Originally created 02/21/99

Hitters bank on Baylor



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Eddie Perez was in the batting cage last week when an onlooker pointed out last season's average to hitting coach Don Baylor.

What did a .336 hitter need a hitting coach for?

Laughing, Baylor responded, "I'll get him to .340."

That's a conservative estimate of the impact he'll have on the Atlanta Braves.

If Baylor, fired as Colorado manager following last season, has as much influence on Atlanta hitters as he did the Rockies, figure Chipper Jones will hit 40 homers and Ryan Klesko will have a career year.

"Everybody respects him so much and he has that presence," said Walt Weiss, who was Baylor's teammate on the 1988 Oakland A's club and his shortstop for four years in Denver. "He has that air about him. Even in Oakland, we had a lot of characters on that team, some pretty big egos, but when he spoke it was like E.F. Hutton. When he spoke people definitely stopped talking. Even as a player, he was almost like a father figure."

Already Baylor has made an impact with Jones. The pair were discussing hitting the first day of camp and Baylor asked the switch-hitting Jones about his approach from the right side.

"My approach is I want to go out there and hit .300," Jones told him. "As long as I hit well with runners in scoring position, who cares about power. He said, `Bull. You go up there and try and hit the ball as hard as you can, try and hit the ball out of the park.' He said, `You keep saying year after year you want more power from the right side, but yet you're going up there trying to hit .300 and basically feeling for the ball.'

"So, that's been the biggest thing the last three or four days. Right-handed, going up there and just come out of your shoes and see what happens. You're going to strike out a little bit more, but you're going to hit eight to 10 more home runs. That's going to take you from 30 or 35 to 40 to 45."

Baylor, who is widely respected as one of the game's best hitting coaches, figures to impact Atlanta's lineup like no other hitting coach in recent memory. That will be quite a feat considering Atlanta's offense set franchise records for runs and home runs last season and produced a .272 average, its best since 1983.

The explanation from the club's front office regarding the firing of Clarence Jones is that after consecutive failures in the National League Championship Series it was time to shake things up. Left unspoken is that the lack of development by hitters like Klesko and second baseman Tony Graffanino played as big a role in Jones' departure as a willingness to bring in new faces.

Thus, Baylor, who served as the Brewers hitting coach from 1990-91, then helped resurrect Andres Galarraga's career in 1992 as the Cardinals' hitting coach, came on board to bail out a ship that wasn't taking on water.

His first order of business is to talk with the hitters, study them at the plate and make suggestions.

"I've looked at a lot of notes I keep on players," he said. "I have all my charts. Now I get to use them as a positive, instead of trying to get these guys out."

Baylor knows what he's talking about. A career .260 hitter with 338 homers and 1,276 RBI in 19 seasons in the big leagues, he appeared in three World Series and was the American League MVP in 1979. His resume, as well as his reputation as a student of the game, has brought him instant respect inside the Braves clubhouse.

"I like the fact that you walk up to him and he's all business, he's intense," Chipper Jones said. "It's about hitting."

Looking over the Braves' hitting statistics, one of the first things Baylor noticed this winter was the team's propensity for strikeouts. In each of the last three seasons, the hitters have accumulated over 1,000 strikeouts, which in Baylor's mind is far too many fruitless trips to the plate.

"That's the stat. I want to be able to alleviate a lot of those," he said. "Even if you put the ball in play you can move a guy over. If you strike out, nothing happens."

Klesko should benefit more than any other hitter from Baylor's tutelage. At age 27 he should be entering his prime, but his power numbers and production have fallen in each of the last two seasons, his career in stagnation since he hit 34 homers and drove in 93 runs in 1996.

If Baylor has the same impact on Klesko's career that he had on Rockies' Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla, the Braves may not miss Galarraga as much as they think they will.

"I remember when Klesko first came to the big leagues, he was a left-center (hitter)," Baylor said. "And then everybody started talking home runs."

Along the way, Klesko failed to make the same jump from 20-25 home runs to among the league's elite power hitters as Bichette and Castilla have done.

Baylor is on hand to see that it happens.