Here’s what I know. Texas has had some great, MVP-level hitters over the last 15 years. Through both decent seasons and bad ones, the offense here has generally boasted the production and swagger that the pitching and defense rarely could. Rangers hitters swear by Rudy Jaramillo, and he by them.
I know that the lineup struggled in 2009. A lot. This team might still be playing if the offense did what a Rangers offense usually does.
And that’s the thing about a hitting coach. His job may be the most difficult on a coaching staff to measure, as a fan. We see the third base coach sending runners or holding them, and the results are basically black and white. The impact that a baserunning coach has is somewhat quantifiable. The pitching coach gets credit for the adjustments a pitcher makes in his slot or his delivery or the confidence that he has in his stuff, things that, as subtle as they might be, we notice.
But does the hitting coach or the hitter get credit for Juan Gonzalez? For Ivan Rodriguez? For Rusty Greer? For Michael Young? Obviously there’s plenty of credit to be shared, but for hitters like those whose big league careers either began in Texas or soared to a new level here, every one of them is going to heap praise on Jaramillo, and they should. Like Eric Chavez’s Gold Glove inscription to Ron Washington – “Wash, not without you” – a hitter who came into his own in Texas is always going to have Jaramillo’s back, rightfully so.
And Marlon Byrd, Mark DeRosa, Gary Matthews Jr., Ramon Vazquez? Whole different story. If Jaramillo helped finish off Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Greer, and Young – each a hitting star, each a different type – he basically remade the careers of Byrd, DeRosa, Matthews, and Vazquez. Those are only examples of a number of players who have come here and reinvented themselves, and to speculate whether those guys are indebted to Jaramillo would be a waste of time. “Rudy, not without you.”
The point? I don’t know whether Jaramillo’s departure is a crushing blow, or a good thing. Would Greer have become the same hitter without him? Would Byrd have bloomed late under a different hitting coach? Did Jaramillo get the benefit of having transcendent hitters like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and Rafael Palmeiro cross paths with him in Texas, or they him? Matthews wasn’t the same before Jaramillo and hasn’t been the same since moving on. DeRosa came into his own here and sustained it after leaving. Milton Bradley, though he’d had good years elsewhere, was never better than in his Rangers season. But why did Brad Wilkerson regress? Hank Blalock?
More immediately, there are the cases of Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, and Chris Davis, who weren’t the only Rangers hitters to regress in 2009 but were the most significant. Jaramillo said in a radio interview, the day after decision to turn down a Rangers contract was announced, that he thought Kinsler was trying to overdo things this year, especially once Hamilton and then Young were injured. Kinsler didn’t take the right approach to the plate, Jaramillo said, opening up too quickly and not figuring out a way to fix it. Jaramillo’s remarks were just short of throwing Kinsler under the bus, considering his job as hitting coach was to give the player the means to fix things. In any event, he said Kinsler will rebound, no doubt – but for more than four months in 2009 (30-30 notwithstanding) he wasn’t able to do it.
As for Hamilton, Jaramillo pointed to the massive pressure the slugger was dealing with coming into the season – harboring the January slip in an Arizona bar; entering off-season, long-term contract talks but coming out of them without a deal; trying to meet the expectations of a repeat of 2008 (when he drove in his 54th run in the first inning on May 27, reaching in 53 games the RBI total he’d end up with in 89 games in 2009) – and, said Jaramillo, Hamilton didn’t deal with the pressure very well. Out of sync early, and unable to find a rhythm due to multiple injuries, Hamilton lost his approach so badly that, at one point, Jaramillo pointed out, he saw only six pitches one game, swinging at five of them, and when Jaramillo asked him what was going on, Hamilton responded: “I can’t help myself.” In that case, Jaramillo seemed to suggest, in spite of the message being delivered, it wasn’t being heard. Leads you to wonder whether it was an epidemic issue that went further than just Hamilton.
Much has been made of Davis’s monumental struggles over three months (.202/.256/.415 with 114 strikeouts in 258 at-bats, after hitting .285/.331/.549 with 88 strikeouts in 295 at-bats in 2008), followed by a terrific seven-week run at Oklahoma City under the tutelage of RedHawks hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh (.327/.418/.521 with 39 strikeouts in 165 at-bats), and then an impressive six-week finish with Texas (.308/.338/.496 with 36 strikeouts in 133 at-bats) that featured a much better approach. According to a local report, Davis said he and Jaramillo “had a tough time staying on the same page” in the first half but he was quick to say Jaramillo did everything he could to help him, and that his early season difficulties were not Jaramillo’s fault.
