The Braves horrible run production last year led to the dismissal of the gentleman paid to be hitting coach. A thorough search was promised though – how thorough it was has yet to be released – and today General Manager Frank Wren hired former White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker. The blogasphere is in general extremely short on facts and long on opinion and substance. So they predictably went nuts immediately wondering why a guy who was – depending on the level of indignation – fired or run out of town on a rail. Neither is true.
Who Is Greg Walker?
Walker is a native of Douglas, Ga. and still makes his home there. His major league career began and effectively ended with the White Sox where he played first base and was a DH from 1982-1989 finishing with a .262/.327/.453 slash line, 113 homers and 442 RBI. He played part of 1990 with the Sox and Baltimore but had only 43 plate appearances. Because of his success at the Sox AAA team in Charlotte, Walker was chosen to take over Sox hitting coach duties in May 2003 because they were at the 12th in the league in runs (173) and batting average (.249.) Whatever he did worked as the Sox finished the year 8th in runs (791) and with a .263 batting average.
His record when he departed after 8 1/2 years has the Sox ranked third in the majors with 1,791 home runs and 10th in runs scored while sporting a .430 slugging percentage.
Why Did He Leave Chicago?
Walker had many run-ins with Ozzie Guillen over the years, the worst in 2008, and recently he and Kenny Williams had a shouting match that was thought to be about Gordon Beckham’s horrible slump. He had told the team back in August that he was leaving at the end of the year even if they turned it around and won. I don’t know Kenny Williams except from public interviews where he seems a reasonable enough guy. Working with Ozzie for so long has to be at best exhausting and at worst crazy making.
Many Players Loved Walker
Paul Konerko credits Walker with salvaging his 2003 season. He batted only .197 in a poor first half but elected to make some changes recommended by Walker and finished the season 37 points Higher.
“It’s tough because in the second half, I felt I was as good as any hitter in the field, and you look up and you’re hitting .220,” Konerko said. “But I told myself I’m going to survive. People need to gain a little perspective on the outside.”
Konerko told the Chicago Sun times Walker with rebuilt his swing and said that Walker will always “be my guy.’’
“It’s tough to say in one interview what he’s meant,’’ Konerko said. “I trust him with every inch of my swing.’’
Former Brave Brent Lillibridge says he might not be around if not for Walker’s tutelage.
“If it wasn’t for Walk, I don’t think I’d be where I’m at,” Lillibridge explains. “Two years ago, after my first year when I was hitting .158, and I was just lost, mechanically more than anything, he said, ‘Let’s work on things in the off-season,’ and we totally redid my swing to get a feel for what was right. Now it’s been a 2-3 year process and it’s come to fruition.”
While certainly not a slugger Lillibridge finished 2011 with a .258/.340/.505 13 homers and 29 RBI in 186 at bats. That’s a .034/.092/.127 11 homer increase from his previous best.
A.J. Pierzynski also praised Walker highly.
“He doesn’t get the credit he deserves. I’ve known him for seven years. He’s taught me more than I ever knew about hitting. . . .Greg Walker did a lot of really good things here and he deserves a ton of credit. . .’’
Public and Pundits Not Impressed
The public has short memories and has been less kind towards Walker, blaming him for Adam Dunn’s failures and Alex Rios continued roller coaster career. I can’t blame Dunn’s flop on Walker, that belongs to Dunn and Kenny Williams – and would have belonged to any other American League GM who thought Dunn was less than serious when he said he never wanted to DH or play in the AL.
Until moving to the AL you could always mark Dunn down for 40 homers 100 RBI a .400 OBP and 180 strikeouts and be within the margin of error. This year with the Sox he was .159/.292./.277 11 homers and 42 RBI. Part of that is changing leagues the rest – in my opinion only – is that he was a very unhappy player. He was so unhappy he talked of retiring at ager 31. Guillen’s rants and explosions must have been hard to live with as well as Dunn was accustomed to a more level headed approach. The fault is Dunn’s. None of that excuses him from responsibility of course and none of that is Walker’s fault.
Alex Rios’s collapse this year can no more be blamed on Walker than his failure to perform after a deadline move in 200i9. However Walker’s assessment of Rios when he saw him the first time in 2010 “This is exactly the player I saw on video in Toronto” was correct. In 2010 – his first full White Sox year – he hit almost exactly what his baseball card would have predicted – .284/.334/.457 21 homers 88 RBI while his five season average in Toronto was .288/.338/.455 13 homers 67 RBI. That’s the player they traded for no matter what anyone expected. This year he simply imploded as did Gordon Beckham, much of the White Sox pitching and their division hopes. I wonder if the common factor in all of that commotion was Guillen?
What’s the Conclusion?
No one knows what will happened but Walker’s credentials are good; he’s improved averages at both the minor and major league level. It wasn’t all good of course, the Sox BAbip has languished at or near the bottom of the league since 2007. Pundits complain the players hit too many popups that turn into easy outs.(He probably wouldn’t have helped popup king Alex Gonzalez a lot if that’s the case.) It’s impossible really to say at this point because he’s just been hired.
Regular readers – I know I have at least three – will know that my choice was Don Baylor – who isn’t leaving Arizona – or Julio Franco, so Walker isn’t my horse in this race. I am willing to give the guy a chance before I pass judgment however, and I urge everyone else to do the same.