The challenges of a hitting coach

You want frustration? Try being a major-league hitting coach. You want more frustration? Try being the hitting coach for the Atlanta Braves, whose offense is one of the streakiest and most perplexing in the majors.

The Braves are averaging 3.78 runs per game, 12th in the National League and just percentage points away from next-to-last. The last Atlanta team to average fewer runs in a season was the 1989 club, which averaged 3.63.

Of course, it’s not just the Braves — offense again is down throughout the majors. But that is little consolation for hitting coach Greg Walker, whose job is to make the inconsistent turn consistent, the immature turn mature.

Walker, 54, is completing his third season as the Braves’ hitting coach after holding the same position with the White Sox for nine years, including their World Series championship season of 2005.

Few want to hear that the average age of the Braves lineup is just 26.5, or that the team overall is the sixth youngest in the majors, with an average age of 28.2.

Few want to hear that the Braves have won more regular-season games than any club in the NL since the start of 2010, not when the team is nearly buried in the NL East, third in the wild-card standings and just four games above .500.

I caught up with Walker Tuesday at Citi Field, curious about the frustrations that hitting coaches face in this increasingly pitcher-friendly era — and curious about the particular frustrations he faces with the Braves.

“Offensive baseball probably is challenged right now as it ever has been at any point in the game that I know of,” said Walker, a first baseman with the White Sox and Orioles from 1982 to ’90. “Here we’re dealing with a really talented young team, which adds to the difficulty at times.

“Just to be part of it, to help the guys, to pass the game down the line — however you want to put it, it’s a unique opportunity. But it is tough right now on all of us trying to figure out how to score runs. And runs are going down big-time.”

How much are defensive shifts part of it?

“We’ve talked about it — hitting the ball back up the middle isn’t what it used to be, not when there is a guy standing there,” Walker said. “We’ve not had a lot of luck with guys making adjustments to take advantage of it.

“I think as some of our young guys get older, they’ll figure out ways to beat it without giving up their strengths. A guy like (Freddie) Freeman can hit the ball all over the field, and a lot of teams are shifting on him. They shouldn’t be able to do that to him.

“I don’t think the offenses have made the adjustment to take advantage of it as much as we’re going to have to. We’re talking about it. We’re just not getting the results.”

Can hitters change their mentalities?

“Some of them can,” Walker said. “If you ask some of ‘em to change, they’ll lose their strength. But some of them, like a Freeman — he’s so talented, so good, so strong, has opposite-field power — the older he gets, the more he is in the league, the more he’ll be able to take advantage of it.”

Shifts, though, are just part of the story.

So many relievers throw 95 mph or harder, Walker said that in some cases, the obsession with running up pitch counts and forcing starting pitchers out of games is an outdated strategy.

“There are certain teams, it’s a disadvantage to get in their bullpen,” Walker said. “There are days when pitch count isn’t very important to me. We’ve got to score runs off the starter. Not that we give away those late-inning at-bats, but they might be more difficult than the ones off a starter on a given night. That’s just a fact.”

How, then, does Walker see his role? What specifically can he do to help?

“It’s important to have a game plan. It’s important to have talent. It’s important to stay healthy. But ultimately, if you’ve got two evenly matched teams, it comes down to who competes the hardest on a daily basis,” Walker said. “Sometimes, luck is involved. But that’s our message as a group: We want to out-compete the other team on a daily basis. And it’s hard to do.

“They play 162 games, getting physically beat up, mentally beat up by this game – and they’re asked to compete at a high level. I’ve studied mechanics. I know approaches. I’ve seen every drill known to man, tried all of them. But the way I look at a hitting coach’s job, it’s to motivate. It’s to be there for your guys, get them to compete as much as you can. That’s the biggest part of your job.”

Yet, if watching the Braves is maddening, what is it like coaching them?