As a whole? The club was near the bottom of the league in batting average and reaching base, swung at pitch one at an extraordinary rate (something opponents quickly began exploiting), seemed at times to lose any semblance of pitch recognition and routinely make inadequate adjustments according to the count, and scored nearly three-fourths of a run per game fewer in 2009 than in 2008, a massive decline. In a season that featured better pitching and defense than this club has had in a long time, the lineup struggles were blamed for potentially keeping Texas from reaching the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Jaramillo suggested that as the offense’s strikeout totals began to mount, Rangers hitters – especially the young ones – lost trust in themselves. Needing to tap into more patience at the plate, Jaramillo suggested, they instead began to put more pressure on themselves and made things worse. There were a number of Jaramillo comments during the radio interview along the lines of “You’ll have to ask him why he couldn’t find his rhythm” or “They tell me one thing, but how am I supposed to know what’s really going on in their heads?,” but Jaramillo wasn’t denying accountability. He said, straight up: “I felt personally responsible. I take great pride in my job.”
Again, I can’t decide whether I’m disappointed or optimistic about a change at hitting coach, though I have faith in this working out. The Cowboys, to the surprise (if not chagrin) of many, were better off once Tom Landry moved on. I thought “Bellybutton” was the best CD I’d ever heard until listening to “Spilt Milk.” For months, maybe years, there was always a jar of Archer Farms salsa in the fridge – until we discovered Clint’s. Jay Novacek? Jason Witten.
Maybe whoever comes here next will get more out of the Rangers lineup than Jaramillo was able to in 2009.
Or maybe Texas will go through three new hitting coaches in the next 12 months, just as Milwaukee will have done when it fills its currently vacant pitching coach post for the third time since losing Mike Maddux to Texas last off-season.
We don’t know who Jaramillo’s replacement will be (local reports speculate that Coolbaugh, Don Baylor, Thad Bosley, Carney Lansford, and Clint Hurdle could be candidates – and Gary Pettis was thought to be a possibility back when Jaramillo was flirting with the Mets as a managerial candidate), and even when we learn the name we won’t know how much of an impact we can expect him to make – just as I’m not exactly sure h
ow much to credit Jaramillo for Gonzalez and Young and Byrd and DeRosa, or how much to blame him for what happened this season with Kinsler and Hamilton and Davis and Blalock. We do know this much: the Rangers need to find ways to get on base a lot more often, particularly now that the offense has become far more dangerous on the basepaths.
We know that Jaramillo is going to have a new job before long, and that’s what he wanted. He acknowledged that it was his decision to leave Texas, that both Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan told him they wanted him back, and that the club offered him a one-year deal – something he’d said publicly he’d be willing to take – that reportedly contained a $45,000 raise from his 2009 salary of $500,000, which was already baseball’s highest for a hitting coach. Jaramillo suggested that, at age 59, the time was right for him to look around for a different job, for more multi-year security, and pointed out that there are certain jobs presently open that a year from now probably won’t be (the Cubs, who have already requested permission to talk to him before his contract expires in two weeks, seem to be at the top of that list). “This was my choice,” Jaramillo said. “It’s on me.”
Hitting coach isn’t as visible a post as manager or pitching coach or general manager or president, but Jaramillo was an institution here, a model of integrity, toughness, loyalty, and, for almost all of his time in Arlington, results. He’ll be missed, but that doesn’t mean – like Landry, or Joe Torre – that his departure will result in an automatic setback.
Nobody who has ever said “I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from two great coaches” or teachers or bosses or mentors wanted to see the first one go. And it’s not as if Rangers hitters won’t continue to employ what Jaramillo taught, and what he reinforced.
Still, bringing in a different hitter or two could make a difference, and so might a different voice. Compare the arrival of Maddux a year ago.
The important thing for Texas, going forward without Jaramillo, is that no comparison is drawn to the departure of Maddux a year ago, a mess that the Brewers are still trying to recover from.
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(c) Jamey Newberg