just to pick his brain," Rowson said. "As he sees things he's going to supply some information, maybe some game-planning things that he sees that may be available. I think you use all the coaches to just speak their minds. When they see something, speak up. There are no egos. Winning ballgames is what we're trying to do."
MAKING TECHNOLOGY USEFUL
You might say the first rule of hitting instruction is that there are no rules. Unlike pitching, the art of hitting seems to have many more avenues on the way to success.
"As an industry sometimes we talk about, 'What does this team do for a hitting philosophy?' " Falvey said. "And the reality is Joe Mauer and Jorge Polanco shouldn't have the same hitting plan. It should be individualized and we should be creative."
Blanket statements are as dangerous in the hitting realm as trying to use a cookie-cutter approach on swings and drills and approaches.
"We need to partner with our players," Falvey said. "We need to get their feedback on what they want to work on and grow and develop into. These guys know themselves. They know their bodies. They know what they do well. So we need to make sure that there's constant communication between the group."
With TrackMan systems installed at each of their top four minor-league affiliates the past several seasons, the Twins also used the hitting summit as a way to encourage better implementation of video and analytical information while guarding against mental overload.
"In terms of technology there's more and more information that's available every year," Steil said. "We have to find ways to apply that and be able to relay it to our players in a way that they can use it. That's always the challenge. You don't want to overwhelm them with it."
Minor-league hitters will be taught how to use the latest tools and gadgets available throughout the industry, but they won't be force-fed. The goal is to allow their natural talents to flourish while preparing them for the deluge of video and data they will encounter upon reaching the majors.
"When you go to the plate, you're the only one in the box," Steil said. "Your head can't be filled with numbers because you've got to hit. We're cognizant of that. There's information we might use as a coach where you're not relaying all of the information to the player, but it's directing some of the coaching drills you'll use and the goals you're trying to get at with the player."
Now that the Twins have had a chance to get their best hitting minds in the same room, they plan to do the same with their pitching coaches heading into spring training. Falvey once again will start the discussion, then sit back and smile as fertile minds take it in directions even he might not have imagined.
"It's just good to get a lot of our group together and feel like we're pulling on the same end of the rope," Falvey said. "There's no secret sauce to it."