From July 29 to Aug. 6, the Braves lost eight straight games, averaging 2.3 runs. From Aug. 13 to 22, they won eight of 10, averaging 5.3. Now they’re in another funk, a three-game losing streak in which they’ve scored a total of five runs.

“You learn to deal with it,” Walker said. “We were streaky last year, but we had a lot more hot streaks. And when we were hot, we just slow-pitched softball people. This year, they have been few and far between.

“We just had a stretch where we swung the bat really well and then boom, it kind of shut on us. We’ve got a lot of guys hitting .270 to .290, almost everybody. You would think a team that had many people hitting .270 to .290 would be consistent. At times, we have not been.”

Which leads Walker to another topic — strikeouts.

Only two NL teams, the Marlins and Cubs, strike out at a higher rate than the Braves. Dan Uggla, Chris Johnson, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton are among the Braves’ acquisitions who have struck out more frequently with Atlanta than they did with their previous clubs.

(Johnson’s strikeout rate decreased last season before spiking to a career-worst level this season; Uggla began his Braves career under the team’s previous hitting coach, Larry Parrish).

“I understand that you can strike out and be productive,” Walker said. “But it’s not something I enjoy watching. We knew going into it that we were going to strike a lot. The players on our team, they’ve struck out their whole careers, most of them. We knew that was part of it.

“The mentally toughest high-strikeout guy I ever coached was Jim Thome. You have to be mentally strong to be a high-strikeout guy and come through in big situations. If Jim struck out, he took it as, ‘He thinks he’s got me? I’ve got him. He thinks he can get me with that again? No way.’ That’s almost the attitude you have to take if you’re a high-strikeout player.

“But at times, when you fail and strike out in big situations — or just fail in general — it really becomes a mental battle to keep fighting. That’s been a challenge. Guys have big-strikeout (games), it’s hard to get them mentally back into it. Or if they strike out early in the game in a big situation, it’s, ‘What am I going to do the rest of the game? Am I going to have quality at-bats? Or is this one of those days?’

“It’s all over baseball. It’s not just us. But I think high strikeout totals take a mental toll on players. A lot of people say, ‘They don’t care if they strike out.’ They know it’s accepted more than back in the day.’ But I don’t know anybody who likes it. Do you go up there and strike out and come back on the bench and say, ‘OK, I feel good about it?’ Common sense tells you that doesn’t happen. The higher the strikeout total, the more mental work there is to be done, to get guys back in the fight.”

And yet, even with all the challenges, Walker loves his job, loves his players, loves their potential. His excitement about the team’s future recalls a quote from the Roman poet Ovid: “Endure and persist; this pain will turn good by and by.”

“You see guys like Freeman, (Andrelton) Simmons, even Jason (Heyward), these guys are special players now,” Walker said. “Are they going to get better? Yeah. Every year, they’re going to get more experience. Simmons is learning to hit at the big-league level. He gets frustrated with it because defense comes naturally to him and offense doesn’t. But every year, he’s going to get better.

“Freeman, as good as he is right now, he’s got a chance to be better, the more he knows the league. When these guys are 28 years old, they’re going to be really, really special players. We’re young. I actually think there probably are some Triple-A teams we’re younger than, in our everyday lineup. But the future of the Braves is bright. Everyone is looking for position players. We’ve got them.”

And his own role?

“I tell people all the time, my first year in the big leagues, the coaching staff might have been one of the great coaching staffs of all time,” Walker said. “Tony (La Russa) was the manager. Dave Duncan was the pitching coach. Charlie Lau was the hitting coach. Jim Leyland was the third-base coach. Eddie Brinkman, Art Kushner … I broke in, I got off to a tough start. They basically saved me. They told me, ‘You’re going to make it,’ and dragged me along with them.

“I don’t put myself in that class. But I do have an appreciation for the position. You can help young guys get over the hump, or old guys hang on. Somebody did it for me.

“I’m real protective of this game, of it being played right. But it’s a tough time to be a hitting coach. It really is.”