BY John Hickey 01:28PM 01/20/2011

Chambliss faces tough task as M’s hitting coach

Task is to help the 2011 M’s find the offense that was missing last year

Former Yankee Chris Chambliss, now the Mariners' new hitting coach, is introduced during New York's 64th Old-Timer's Day on July 17, 2010 / Getty Images

Chris Chambliss hearkens back to another age of baseball.

In his 16 years in the big leagues, Chambliss was what was called a professional hitter. Every hitter in the big leagues is a professional, but many fall into the category of being professional hitters – the guys who work the count, hit to the opposite field, know when to muscle up and look to drive the ball out of the park or just move the runner from first to second as needed.

In particular, the Seattle Mariners don’t have many of those. Hence the need for manager Eric Wedge to bring Chambliss aboard as the hitting coach, the better to see if he can develop a few more in that mold.

Chambliss is optimistic. The former first baseman knows what doing the basics can mean. He was never a 100-RBI man. He never hit more than 20 homers. But at his peak in the late 1970s he averaged 92 RBIs over a three-year span while averaging just 15 homers.

His signature moment came with the Yankees in the 1976 playoffs when he led off the bottom of the ninth inning of the fifth and final game of the American League Championship Series against Kansas City with the scored tied at 6-all. He’d only hit 17 homers all season, but he went deep against Royals’ reliever Mark Littell and that homer propelled New York into its first World Series appearance in more than a decade.

So thank goodness for the Chambliss optimism, which is borne out of being one of a lineup full of hitters doing little things right, because if there is something more stubbornly pessimistic than the projections for the Seattle offense in 2011, it’s not immediately evident. Seattle finished dead last in runs scored in the big leagues last year, and the phrase “dead last’’ scarcely does the Mariner performance justice.

Seattle scored 513 runs, the fewest for a big league offense in two decades.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, whose offense was the National League’s joke, scored 587 runs to rest at the bottom of the NL. The difference figures out to almost an extra half run per game scored by Pittsburgh – and the Pirates had pitchers hitting, not designated hitters.

“It’s time to start over,’’ Chambliss told sportspressnw.com. “Starting from Day 1 in spring training, I will be seeing guys for the first time. And from an offensive standpoint, we will try to get as good as we can with the group that we have.’’

Given the numbers Seattle’s returning hitters put up, being as good as they can be doesn’t sound like much to aspire to.

Chambliss, not surprisingly, doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s a good group,’’ the hitting coach said. “I’m absolutely optimistic that what happened there in the past can change. That’s why we (coaches) do it. We work at it piece by piece, player by player and work together as a team to try and get better.’’

Chambliss doesn’t know many of his new charges, and for the moment at least is not reaching out to them. Instead he’s huddled with video of all of his returning players, from Ichiro Suzuki right down to the rookies, in an attempt to learn the ins and outs of their swings. In a week, maybe two, he’ll start calling some of the veterans to touch base and let them know his expectations.

And his expectations are different for each of his hitters. Everybody has a different swing, he says, and what works for one hitter won’t necessarily work for another.

How does Chambliss know this? It’s because at heart he’s always been a hitting coach. He says when he first came up with Cleveland four decades back, he didn’t have hitting coaches, so he had to watch and learn, watch and learn.

Now it’s turnaround time. It’s time to watch and teach.

“It’s the experience I’ve had,’’ he said. “It’s a matter of understanding what made me a better hitter, of understanding my power zones, of understanding the strike zone itself. That’s what I want them to learn, and I think they will.

“When you talk about a professional hitter, you’re talking about someone who has a certain knowledge of what he can do well, someone who knows how to battle a pitcher, someone who has a good two-strike approach, someone who will swing at strikes and let the bad pitches go.

“It sounds easy. It’s easy to say, maybe, but it’s not so easy to do. But those are things that can be learned.’’

The Mariners offense as currently constituted has one star hitter in Ichiro, a handful of players who have had good years in the past but are coming off poor 2010 seasons with Seattle – Milton Bradley, Chone Figgins, Jack Wilson and Franklin Gutierrez , an infielder who is trying to get back his swing after an injury-troubled year in St. Louis (Brendan Ryan), and a couple of imports with decent track records in DH Jack Cust and catcher Miguel Olivo.

