Saturday, August 20, 2016

Kids, tell Josh Donaldson “no” (not your coach)
by Jordan Cleland 

Foreword: This is my second ever blog post, and that it is posted to my professional consulting website requires some explanation.  In starting my practice 8 months ago, I made a very deliberate and intentional decision to virtuously merge my personal and professional lives.  I tell people I dislike the concept of “work/life balance” and instead strive for “joyful integration”.  Mine is a world where I am taking client work I know I will genuinely enjoy and at which I can’t ascertain where my work life ends and my hobbies and passions begin.  This includes fundraising, public relations, marketing for sport enterprises, as well as some executive coaching.  That “coaching” has both workplace professional development and sports double connotations fits perfectly with my joyful integration philosophy.

It was Tuesday, August 16 and a friend sends me a clip of Josh Donaldson on hitting.  Full confession – I’m a diehard Blue Jays fan, and a huge admirer of Josh Donaldson as a defender, a competitor and a power hitter.  I was very interested while watching this video and what it’s lessons are to an already highly competent hitter – a hitter that is already at least at the college, minor league or MLB level; about how to go from already good or even very good to great – as a slugger or a power hitter.

But then he says to all the 10 year-old kids out there, “if your coach tells you to hit down on the ball, tell him NO.” That stung a bit, because I have coached kids ages 8 through 14, thus of course 10 year-olds, and those words have passed my lips.  Lots actually.

Let’s get my resume as a baseball hitter versus Josh’s out of the way first: I can’t carry his Tom Ford jock strap.  I was a modestly-successful-at-best, full scholarship college baseball pitcher – not a hitter at all at that level.  I blew my arm out after my 3rd year in college, and then 2 years later started playing the game at the Senior AAA level as an outfielder.  As an outfielder, I was punch and judy singles/doubles hitter that had a knack for getting on base and then stealing bases once there.  I was an ugly but quite effective batter that hit in the 2 hole because my coach saw that I could get on base, move runners, take pitchers deep (in counts, not over the wall) – all things that Donaldson’s Toronto Blue Jays, currently first place in the AL East, frankly suck at. By comparison, Josh is the reigning AL MVP and he hit 41 bombs last year.

That compares our resumes as hitters. As coaches however, I have coached teams of beginner/novice/intermediate kids (ie. 10 year olds, et al) to two provincial championship gold medals, and silver once in the past three years.  Josh, to my knowledge, has no coaching track record, of youth or otherwise.

Let me tell you what I have found about coaching 10 year-olds.  Their most common flaws are 1) big, long “slow pitch” swings where the barrel of the bat comes dragging through the strike zone with the handle (not barrel) coming across the inside to middle 2/3 of the strike zone.  2) over striding, often complete with stepping in the bucket and 3) dipping their back shoulder and throwing their bodies and lines of sight significantly off plane.  Encouraging the kids who have these swing flaws to “get on top of the ball” is actually a very effective corrective instruction, sometimes literally, but often relatively or metaphorically to get them to stop long, shoulder dipping jam shots, pop ups and swing-and-misses.

Now let’s never mind the mechanics of hitting and pedagogy of coaching for just a minute and focus on what this modern athlete is encouraging kids to tell their adult coaches - no. Let that sink in a bit more…

Would I suggest that all youth coaches are always right?  Of course not, I’ve had coaches that have taught skills blatantly wrong, and so have you.  I’m quite sure I’m not a perfect coach and that, at times, I have given less than 100% optimal instruction.  But what of the modern bat-flipping (another Blue Jay), uniform-shredding (Chris Sale) “millennial” athlete?  Ironically, the very next day, this same Josh Donaldson threw his bat flinchingly close to his teammates and head coach, then proceeded to yell, argue, and have to be physically separated from his coach, then make flippant comments about the situation post game, complete with obligatory backwards hat – as though the head coach/manager and star players are equal.  (They’re not, or at least they shouldn’t be. Second disclosure – while I think Donaldson is a very good baseball player, I actually think Gibby is a rather poor manager.  The principal of respect and authority roles still remains however).

The first time I viewed this clip of Donaldson talking about hitting, the “tell your coach no” bit stuck in my craw, but I didn’t say anything about it.  Then I saw it on social media, and then again, and still tempered my naturally opinionated nature.

Then 2 days later, I was looking through some pictures that my photographically talented oldest daughter took of my 11 year-old son, both hitting and pitching.  Where he’s hitting, he loads his hands low, really low, just a few inches above his belt.  I’ve noticed it before in real time, but it was especially pronounced in the still photo.  It’s so low, I’m tempted to correct it out of him, but he had a great season with the bat.  I was thinking, I’ve seen that low hand load on a left handed swing before, but couldn’t quite put my finger on where.  Then it dawned on me – that’s a reasonable facsimile of Ted Williams’ swing.  Now I’m not so dotingly biased of a father/coach that I’m saying it’s an exact replica, but when I googled the Splendid Splinter’s swing, there are many pleasing commonalities to the proverbial apple of my eye.

Now back to Donaldson’s coaching advice – the video of Ted Williams on coaching talks about shoulders slightly closed, eyes down on the ball, short step and quiet gather, and quick hands to the ball – the hands being the most important element.  Then I looked up Roberto Alomar’s swing and the iconic version of him beating the unbeatable Oakland A’s closer Dennis Eckersley in the 1992 ALCS, shows a small stride, quick hands and yes, dropping the bat head down on the ball (initially) on the front end of a swing arc that eventually lifts the ball – out of the park as well as lift the Jays from down in that game to ahead/winning.  Then I YouTube-d Mike Trout, a FAR better contemporary hitter than Donaldson – a statement that I’m sure each’s career stats will bear out, and he talks about hitting down on the ball, thinking line drive up the middle.

Back on the business of comparing resumes, let’s now compare Donaldson’s career batting average of .279, career hits of 714, home run total of 132 and RBI of 431 to the aforementioned Williams.  Moreover, his relatively pedestrian on base percentage (the highest objective of any hitter should be to get on base, after all, unless he can fully clear the bases with a home run) of .362 and good slugging percentage of .502.  

Williams – he of “quick hands, quiet stride, down on the ball”, and who would roll over in his grave about throwing/flipping bats, or throwing tantrums at the coach -stats are these: career batting average of .344 (to Donaldson’s .279), 2654 hits (714 – note Donaldson’s career, at 30 is at least half over), 521 HR (132), RBI 1839, on-base .482 (.362), and slugging percentage .634 (.502).  Now the casual baseball fan reading this has had her/his eyes surely glaze over by now, but Williams is Donaldson’s superior in all aspects of hitting – average, power, getting on base, extra base hits, home runs - everything, and it’s not even close.  Williams also won the triple crown (tops in MLB in HR, RBI and batting average) twice, something Donaldson will never do, because he’s too feast or famine, too all or nothing. Maybe even too selfish, and remember, I really do like this Blue Jay.

So in the case of the PeeWee baseball coach (me) versus Josh Donaldson, I rest my case.  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, er, blogosphere: what’s your verdict?