Friday, May 18, 2012

By Dave Snyder - Contributor

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim fired their hitting coach of 13 years this week.  Mickey Hatcher has been a teammate, close friend and confidant of the Angles manager Mike Scioscia.  Over the last ten years the Angels team batting average has been in the top 25% of the American league in almost every year except the last three.  With Mickey Hatcher as hitting coach, the 2009 team  set franchise records in batting average, hits, runs and RBIs.  During that time Hatcher was considered a competent hitting coach who worked extremely long hours with the players – especially when they would struggle at the plate.  Mike Scioscia said upon Hatcher's firing that he was a “great teacher and a great hitting coach”.   There have not been any Angel players, past or present that have complained of Hatcher's competence as a hitting coach that has made it into the press. In fact, the only comment recently has been one of praise from Mark Trumbo who credits Mickey Hatcher with teaching him how to be more selective with pitches and the results have yielded a .370 batting average for Trumbo this season after barely hitting .250 last year. Trumbo was quoted in the Angels website as saying:  "It's really unfortunate, and downright unfair for the most part, that people from their couch are going to call for this guy's job for years and years," Angels slugger Mark Trumbo said. "It's not him that's in the batter's box. Mickey puts in the time. He provided everything I needed as a player, to go up there and have the best chance of success. If I was to fail, it wouldn't be on him. It's not his fault." Yet, the local baseball blogs and fan websites have called for Hatcher to be fired for the last two years claiming that he does not teach his players to be patient but teaches them to be aggressive.

And this brings us to the real problem with the Angels.  When Vladimir Guerrero was with the Angels the whole team excelled in hitting and three of his years the team batting average was best in the American League.  Those teams were Vlad’s teams and Vlad was the epitome of aggressiveness.  So, when the then general manager Tony Reagins decided not to bring back Vlad, the heart of the team went with Vlad to the  Texas Rangers where he continued to play well although his skills were diminishing.   Reagins also brought in Torii Hunter on a five year contract and because of Torii’s incredible personality the team was now Torii’s team.  But, Torii’s best years were behind him and while he was a great spokesman for the team, he failed to lead the team by example – never having been the superstar of Vlad’s caliber.  Several other Reagins mistakes changed the character and quality of the team at the same time causing tremendous financial strain by accumulating massive contracts for underperforming players  -- some dismissed while still being paid by the Angels.  The last three years of sub-par performances are a result of Reagins’ mistakes and Scioscia was forced to play poor players due to their large contracts -- causing more consternation with the blogs for holding up the playing time of their favorite younger players.  Up until this year this had prevented the Angels from acquiring a quality free agent that could make the club better.

Fans, do not like to take out their frustrations on their hero’s on the field so when the offense struggled  they started taking it out on Mickey Hatcher  -- calling for his firing.  Meanwhile Mike Scioscia continued to support Hatcher saying the players are not performing to their abilities -- which is true as the hitters do not learn to hit from hitting coaches they bring their skills to major league baseball.

Mickey Hatcher is a free spirit type of man who most always has a smile on his face.  His antics in the dugout made him out as a buffoon to some which soon turned into claiming he was a clown as a hitting coach.  Again no actual proof of such statements; and, as the team continued to struggle offensively, the call’s for his dismissal in the blogs escalated to a fever pitch into hateful and personal attacks on Hatcher as a person.  Mobocracy was rearing its ugly head.  No one knew exactly why he was a bad hitting instructor but most in the blogosphere said he was -- so   he must be.

Enter now the new general manager of the Angels Jerry Dipoto who is very inexperienced in management but appears to have a good baseball sense.  Dipoto had been on the job less than two months when Arte Moreno opened up his wallet and signed baseballs best player over the last ten years -- Albert Pujols.   At the December signing ceremony the local  press and blogs were sure that now that  “we got Albert” the Angels were  sure to get back to the playoffs and take down the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers.  And when the Angels had a great spring training with Albert Pujols leading the club in  home runs, a near .400 batting average and over 20 RBI’s, all looked great to de-throne the Rangers.  But, something happened to Albert Pujols once the season started.  He went into the worst slump of his career and looked terrible at the plate.  As the new “leader” of the Angels, the team responded by playing just as bad as Albert did, causing the Angels to have a losing record with almost a quarter of the season gone.  “What happened to Albert” was all over the sports pages nationwide. The more bad press, the more Albert began to press; and, the worse he looked.  The fans kept waiting for Albert to come out of his funk but he didn’t.  The blogs and websites began to blame Mickey Hatcher for Albert’s problems.  It didn’t help when Albert publicly blamed Hatcher for an incident that was really nothing about hitting. A player going to the press with a story derogatory to a coach or manager is something that is not common in Major League Baseball. It did not help Albert’s image as he struggled at the plate.  And, after all, this never happened in St. Louis.  So, it can’t be Albert’s fault.

So, what does a general manager do in such a situation?  Usually when a team is underperforming like the Angels are doing, the manager is fired.  It is expected in baseball and I’m sure Mike Scioscia would not have been surprised if he had been fired.  But, Mike Scioscia had just received a multi-year  extension to his contract and if Dipoto fired him Arte Moreno would be out a whole lot of money.  So, like the typical politician, who won’t make a move without taking a poll, Dipoto gave in to the vitriol in the blogs and fired Mickey Hatcher instead of Mike Scioscia.  In his statement to the press, Dipoto’s   gave Hatcher credit as a loyal and hardworking coach meanwhile saying:  "this is unfortunately a situation where a message needs to be sent, and a philosophy needs to be instilled" (more on that later).    Bottom line, Jerry Dipoto’s inexperience in management   caused him to give in to fan pressure and he punted – making Mickey Hatcher the scapegoat for the failures of Albert Pujols, the 250 Million dollar man.

While Mickey Hatcher did not deserve to be fired, Mike Scioscia did and should have been because it was obvious he had lost his team.  They were no longer playing for him but for themselves.  This is not unusual   with managers with long tenure.  And we can’t blame Dipoto either.  When Arte Moreno brought in a new general manager he should have let him know he will be able to choose his own manager.  Maybe he did and maybe Dipoto thought he could control Scioscia. But, with Reagins being a very weak general manager, Scioscia filled the management void and assumed some GM decisions  (and responsibilities if he had anything to do with Reagins poor acquisitions and trades).  So, Arte should have known that if Dipoto was as good as he thought he would be,  that a showdown with  Scioscia had to come. In addition, Dipoto is a “Moneyball” type of GM and Mike Scioscia is an “old school” manager.  A clash was inevitable as the new “philosophy needs to be installed”.   Eventually it comes down to either Dipoto is running the team or Scioscia is.  Anyone who knows anything about management knows that a front line manager cannot dictate to a superior officer.  When Dipoto fired Hatcher over Scioscia objection -- and Mike said as much -- the die was cast for Scioscia to leave the team.  Maybe Arte knew this would happen and is just waiting to see who wins.   But, by firing Hatcher instead of Scioscia, Arte will have   continued dissension on his team until the time that Dipoto gets his own manager and hitting coach.  And all of this is unfair to Mike Scioscia who deserves better treatment from the team that he has led to its only World Series Championship.  None of this is good for the team.  Until the management hierarchy is in its right place, this team will continue to self-destruct – even with the 250 Million dollar man.    
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