PEORIA, Ariz. – They scored four runs in their past three games – two of those losses – and there are those who see that kind of offense as the Achilles’ heel of the 2010 Seattle Mariners’ dreams of contention.
Alan Cockrell isn’t one of them.
It would be hard to find a batting coach any more dedicated – or obsessed – with his job than Cockrell. After a full spring and regular season last year, his first with Seattle, Cockrell went home to Colorado.
For one day.
“I picked my kids up from school, I did do that, and then I came down here and Adam Moore and I spent four days together working on hitting,” Cockrell said. “With the kids it was like, ‘You’re leaving already?’”
Cockrell spent time in Arizona with Moore, visited Jack Wilson in California, made telephone calls, studied video and found himself on the road talking hitting with Mike Scioscia and Mickey Hatcher of the Angels, and others.
When spring training began this year, Cockrell found a stable of hitters acquired by general manager Jack Zduriencik: Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley, Casey Kotchman, Eric Byrnes, Ryan Garko, Tommy Everidge, Brad Nelson, Josh Bard and others.
All brought different strengths and weaknesses. Each got Cockrell’s complete and total dedication.
“The great thing about A.C. is that you can be the face of the franchise or a non-roster guy, and he’s going to work his butt off to help make you a better hitter,” Mike Sweeney said.
Cockrell is often in the batting cages at 7 a.m. working with the players who love early work – Figgins and Kotchman – and rarely leaves the Peoria campus before 6 p.m. It doesn’t leave him much of a life.
“I tend to get something to eat, head home and fall asleep,” Cockrell said.
Cockrell, 46, is in his second year as the Mariners’ batting coach, a job that lasted only one season for Don Baylor, Paul Molitor and Lamar Johnson. Since 2002, the Mariners have employed eight hitting coaches.
Offense hasn’t been a Seattle strong suit since 2001, the team’s last playoff appearance. Last year, the Mariners scored the fewest runs in the American League – and still won 85 games.
For all of Zduriencik’s work this winter, he didn’t add a power hitter to Seattle’s lineup, nor a 100-RBI producer.
Given the team will begin the season next week without Cliff Lee in the rotation – and with Jason Vargas and Doug Fister in it – scoring would seem to be more a necessity than ever.
Cockrell sees an improved offense, and loves the top of the batting order, Ichiro Suzuki and Figgins.
“When they’re on base, they apply pressure and that fits best for our ballpark,” he said. “It’s a ballpark that’s not conducive to a whole lot of balls leaving, and if we can keep guys on the bases and keep putting pressure on the basepaths, that’s good for us.”
Where’s the pop?
“How do you define pop? With Ichiro and Milton and Figgy on first base and one of our middle-of-the-order guys splits a gap and drives him in, I define that as power,” Cockrell said. “Power for me is not just the ball going over the fence. When you backspin a ball in the outfield gap to split that gap and score a run from first, that’s power.”
Cockrell spends so much time studying swings and getting to know his hitters, he can break down any one of them without hesitation.
Ken Griffey Jr.?
“At this stage of his career, it’s all about his legs being healthy,” Cockrell said. “He had surgery on his back knee, his plant knee, and it’s given him some troubles early in camp. On days when it’s strong, he’s strong at the plate. Our job has been getting him stronger, keeping him fresh.
“He can’t do what he did 10 years ago, but he can do it with more rest.”
Figgins? Cockrell almost glows.
“Chone takes a different kind of BP and a different kind of cage session,” Cockrell said. “He’s very disciplined. He’s figured out who he is as a hitter, what he handles well and what he doesn’t. He just doesn’t swing at the balls that he doesn’t handle well.
“He said it just started about three years ago. He would go home at the end of the season and he would review all of his at-bats on video, He said, ‘I was giving away 50, 60 at-bats.’
“Now, it’s all about plate discipline and hitting the pitches he wants to swing at.”
“I saw Milton when he was in San Diego. They had two guys in that lineup who we didn’t want up with the game on the line, him and Adrian Gonzalez,” Cockrell said. “He’s a disciplined hitter and he’s an attacking hitter. That’s a great combination but it’s a rare combination. His on-base percentage for his career is up there (.371). He’s willing to take a walk.”
Byrnes? A slight change Cockrell noticed helped Byrnes turn his spring around.
“I mentioned I had seen him at his best down in Arizona when he was hitting the ball gap-to- gap. I noticed that he was standing very close to the plate this spring,” Cockrell said.
“ ... He said he didn’t realize he was that close.”
Cockrell’s tips and work with each hitter are different – he doesn’t have one stance, once swing that he preaches. With Jack Wilson, for instance, it was the hand position. With Moore, it was the direction his lower body moved toward a pitch.
Add it all up, he sees an improved offense.
“We’re going to score more runs. You’ve got Ichiro doing what Ichi does at the top of the order, you’ve got Figgy who’s a disciplined on-base-percentage guy, you’ve got Milton who’s a combination of both, who can do some damage and is a high on-base guy,” Cockrell said. “Then you’ve got the RBI hitters coming up in RBI situations.
“It’s an attacking mind-set we’re after, but we’re going to get them to throw the ball in an area where we can do something with it.”