Earlier this week I spoke to Rick Down, the Yankees hitting coordinator. He replaces James Rowson, who took the same position with the Cubs. Down was slated to take the manager's job with the Thunder in 2005, but turned it down at the last minute to be the Mets' hitting coach. This is part two of our conversation. You can read part one here.
Q: What's the hardest part of hitting for you to teach?
A: For me to teach? I guess being able to have kids relate to the fact that success here is a game of failure, and those that are able to deal with the failure the best are the ones that will succeed the most. ... You deal with failure, you're going to be the most successful.
It's not about repeating that failure, but learning from that experience, and if you take a bad swing the next swing is better because of what happened in the past. You don't bring it to the plate, because once you step in to that batter's box, good hitters hit with their eyes and not with their head.
Q: You've had a few days to look at a few kids and their swings. I'm going to run a few names by you and see what you think, if that's OK. First, Melky Mesa.
A: He's got a ton of tools, he's made an immense amount of progress in terms of pitch selection. Pitchers have to execute pitches when he's not expanding the zone and getting himself out. That's the proverbial thing.
After the at-bat, you ask yourself what'd you do and what were you trying to do. If I was looking fastball and swung at a first-pitch breaking ball, I got myself out. If I force him to throw the pitch I want to hit and I just miss it -- again, maybe he executed and got fortunate in that at-bat, but I got I've got to believe (that I've got to) go back and take that same approach and get the same pitch I was looking for and make him throw it.
That's what he's excelled at this year. His strikeout rate has come down considerably, and if he makes contact he's got bat speed. He keeps himself balanced and he sees the ball good. He's got a chance. He's the complete package of his tools. He's got speed. And if he hits .240-.250, he could be a Gold Glove center fielder in the big leagues.
Q: What about Cody Johnson?
A: He's got power, that's something you don't teach. He's got big power. Again, it's contact to damage. He's got to refine his hitting zone and make sure he's a good low-ball hitter. He can be pitched to. You can elevate the ball to him. Most people, most hitters in the big leagues, even, can be pitched to, and everybody has someplace that they can be pitched if you execute the pitches.
If you don't and make a mistake, they'll hurt you. You make a mistake to Cody, he will hurt you, and there's no way to defense a home run. That's what he brings to the table. He's got game-changing power, and that's something you can't teach.
The remarkable thing, even to me, is how old he is. He's only 22 years old, even though he's been around forever. He's just a youngster, really. I don't care how many years he's played.
Q: Your thoughts on Ronnier Mustelier?
A: Kid can hit. I don't whether he's going to play (in the field) but he can swing the bat. There's an old saying: When you shake a tree, there's about five or six gloves that are going to fall out, but maybe just one bat. Being able to hit and take the barrel to the ball, square it up and contact, he can do (that) on good pitching. There's a lot of guys who can mediocre pitching, but he can hit good fastballs and he's on time. He'll square it up and he's got an idea.
He's very smart. Just because he's quiet, I wouldn't perceive that as a lack of intelligence. He's perceptive. His language, in terms of his English skills (is good). Again, he's only been around one year. I don't care how old he is, but he signed last year, so he's only been in the States for less than a year, so I don't think he should be rattling off the Webster's Dictionary or whatnot.
When it comes to baseball, I can sit there and he's watching, and I'll say 'What was that last pitch?' and he'll be right on it. He'll know what it is and he'll be able to tell me. In terms of baseball and his knowledge, he's very good. He's a plus hitter and they'll find a place for his glove if he can swing the bat.
Q: In regards to Ronnier, what's the Cuban League's equivalency to pro baseball? Is it High-A, Double-A, or what?
A: On a given night, with a given pitcher, it'd probably be as high as Triple-A, because the game starts from the mound. The depth after three or four hitters probably tails off dramatically and probably goes down to A-Ball or Rookie.
What pro ball has over most great college teams and the Cuban League and any other league is the fact that the depth. You just keep coming with the very best. With the first through ninth hitters in a strong lineup, it's a struggle (for a pitcher), there's no place you can go and say 'Well, this guy's a designated out.'
On a college team and in the Cuban league, there's a place you can go and get an out. If they don't have their best pitcher on the mound, he's going to be mediocre. For the most part in the States and in a professional league, Double-A or Triple-A, they have the best pitcher out there 1 through 5. They have a legitimate set-up guy, they have a situational guy and they have a guy that can finish the game. That's not always the case.