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Run by The Trentonian's Nick Peruffo, this blog will provide daily multimedia coverage of the Trenton Thunder.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A conversation with Rick Down, Part One

I spoke yesterday 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, but turned it down at the last minute to be the Mets' hitting coach. This is part one of our conversation. 

Q: Why come back to the Yankees after so many stints here?
A: I like the Yankees and I think the Yankees, regardless of the history, like me. My job is to help with the young hitting coaches, primarily, and work with coaches as they work with the hitters. So it’s not to spend a lot of time individually with hitters, but work with coaches and try to give them some insight, some thoughts about what I did, maybe what they might want to try. It’s nothing new or nothing novel – we’re not reinventing the wheel – but (I’m going to) share some experiences”

Q: Did you approach them, or did they approach you?
A: I approached them. I was with Seattle last year, and the farm director, Pedro Grifol, wanted to manage in winter ball, went to manage in winter ball, so Jack (Zdruiencik) didn’t appreciate that. They brought in Chris Gwynn and he brought in Lee May, Jr., so exit Rick Down.”

Q: What do you think of the way former Thunder outfielder Edwar Gonzalez is performing as a hitting coach?
A: He’s got good work ethic. There’s considerable difference between a swing and the ability to hit. Most people would say that they’re both the same, but they’re not. You swing is worked on in the cage. It’s a mechanical thing.

He needs to spend some additional time with the hitting or the thought process that’s involved with using your swing in a game situation. Again, there’s a place and time for everything, and he’s with a very, very young group – extended spring – and probably the emphasis should be placed more on the mechanics. It’s tough to talk situational hitting if you can’t repeat your swing. What he’s doing is working with swing development and trying to teach these kids how to swing the bat.

The million-dollar question is: When is it time to say ‘OK, it’s no longer time to work on your swing, this is your swing, what does it do and where does it work best?’ With less than two strikes, I’m going to take whatever swing I have, do it every time all the time, understand where my strength is, and that’s where I want the pitch.”

Q: So when you get here, how do you get all of the organization's hitting coaches on the same page with you?
A: It’s not just with me. I’m learning from them, too. It’s a sharing of ideas. It’s not something that’s written in stone. It’s something that, again, I reflect and I look back on some of the experiences I had, some of the experiences of people I was fortunate enough to be around, (and) what I learned.

Obviously, the majority of what I have is experiences that other people had and they shared it. I was nothing more than maybe a big sponge, and I soaked it all in. That’s what I’m trying to do too, is just throw some ideas out there, and if it works for somebody and they use it, that’s great. Is it something that has to be done and is it the only way that it can be done? No.

Hitting itself is a lot like handwriting. Everybody’s different in terms of style, but you have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s. There’s absolutes, but all the hitters in the big leagues, look at them, they’re all unique. I’d say unique is probably the best word to describe it, but it all works and they understand where it works. Everybody can be pitched to. Again, teaching guys what their strength is and what it is they have to do to compete in the game and being able to share that experience (is my job).

The biggest thing we do as hitting coaches is teach confidence. It’s done in the cage. If you work your butt off in the cage, you have every right to believe it’s going to happen in the game. Then, just relax and express yourself, make the pitcher throw a ball (you) want to hit, and if you look at it that way, hitting can be the easiest thing in all of sports.”

Q: So a baseball swing is a lot like a golf swing. Each looks different, but they all get to the same place eventually. 
A: There’s certain absolutes. All hitters get to the same place where they’re at after they stride. It’s called separation, or the launch position, or the hitting position. They all get to the same place, and from there you have a chance to take your swing. If you get to the wrong place or you’re too late or you’re too early or your timing’s off, it doesn’t matter, your swing won’t work.

Your swing is the end of a long chain of events that take place before. Your stride takes place, your load takes place, your set-up takes place, before you even think about swinging the bat. Most often when you talk to people who don’t know much about hitting, the first place they want to go is to the swing, but that’s the last thing that happens. The barrel’s the last thing to the ball in this whole hitting process.

What takes place before makes a big impact on how the swing’s going to come out. It’s like a chain: You’re only as good as your weakest link. If you start wrong, you will finish wrong. If you start right, you’ve got a chance to take a good swing. You could still screw it up, or you could swing at a bad pitch and make a bad decision.

If you have good mechanics, you can give yourself time, and (if) you see the ball good, you should be able, at least, to make good decisions. And if you can repeat your swing, because hitting is timing and rhythm, then you’ll be able to execute and at least get to most of whatever it is that you have, and you have value. And if it’s not with the Yankees, you’ll have value someplace else.
That’s what we try to do: Create value and allow the kid every opportunity to excel, or at least reach – the curse – his potential.


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