As Angels fans, most of us know about the impressive achievements of Don Baylor, the baseball player. We know that he was the 1970 Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year. That he was the 1979 American League MVP. That he led the Angels into playoff battle against the ’79 Orioles and the ’82 Brewers. That he won three Silver Slugger Awards for being the best American League player at his position. That he played in three World Series, winning one with the Twins in 1987. We know that he ended his career in 1988 with 338 home runs, 1,276 RBI, 285 stolen bases, and 267 hit-by-pitches, which stands today as the fourth-highest hit-by-pitch total in Major League history.
But maybe we haven’t been following his post-playing career as closely. If you haven’t, let me just say right here that Don Baylor’s coaching career has been just as impressive as his playing career. Two of the feathers in his post-playing career cap he achieved in Denver as the Rockies’ manager. One is that he was chosen to be the first manager in Colorado Rockies’ history. The other is that he won the 1995 National League Manager of the Year Award when the third-year Rockies came in second place and were the wildcard team in the NL playoffs.
But what is of particular note, especially to Angels fans, is what he’s done as a hitting coach. His first gig in this capacity was for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1990 and 1991. He was hired in the summer of 1990 to turn around a lackluster clubhouse: ”I was sent here to check the pulse of a team that was in contention, but was not in contention,” said Baylor in a 1991 Sports Illustrated article. He said that the players “seemed primarily interested in playing five-card draw and watching reruns of Taxi. . .There was just a dull attitude in general.” All of that changed quickly when Baylor came to the club. One of the things he introduced to the Brewers hitters was the use of video tape. Baylor made a tape for each of the batters so they could see what they were doing when they were hitting and what they were doing when they were slumping.
Baylor even taped his players during the game so they could watch what they had done before their next at bat. In a game against the Royals in May, Gary Sheffield was lost at the plate against Bret Saberhagen, so before his at bat in the sixth inning, he watched his earlier performances on the tape Baylor had made, adjusted his swing, and proceeded to hit a two-run homer. “That’s something I couldn’t have done last year,” Sheffield said.
Oh, and in 1990, Dave Parker, the Brewer’s designated hitter, was the first of Don Baylor’s students to win a Silver Slugger Award.
Baylor’s next stop as a hitting coach came in 1992 with the St. Louis Cardinals. They had just acquired first baseman Andres Galarraga in a trade with Montreal. Galarraga had been a .269 hitter who averaged 19 home runs per season for the Expos, but when he came to St. Louis, Don Baylor dramatically changed his batting stance. “Don Baylor was my hitting coach with the Cardinals, and we went on to improve my hitting,” Galarraga said. “He developed the batting stance I became known for. No one had such a stance before. It helped me in having better vision and bat speed. Before Baylor, I only looked at the ball with my left eye. Afterwards, I had both eyes on the ball, and my swing became more fluid and things just clicked.”
Baylor left St. Louis to become the manager for the Colorado Rockies. After his time there had run its coarse, he returned to being a hitting instructor. This time he would be the hitting coach for a 1999 Atlanta Braves team that featured a young star named Chipper Jones. Before Baylor, Jones was a power threat batting left-handed, but he was basically a singles hitter when batting from the right side. Baylor’s mission was to change that. “You hit third for the best team in the National League,” Baylor told Chipper on the first day they met, “and I expect you to drive the ball out of the park.” Baylor made some adjustments to his right-handed stance. While before Jones had his front elbow pointing up and his hands close to his chest, now he dropped his elbow and moved his hands farther back. The result was that Jones was able to drive the ball with authority from the right side. “Balls he used to pull foul,” Baylor said, “are going to left center.” Under Baylor’s tutelage, Jones had one of the greatest seasons ever by a switch hitter: he hit 45 home runs, drove in 110 runs, and had a .319 batting average. He was rewarded by winning the 1999 NL MVP Award. And, of course, the second Baylor-inspired Silver Slugger Award.
After the 1999 season, Baylor left Atlanta to become the manager of the Chicago Cubs for three years and the Mets’ bench coach for two. Then he got another hitting coach job, this time with the Seattle Mariners in 2005, where he worked with outfielder Raul Ibañez. After resigning from the Mariners job after just one season, he emerged as a broadcaster for Washington Nationals games in 2007.
In 2009, coaching came calling again. The Rockies signed Baylor to be their hitting coach for the 2009 and 2010 seasons. While in Colorado, Don Baylor had a particular impact on two young players, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. In 2009, Tulowitzki had a career high in home runs (32)and his highest batting average (.297) thus far. In 2010, he hit .315 with 27 home runs and won the Silver Slugger Award for NL shortstop. When the Rockies let Baylor go at the end of the 2010 season, Tulowitzki had this to say about his coach, “Groove helped me with so many things, and [I know] we will remain close.”
The season before Baylor’s arrival, Carlos Gonzalez had played a season for the Oakland A’s and had just four home runs in 302 at bats. To increase his power numbers, Baylor had Gonzalez use a leg kick to help drive his swing with his lower body. The results were immediate. In 2009, his first year with Baylor, he hit 13 home runs in 278 at bats. Then, in his second year with Baylor, his first as a full time player, he exploded for 34 home runs and a .336 batting average. And you can add one more Silver Slugger Award for 2010.
After the Rockies parted ways with Baylor in 2010, he was snatched up by the Arizona Diamondbacks to work with hitters like Miguel Montero, Paul Goldschmidt, and Aaron Hill. The Silver Slugger Award that Hill won in 2012 was the fifth one that one of Don Baylor’s hitters had been awarded.
Which brings us to now, back to the Angels, to the team where his star first shone brightly for the baseball world to see. Baylor said that “[Arizona Manager] Kirk Gibson was great to me, we had a nice group of guys there, but having the opportunity one more time with the Angels, I didn’t want that to slip through my fingers.”
Right off the bat, his main objective is to help huge investment Josh Hamilton have a productive year at the plate during the 2014 season. “He’s a real key to the offense,” Baylor said shortly after his hiring. “We just have to get him on that path to success. He’s had it before; he just has to recapture it again and believe in his swing. We’re going to work on that from Day 1 of Spring Training.”
One of the ways he plans on doing that is by having Hamilton concentrate on “staying in the middle of the field, putting the ball in play.” And if Don Baylor can work his magic once again for the 2014 Angels, it should be a lot of fun watching the offense getting its “groove” on at baseball parks all across America.
Thanks to baseball-reference, Steve Rushin’s Sports Illustrated article, “Big Brew Ha-Ha,” Rafael Rojas Cremonesi’s article for MLB.com titled “Slugger Andres Galarraga Reflects on Career at Roxivus,” Tom Verducci’s Sports Illustrated article about Baylor and Chipper Jones, “Turned On!” Troy E. Renck’s Denver Post article, “Lansford Takes over as Rockies’ New Hitting Coach,” and Renck’s Denver Post article “Carlos Gonzalez’s Evolution with Rockies Maturing as a Hitter, Father, and Husband,” and Alden Gonzalez’s MLB.com article, “Baylor May Be Perfect Coach for Hamilton.”