03/05/12 7:57 PM EST
Davis in for long haul as A's hitting coach
Switch-hitters especially benefiting from instructor's expertise
By Jane Lee / MLB.com
Chili Davis became the latest to hop on for a ride, and he's not intent on making it a short one. That's just fine with his players, who have been cheering him on from the sidelines from Day 1.
"He's a guy that could be here for a while," shortstop Cliff Pennington said. "He's already a steady presence."
And that's just after three weeks of camp activity.
Pennington was introduced to three different hitting coaches during his first four seasons in Oakland: Ty Van Burkleo, Jim Skaalen and Gerald Perry. He, like many of his teammates, understands that the job is often a victim of turnover -- even more so in an A's organization that hasn't produced a winning record since 2006, largely due to hitting woes.
Last year, the A's combined for a .244 batting average that tied for 23rd in the Majors -- 12th in the American League -- and a .680 OPS that ranked ahead of only the Pirates, Giants, Twins, Padres and Mariners. Perry, more of a quiet presence, was dismissed shortly after the season, at which point manager Bob Melvin took advantage of the opportunity to handpick his new hitting coach.
He had just one person in mind.
"Chili has always been an impact clubhouse guy, and that's something I've respected," said Melvin, a former Giants teammate of Davis. "When he was a player, other guys migrated to him to ask him questions. He was always one of those guys that was also kind of like a second hitting coach. Guys would always be drawn to him. That was early on, even when I played with him in the mid-80s."
Fast forward two decades, and Davis still seems to be wearing a magnet. The 52-year-old former outfielder and designated hitter, who served as the hitting coach for Boston's Triple-A Pawtucket affiliate last year, quickly drew the attention of several players, particularly those who share in the switch-hitting talent Davis employed in his 19 big league seasons.
He ranks fifth in homers, sixth in RBIs and eighth in walks among switch-hitters in Major League history. Along with Pennington, the table-setting duo of switch-hitters Coco Crisp and Jemile Weeks have already benefited greatly from Davis, who ensures he didn't return to the Bay Area to babysit but, rather, be a sounding board for players interested in learning a thing or two.
"He's a player's coach, and on a young team that's exactly what you need," Weeks said. "His style of coaching is player first, and then he brings in his expertise. I like his style. He tries to pick your brain and see how you like to hit and what works for you. That's the biggest positive. He works off of you."
Weeks' first Cactus League home run came from the right side of the plate, where he's intentionally putting in more work this spring. So is Pennington, with plenty of help coming from Davis.
"The biggest thing is managing a right-handed swing, because left-handed you get so many more at-bats over the course of a season," he said. "Typically, it's your natural side, but it's the side you might use just every few days. Switch-hitting, it's one of those things, unless you've done it, it's really hard to know exactly how we feel. You really are two different players as a switch-hitter, and he understands that."
Davis received a handful of big league offers over the years before saying yes to Oakland. But, each time, he chose to remain on the smaller stage, working as a part-time hitting coach for the Dodgers' instructional league team and the Australian National Team in 2003-04 before joining Boston's organization last year.
Those experiences have lent Davis a perspective he says he might not have otherwise gained if starting his coaching career in the Majors.
"Trying to get your philosophies across to players is to understand the players and their comfort zone and to try to work from there with them," he said. "There's no one way to go about it with so many guys, and I think the biggest thing I learned in the last two years when you're dealing with professional hitters, that one of the most important things is for them to see that you really care and you're consistent with the things that you say to them, that you are really paying attention."
It's evident that a different uniform hasn't changed Davis' approach.
"He's out there all the time, always available for us," Pennington said. "That's what you want, somebody who's just willing to spend time with you, because a lot of times that's all it takes. Once you develop that trust factor with the coach and you start to understand each other, the results start to come.
"There are different ways to say the same thing, and some guys you click with and some you don't. That's what separates one from another, and so far Chili and I are on the same page. He loves hitting, and when you're out there with him you can tell."
Davis is playful and energetic, yet calming and very much intent in the way he goes about his work.
"I remember I used to distract him a little bit as a catcher," Melvin said, "and he would say, 'I don't have time for that right now. I gotta hit.' He's all business at the plate, and I think he expects that out of his hitters as well."
Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.