12 July 2007

Report: Ex-Yankee Henderson to be Mets' New Hitting Coach

New York Newsday reported last night, and today ESPN.com is reporting that Rickey Henderson has been named the New York Mets' new hitting coach. Henderson replaces ex-Yankee hitting coach Rick Down, who served in that capacity for the Mets since November of 2004. Down had been the Yankees' hitting coach from 1993 to 1995 and from 2002 to 2003, and was the Yankees coordinator of minor league instruction in 2004. According to the Mets' official website:

• In 2002, the Yankees hit 223 home runs, second most in the American
League and second highest single season total in franchise history.
• The Yankees led the majors in batting average in each of his first two
seasons as a hitting coach (1993-1994)...In 1994, the team's batting average of
.290 was the highest Yankees' average since 1936 (.300) and the highest in the
majors since Boston hit .302 in 1950.

Down had also served as hitting coach for the Orioles, Dodgers and Red Sox, and was an accomplished minor league manager. Down had an undistinguished, 7-year career as a minor leaguer, but his services as an instructor have been sought after and used by numerous organizations. I guess this proves the old adage that those who can't, teach. And those who can't teach, get fired.

Rickey Henderson, on the other hand, could hardly have had a more distinguished major league career. Twentieth in MLB history with 3055 hits, he holds the all-time career records for stolen bases and runs scored, and he briefly held the #1 spot in career walks before Barry Bonds passed him. He's still #2 on that list, and Frank Thomas is his closest active competitor, and at 39 year sold already, is unlikelty to make up the 600-walk gap before he retires. Rickey's 1406 steals are almost 500 more than Lou Brock, who's #2 on that list, and are almost 800 steals more than kenny Lofton, the closest active player. I think that one's pretty safe, too. Barry Bonds is #2 on the Runs Scored list, and he's only about 100 runs back, so if he stays healthy enough to play a majority of games this year and next, he'll wrest that record away from Rickey as well, but in the mean time, Henderson's still #1.

Henderson also holds the Yankee single-season record for stolen bases, with 93. Actually, he holds the top three spots on that list, and nobody who’s played since World War II is closer than 10th. His 326 steals in Yankee Pinstripes are also a record, though Derek Jeter (with 256 and counting) could one day take that away. Rickey finished third in the 1985 AL MVP vote (behind George Brett and Winner Don Mattingly, the Yankees’ current hitting coach) and ranked in the top 10 six times in his career, including a win in 1990, with AL Champion Oakland. He hit over .300 seven times, though low batting averages toward the end of his career dropped his career average to .279, even though he never lost his eye for the strike zone. His career OBP of .401 ranks 56th all-time, and he drew more than 100 walks in a season seven times.

Clearly, Rickey Henderson was one of the greatest, most exciting players in major league history (just ask him!), but the question remains whether he’ll be any good as a hitting coach. He served as a special instructor with the Mets in Spring Training this year, but he’s never even coached a minor league squad, much less a team of major leaguers, some of whom played with him during his major league career. Mets catcher Paul LoDuca played with Rickey in Los Angeles in 2003, when they were both Dodgers, as did Shawn Green. And way back when dinosaurs roamed the movie screen and In Living Color invaded your living room, Henderson played with a couple of rookies named Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado on the World Champion Toronto Blue Jays. (Not that pitchers work with the hitting coach all that much, but just to be thorough, Aaron Sele was his teammate in Seattle in 2000, and Pedro Martinez was his teammate in Boston in 2002.)

Of course, Rickey allegedly managed to forget teammate John Olerud between 1999 and 2000 (though there is some question as to whether that story is true), so it’s hard to imagine how much of an effect these relationships might have on his ability to effectively instruct the Mets in the ways of the bat, but this is very unusual for someone who played so recently to be named to such a position in the majors so soon, with little or no minor league experience.

The Mets, for their part, are 6th in the NL in team batting average, 5th in OBP and seventh in Slugging percentage and OPS, but only 10th among 16 teams in Runs Scored (21st in the majors). This is mostly because they’re 11th in OPS with runners on base, 13th with RISP and 14th in OPS in “Close and Late” situations among their Senior Circuit competition. In other words, it’s not hitting, but clutch hitting that has been at the root of the Mets’ lack of offense, and as you may know, it’s not really possible to predict (or probably, to teach) hitting in the clutch. Over the course of his long, accomplished career, Rickey was approximately the same hitter in almost every “clutch” situation, but imparting that skill to others, well, let’s just say that Rickey’s got Rickey’s work cut out for Rickey.

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