Some eyebrows were raised when news broke that the Dodgers were contemplating hiring 32-year-old Robert Van Scoyoc as their new hitting coach. Perhaps those eyebrows are still raised and locked into position waiting to see how things play out.
One argument expressing doubt is that he has never played major league baseball so perhaps lacks the understanding of hitting at that level. I’m not sure that makes much difference if an individual understands the physics of hitting, the rudiments of bat to ball and something about the human physique and psyche. Also, communicating skills are another key to any instruction and Van Scoyoc seems to have a strong set of people skills.
A couple of coaches, very successful coaches, come to mind who never played the game at its highest level but excelled in leading others to championship levels. Legendary hockey coach, Scotty Bowman, played only minor league hockey but became a Hall of Fame coach in the National Hockey League with the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings. New England Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick, has become somewhat of a living legend. He played some college ball before having his career ended with a broken leg. Walter Alston, the Dodgers manager from 1954-76, had one MLB at bat yet led the Dodgers to four World Series championships.
This may all be apples and oranges, but it would be my contention that it is worth a try. What is there to be lost? The Dodgers have gone 31 years without a World Series championship. Last year they led the National League in home runs and in strikeouts. They led the World Series in pop ups, or at least it seems they did. So, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Van Scoyoc will be one of the youngest coaches working at the MLB level, perhaps a job he once considered a most unlikely pipe dream. The Dodgers, at least at the minor league level, have hired more and more coaches in their late twenties or early thirties. The youngest last year was 21-year-old pitcher Jairo Pacheco who served as a coach with the Arizona League Dodgers. One goal for the Dodgers is to have a younger roster so why not a younger coaching staff? It seems likely that youth can relate to youth and understand the struggles hitters go through just as those who have gone through it as MLB hitters can.
I am not a big proponent of some of the changes, and possible future changes coming down the road, in MLB over the years. However, once again, what do we have to lose with trying something different? We have continued down the free agent road with reckless abandon and came up with no WS rings in 31 years. Why not try something different with bat to ball skill development? “Barreling” seems to be the new catch phrase. Why not try to do that better with someone who understands the dynamics of hitting and not just the techniques of hitting?
For several years Robert Van Scoyoc has worked with his partner Craig Wallenbrock in a make shift gymnasium in Santa Clarita, a suburb of Los Angeles. Complete with video equipment and batting cages, the two work with amateur and professional hitters alike.
The two names most consistently linked to them are J.D. Martinez and the Dodgers own Chris Taylor. Dodger fans are familiar with Taylor’s story and wonder if he needs a refresher with Van Scoyoc or has simply regressed since his big year in 2017.
Martinez is more so the poster boy for Van Scoyoc and Wallenbrock. When he visited their facility five years ago he was on a downhill spiral expecting to be released and out of the game at the MLB level.
“I’m on the way out (of baseball),” Wallenbrock remembers Martinez telling him. “I need to make some changes. I’m all in. Whatever you guys want to do with me, I’m ready to go. I’ll do it.”
“It was pretty terrible, to be honest,” Van Scoyoc said.
“We probably made more drastic changes with him,” Wallenbrock said, “than we did with anybody.”
As with all instruction and guidance, there is a two-way street. Martinez proved to be a hungry and responsive student finding his own positioning of his hands to do as he was otherwise instructed.
“He would literally come and stay until we had an amateur guy come in around 3:30 in the afternoon,” Van Scoyoc said. “And we’d have to kick him out.”
Wallenbrock and Van Scoyoc might be thought to be the fathers of launch angle. There seems to be no evidence of that since launch angle started when the ball hit the bat for the first time well over a century ago. However, the nomenclature has only recently hit the airwaves and some players are making a concerted effort to change the angle to fit their strengths. The tandem’s approach is not specific to launch angle although that plays a part in it.
“Wallenbrock and Van Scoyoc teach a hitting philosophy that can often run counter to long-held beliefs in the game. They do not believe in swinging down at the ball. They emphasize hitting the ball in the air. They believe fastballs should be hit to the opposite field and breaking balls to the pull side.
It can sometimes involve drastic mechanical changes, including adding leg kicks or changing the way hitters’ hands “load” before the swing begins.
They want hitters to get their bat “on plane” in the hitting zone for as long as possible, creating swings that are capable of handling a variety of pitches. But they also believe every hitter is unique – some are taller, some have shorter arms, some have better vision than others – and the coaches say they believe in discovering the most effective swing, not producing cookie-cutter actions for everyone.”
Van Scoyoc is a native of Los Angeles and actually spent two years as a hitting consultant for the Dodgers before the Arizona Diamondbacks lured him away before the beginning of the 2018 season to be their hitting strategist. Not coach, but strategist.
With the Diamondbacks he formulated detailed game plans for the position players, much like what a pitching coach does for the team’s pitchers, providing individualized, data-centric strategies on how to attack opposing pitchers.
He also visited all of the club’s minor-league affiliates working with the organizations hitting coaches and assisted in the amateur draft and player acquisitions.
His hiring by the Dodgers seems to be in keeping with their numbers-oriented and analytical approach to the game. As already asked, what is there to lose?