PITTSBURGH — Being a hitting coach at the major-league level is one of the more difficult gigs in professional sports.
Hitting coaches are usually among the first people at the ballpark each day and the last to leave. They are there whenever players want extra batting practice or to watch video, or to just have a dose of confidence instilled.
Teams also change hitting coaches more frequently than any other position on their staff – including managers. It seems the hitting coach is often the first person whose job is sacrificed when a team is struggling.
That’s the world of Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Andy Haines. A lot of Pirates fans would like to see him fired after the Pirates scored just 30 runs in 13 games – losing 12 of them – before breaking out in a 9-4 victory over the San Diego Padres on Tuesday night at PNC Park.
Haines is the subject of vitriol on talk radio and social media. Fans want his head.
However, it apparently isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
Pirates manager Derek Shelton has been a hitting coach in the major leagues with Cleveland and the Tampa Bay Rays. And Shelton is sensitive to the men who hold those jobs and sees no reason why Haines should be perceived as being on the hot seat in his second season with the Pirates.
“It’s an extremely hard job,” Shelton said before Tuesday night’s game. “We’re going through a stretch right now with a bunch of young guys that are making an adjustment. Not only are they making an adjustment to the big leagues, but some of them are making an adjustment to the adjustment that the big leagues have made to them. When you have someone who has been with them for a year and has the ability to have those conversations, that’s really important. That stability is really important.
“And Andy Haines is a good hitting coach. When you have young hitters, you have to look at different ways to go about how to get out of certain situations. We are fully exploring that. Not only on the coaching side but on the player side. I think the continuity of that is extremely important.”
The Pirates’ .239 batting average ranks 20th among the 30 major-league teams. They are 19th in on-base percentage (.317) and 23rd in slugging percentage (.389).
In the most important offensive category of all, runs scored, the Pirates stand 23rd with an average of 4.13 a game.
A year ago, in Haines’ first season, the Pirates were 27th in runs scored, 29th in batting average, 28th in on-base percentage and 27th in slugging percentage. So, it is fair to say that the hitters have improved in Haines’ second year.
Yet the regression of such young hitters as Jack Suwinski, Ji Hwan Bae and Rodolfo Castro in recent weeks has put Haines in the crosshairs. Nevertheless, Shelton remains convinced Haines can get the youngsters out of their doldrums.
“One of the things that I appreciate the most about Andy Haines is his positivity,” Shelton said. “Being positive when you’re a hitting coach is hard. It’s really hard. And, again, if anybody knows that from personal experience it’s me. So, the fact that he’s continued to stay positive with this group about what we have to do and how they’re doing it because it is a grind. And most guys don’t struggle until they get to the big leagues. It’s why you see some of the adjustments guys have to make have to happen here.
“Sometimes when you’re making those adjustments you struggle because big league pitching is really good. But if you don’t keep a positive mindset, then mentally you’ll go home and beat yourself up every night. Again, that’s why Andy has done such a good job of making sure they maintain it. Now, that’s not to say it’s not challenging for him, or challenging for any hitting coach. But that’s the mindset you have to have with young players. Because coaching young players at the major league level is extremely hard.”
No one inside baseball will dispute that idea. It is why Haines is getting leeway from Shelton, more rope than many fans would like.