Beyond that the hitting corps is young, relatively untested and did we mention young?

The man who will start spring training with the best chance to be the regular left fielder, 24-year-old Michael Saunders, averaged .211 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs in 100 games.

Justin Smoak, also 24, hit 20 homers divided between Texas (eight), Seattle (five) and Triple-A Tacoma (seven), but the big-hitting first baseman Seattle got from Texas in exchange for Cliff Lee didn’t see his average crack .240 in either of his big league stops.

Dustin Ackley, 23, was the No. 2 pick in the draft in 2009 after averaging over .400 in each of his three seasons as a first baseman/center fielder. He’s a second baseman now, and he was the MVP of the Arizona Fall League, so the Mariners have high hopes for him.

Chambliss has high hopes for them all.

“I hear good things about Ackley,’’ he said. “Saunders and Smoak have power they haven’t tapped yet. But I’m not even thinking about power at this point. I’m thinking about guys who can be good clutch hitters.

“Just to talk about home runs is not really the answer to overall offensive production. There are teams that have proven that power is not the only factor in scoring runs. You need to get on base. You need to run the bases well, move runners up. We want our hitters to be good hitters first before worrying about (hitting) homers.

“If you want to teach someone about being a better hitter, you start by helping them learn how to get on base. You build professional hitters. Then the on-base percentage, the good two-strike approach, the moving runners up – all the things they didn’t do last year – it starts to make a good offense.

“We’re going to try and have a basic overall fundamental program to get everybody thinking the same way.’’

It’s a good approach. But it’s not going to be easy. Seattle has been tough on hitting coaches the last five or six years, and this year could be especially difficult. Many of the hitters simply don’t work pitchers for walks and the on-base percentage has been grim indeed.

Chambliss has never worked with new manager Eric Wedge before, but the hitting coach has a supporter in the manager, who says that being a hitting coach might be the most difficult job in the game.

“The hitting coach may be the most thankless position on a major league coaching staff,’’ Wedge said. “Ultimately each player is accountable. But when I think each player is accountable, ultimately each coach is responsible for their area of the club.

“You have to understand that it is a process. Arguably hitting is the toughest thing to do in professional sports.’’

Coaching hitters might be No. 2. Chambliss has his work cut out for him.

EXTRA BASES: The Mariners invited Catcher Steven Baron and RHP Blake Beavan to Major League spring training. Baron, 20, will be participating in his second Major League camp. He split 2010 between Clinton (A) and Everett (short-season A), appearing in 98 games. He was named a Northwest League All-Star after batting .253 (50×198) with 12 doubles, 2 triples, 3 home runs and 22 RBI with the AquaSox. He also hit .300 (6×20) in five playoff games to help lead Everett to the NWL championship. . . . Beavan, 22, split 2010 between the Texas Rangers and Mariners organizations after being acquired in the Cliff Lee trade on July 9. He combined to go 14-8 with 3.90 ERA (73 ER, 168.1 IP) in 27 starts with Frisco (AA), West Tenn (AA) and Tacoma (AAA) . . . The Mariners signed OF Jody Gerut and LHP Nate Robertson as minor league free agents and invited them to spring training. . . . Gerut, 33, has appeared in 574 career Major League games with the Indians (2003-05), Cubs (2005), Pirates (2005), Padres (2008-09) and Brewers (2009-10). He appeared in 32 games with the Brewers in 2010 (.197, 2 HR, 8 RBI) before being sidelined for over two months with a bruised left heel. He finished the season at Portland (AAA) in the Padres organization. . . . Robertson, 33, is a veteran left-hander who has made 223 appearances (187 starts) during his nine-year Major League career. He combined to go 6-8 with a 5.95 ERA (67 ER, 101.1 IP) in 21 games (18 starts) with the Marlins (6-8, 5.47 ERA, 19 G/18 GS) and Phillies (0-0, 54.00 ERA, 2 G) last season.

John Hickey is also Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)
Twitter: @JHickey3


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