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The Hits Keep Coming

The good ones never stop trying to figure out what's going on when it's going bad, and when it's going good, they know how to keep it going. He's one of, if not the hardest-working hitting coach I've had. He gets all the credit.

- Adam Dunn

After the game he's in the cage working with people. [Guys] like Viciedo and [Gordon Beckham]. Those guys will be saying he's their guy."

- Paul Konerko

Yessir, looks like the White Sox have a keeper in new batting coach Todd Steverson. Only problem is that those quotes from Dunn and Konerko were lifted from last season when Jeff Manto was the team's hitting instructor.

Manto was well-credentialed - and well-traveled. His Baseball Reference page lists 30 entries in the "Transactions" section.

He played in the bigs for parts of nine seasons - in 1995 playing for Baltimore he hit 17 homers - but his greatest success came in the minor leagues, where he slugged 243 homers. He's the only player in Buffalo Bisons history to have his number retired, and he's a 2014 inductee into the International League Hall of Fame.

Manto made it back to the bigs as the Pirates' batting coach in 2006-07, after four years as their roving minor-league hitting instructor. Manto lost his job there when the Bucs fired manager Jim Tracy; the Sox snatched him up and made him their minor-league roving batting guru for four seasons before promoting him back up to the majors.

But Manto took the brunt of the responsibility for last season's miserable Sox offense. He was fired the last weekend of the season.

He wasn't out of work long. Now Manto works for the Orioles in their minor league system.

That's the life of a lifer. Steverson made brief appearances as a player for the Tigers and Padres in 1995-96 and retired two seasons later at age 26. Right away he became a coach with stops in places like Potomac, Peoria, Palm Beach and Vancouver. His career as a batting instructor began in 1999.

Steverson, who already is receiving accolades for the Sox's offensive resurgence, also managed in the minor leagues, leading the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats to the Pacific Coast League championship in 2008.

The Oakland A's, the parent club of the River Cats, made Steverson its first-base coach for two years before sending him back down to act as their minor-league batting coordinator.

In 2012, he found himself subbing for the manager of the Stockton Ports in a game that ended up going 18 innings. Having run out of pitchers and with his second position player on the mound, Steverson decided he should end the game to protect his men from injury. So over the course of two innings he ordered outfielder Josh Whitaker to balk three opposing runners into scoring position before the Modesto Nuts finally took advantage and pushed the winning run across the plate. The California League banned Steverson for a year, saying he had damaged the integrity of the game.

Steverson was still working in the A's system when the White Sox started hunting for Manto's replacement. The White Sox reportedly drew up a list of 17 candidates; they hired Steverson the same day they interviewed him.

We can only guess whether players such as Viciedo, Alexei Ramirez, Tyler Flowers and Dunn would be so much improved over 2013 had Manto kept his job on the South Side.

Viciedo, who hit an opposite field three-run homer in Cleveland on Sunday to salvage a 4-3 win for the Sox, has shown the most dramatic improvement under Steverson. His strike zone used to be only slightly smaller than the Grand Canyon. He drew a mere 52 walks over the past two seasons but already has 11 this year - in addition to his .330 average. He simply is swinging at strikes and letting the wide ones go by.

Is this a result of working with Steverson, whose mantra is "selective aggression?"

It appears so. Before this year, Viciedo had a curious habit of drooling at anything remotely near the strike zone's outside corner. Now he primarily swings at strikes.

And the walks? Manto thought they were overrated.

So it's no surprise that under Steverson's approach, the Sox have been far more selective at the plate than they have in the past. They rank ninth in drawing walks so far this season, after finishing 29th in the league last year.

Of course, the biggest reason for the offensive surge - only the Rockies have scored more runs - is Jose Abreu.

Abreu who hit two more home runs last week and continues to lead the American League in homers (12) and RBI (34).

Adding the speed and selectiveness of Adam Eaton to the top of the lineup also seems to reflect a change in philosophy from the softball-type squads the Sox have favored in recent years; Eaton's on-base percentage is .363.

So how important is the batting coach?

Until the late 1960s, teams didn't have them; the manager and his coaches supplied all the advice about hitting they thought was necessary.

That changed with the emergence of coaches such as Charley Lau, a journeyman catcher who transformed himself into the game's most legendary hitting instructor as he worked his way through five teams, including the White Sox in 1982-83.

Lau pioneered the technique that George Brett made famous - releasing the top hand off the bat at the end of the swing.

Now every team has at least one hitting instructor (Harold Baines is officially listed as Steverson's assistant) and they tend to bounce from team to team.

Still, unlike the new wave managers such as Robin Ventura, Brad Ausmus, Walt Weiss Mike Matheny, who never managed or even coached in the majors before assuming the reins of big-league teams, batting coaches remain hired to be fired.

When the Sox dumped the much-maligned Greg Walker after nine season, for example, the Braves didn't hesitate to grab him up. He replaced Larry Parrish, who had replaced Terry Pendleton, both of whom had successful major league careers as players. (Parrish now manages the Toledo Mud Hens, where he replaced Phil Nevin, who now manages the Reno Aces and is considered the heir apparent if Kirk Gibson gets fired in Arizona. Pendleton moved to first base for the Braves, replacing Glenn Hubbard. And so it goes.)

Simply put, a hitting coach is safe as long as his team is . . . hitting. When a team isn't, the hitting coach becomes a favorite scapegoat for the fans and a convenient sacrifice for the front office.

A batting coach doesn't necessarily change a hitter's mechanics; athletes don't reach the major leagues if they haven't been good hitters, usually from the time when they were Little Leaguers. Sometimes what's important is to change a hitter's head, both in approach at the plate and a game plan for each at-bat, and in self-esteem.

Ramirez, for example, has always been a decent hitter, and his swing looks the same as always. But he appears much more confident at the plate this season, collecting more hits (40) in April than anyone in the team's history. Dunn is making much better contact using the same mechanics as always. Maybe the fact that he'll be a free agent this winter has something to do with his line of .273/.409/.909. Or maybe Steverson has provided just the right kind of advice and encouragement.

(On the North Side, the Cubs fired Dale Sveum as manager in part because of the regression of Starlin Castro at the plate, attributed to the now-former manager and his staff filling their prodigy's head with too much advice.)

Whatever it is that Steverson is doing right, it's clear from last week's four straight losses sandwiched by wins on Monday and Sunday that he'll have to continue whatever magic he can muster to keep this club putting runs on the board. Until Chris Sale returns, the starting pitching will be an adventure. Even when he does come back, the rotation won't scare anyone. (The staff as a whole has issued 15 more walks than any team in baseball.)

On the plus side, the bullpen has responded nicely of late. In the last eight games, the relievers have covered 25 2/3 innings with an ERA of 0.70.

With Sale, Conor Gillaspie, Eaton and others idled with assorted injuries, the Sox take on two National League cellar dwellers this week, the Cubs and the Diamondbacks. Both teams have recently played better, but their combined record remains 22-41.

Prediction: Steverson's job is safe for one more week.

-

Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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