10/01/09 10:08 PM EST
Skaalen gets credit for offensive surge
A's hitting coach guiding team to turnaround at plate
By Mychael Urban / MLB.com
Oakland's offense hasn't been a one-month wonder, though.
It's shown dramatic improvement in the second half of the season, as evidenced by the club's .282 batting average since the All-Star break heading into Thursday's finale of a three-game series at Safeco Field.
It stands to reason that first-year hitting coach Jim Skaalen, formerly of the big-hitting Brewers, deserves a great deal of credit for the advancements. Skaalen, however, deflects praise toward the players.
"Their work ethic has been absolutely unbelievable to me, and I had an awful lot of hard workers in Milwaukee," he said before batting practice Thursday. "You look into the [indoor] cage most days, and at various times you've got three-fourths of the team in there doing stuff, with passion. ... At 2:30 today, [Kurt] Suzuki, [Travis] Buck and [Adam] Kennedy were all in there, and every guy kind of has his own time slot when he gets in there and works on whatever their emphasis is for the time being.
"I'm so excited to watch this and see the improvements they've made. And give the organization credit; they're developing something pretty exciting here."
Asked to name some of the players who have made the greatest strides, Skaalen -- the players call him "Skee" -- tops his list with the obvious: Rajai Davis, who entered Thursday's game batting .325 since the beginning of June (fifth-best in the American League) and .327 since the All-Star break (seventh-best in the AL).
"Rajai, for sure," Skaalen said. "This kid is such a great worker. A great kid, period. He's made improvements across the board, and like a lot of the guys who've been hitting well here down the stretch, part of it is just getting out there.
"With consistent playing time comes better timing, better tempo, greater confidence. And confidence, of course, is such a big part of succeeding at this level."
Among the other players Skaalen mentioned, Daric Barton and Cliff Pennington have excelled with regular playing time.
Through Wednesday, Barton was batting .304 since being reinstated from the disabled list Aug. 21, including .329 with seven doubles, a triple, a home run, 15 RBIs and 18 runs scored over his past 21 games, to get his overall average up to .267.
Barton batted .226 -- the third-lowest mark in the AL and seventh-lowest in Oakland history -- as Oakland's starting first baseman last season, but Skaalen is high on his future.
"I see Daric as being a consistent high-average guy with gap power," Skaalen said. "I don't think he's ever going to be that prototypical power first baseman; he's not going to be a 30-homer guy. But he's got good power to the gaps, an excellent strike zone, and he's just a good hitter in general."
Pennington, recalled from Triple-A Sacramento on July 31 to take over the starting job at short in the wake of the trade that sent Orlando Cabrera to Minnesota, is batting .281 overall and was batting .345 with 10 multi-hit games, seven doubles, three triples, two home runs, 12 RBIs and 14 runs scored over his previous 23 games before Thursday.
He batted .320 in his first 14 games after being called up but went into a 19-game, .161 funk before his resurgence.
"Cliff's consistency, to be honest, has surprised me," Skaalen said. "I saw him a little in Spring Training, and he's made a few tweaks that have really eliminated some of the highs and lows."
Eric Patterson, called up Aug. 28 after an MVP-caliber year at Sacramento, hasn't played nearly as much as Barton and Pennington, but injuries to Scott Hairston and Ryan Sweeney have opened the door to more at-bats, and he was on a 12-for-24 tear with five multi-hit contests over his previous eight games through Wednesday.
"Again, regular playing time is a factor there, too," Skaalen said. "You don't do what Eric did at the Triple-A level [.307, 29 doubles, 11 triples, 12 homers, 56 RBIs, a .376 on-base percentage and 43 stolen bases] without being extremely talented."
Skaalen also mentioned Mark Ellis, Ryan Sweeney and Suzuki by name, but he qualified their inclusion on his list of standouts by noting that they were fairly polished hitters heading into the season.
A's manager Bob Geren suggested that no matter how much credit Skaalen gives to the players, they'd give it right back.
"I'm very happy with what he's done," Geren said. "He puts in a lot of hours, and the players genuinely appreciate it. The game starts, and he's worn out [from everything he's done to prepare for the game]. Ultimately, the hitter has to go up and hit, but [Skaalen] has them as prepared as possible."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.