Brett learning on the job as hitting coach
Hall of Famer came out of retirement to help turn around Royals' offense
CLEVELAND -- George Brett didn't plan to be here, sitting in another dugout in another town and waiting for another round of batting practice to start.
"Farthest thing from my mind," he said.
A few weeks back, Royals general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost, with their team spiraling into last place in the American League Central, started to feel Brett out about joining the club as a hitting coach. Brett's wife was on vacation in Chicago with a few of her girlfriends, and so he was at home with his two dogs, his cat and his two youngest sons, thinking to himself, "Gee, I can sit around here for the rest of my life, or I could try putting on a baseball uniform again."
So here he is, and look where the Royals are: Embroiled with the Indians in a battle for second place in the AL Central, a much-more-manageable five games back of the Tigers. They've won 13 of 19 since Brett came aboard on May 30. But he'd be the first to tell you not to read much into that happy coincidence.
"Believe me," he said, "we're not winning because I'm here."
No, they're not. The Royals weren't hitting before Brett and they're not hitting with Brett. Before hitting coaches Jack Maloof and Andre David were reassigned and Brett and assistant Pedro Grifol replaced them, the Royals were averaging 3.98 runs per game with a team slash line of .261/.314/.375. Since the move, the numbers are even worse -- a 3.84 runs average with a .246/.307/.347 line.
Indeed, the only tangible difference between this Royals club and the one that was sputtering to the tune of 19 losses in a 23-game span last month is the Major League-best 2.45 ERA posted by the starting staff over the last three weeks.
So the 60-year-old Brett doesn't know that you could really classify this experiment as a success, nor can he commit to this being anything more than a short-term arrangement. He and Moore made plans to revisit the situation after a month -- and that date is fast approaching -- and decide whether or not to continue.
"I said to Dayton, 'I don't want this to be a PR move,' and it wasn't," Brett said. "I don't think it will be a long, long-term thing. There are some guys that have to make progress. And if we can't make progress with them, I'll take full responsibility for it.
"There's that old saying: Those that can, do; and those that can't, teach. Well, I could do, but I don't know how good of a teacher I am. Ted Williams was a terrible coach and a terrible hitting coach. I knew my swing, and none of these guys have my swing. So I'm trying to learn and adapt to them."
The results clearly don't show it yet, but internally, the Royals feel Brett and Grifol have succeeded in easing the pressure on what has largely been a disappointing young core. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were supposed to be the centerpieces of a lineup loaded with athleticism, power, balance and speed. Instead, Hosmer has the second-lowest OPS among qualifying AL first basemen, Moustakas is hitting .189, and the Royals, as a whole, have a below-average on-base percentage and alarmingly putrid power numbers.
Brett alone can't fix this, no matter how much energy and enthusiasm, intelligence and insight he brings to the equation.
But what Brett can do is sidle up next to a young player and tell the story of how his stellar career got off to a frustratingly futile start. He can relay the message that all hitters at this level must come to understand if they're going to succeed: If you struggle out the gate, you can't get it all back in a day, and you can't let your numbers crush your confidence.
"I always felt baseball was easier the easier I tried," Brett said.
There's the rub, of course, because baseball came easier to Brett than it comes to 99.9 percent of other humans, these Royals included. Yet that doesn't mean his presence here doesn't have value.
"George has a real calm to him," designated hitter Billy Butler said. "Anything he says, it means more coming from him, because of what he's accomplished. It has a lot of clout. He's definitely been good at loosening up the guys, and obviously him doing what he did in his career made it a lot easier for us to trust him."
The Royals finally have a starting staff they can trust, especially given the stellar numbers of James Shields (despite tough luck in the won-loss department) and the comeback effort of Ervin Santana. They have a frightening array of high-velocity arms in the back of the bullpen. And they have a dependable defense that, according to Baseball-Reference.com, has been responsible for more runs saved than any other in the AL.
What they don't have -- at least not yet -- is an offense capable of lifting them into the ranks of the AL elite. If the Royals ever do start hitting, then their first winning record in a decade and first postseason appearance since Brett and the boys won the World Series crown in 1985 is not completely out of the question.
But as the early results indicate, the Royals were more than a Hall of Famer-turned-hitting-coach away from becoming a fundamentally better offensive ballclub.
Especially when that Hall of Famer freely admits he's learning on the fly.
"I haven't been involved in the game in a long time," Brett said. "All I did [as a Spring Training instructor] was throw BP and hit fungoes, then sit in the dugout and tell stories. The game's kind of passed me by. We didn't have indoor cages or soft-toss drills. We didn't have to dissect film back then. Now, I can watch everybody's at-bat. I don't know what I'm looking at half the time, but every so often, there will be a swing that doesn't look right, and let's put it against a swing that looks right and see what's the difference."
Brett and Grifol are trying to shake their hitters from the mindset that they have to go opposite field with everything. They want them to understand there are times to make contact out in front of the plate, to drive the ball with pull power or smack it to the middle of the field.
It's a process, and a painfully slow one, at that. And while Brett is the self-described "biggest Royal fan in Kansas City" and emotionally invested in the outcome, he's not entirely sure he's cut out for the total commitment -- particularly, the time away from his wife and kids -- it will take to make this a long-lasting endeavor.
He's here now, though, sitting on the dugout bench, talking hitting, realistic and optimistic all at once. His Royals are imperfect, but they have a pulse. And for now, if only temporarily, George Brett is once again part of their heartbeat.
"My life is good," he said. "This is a good life. How many millions of people would love to do what I'm doing?"