Trusting the Process: The Development of a Low-A Hitter

After a brutal season-opening road trip that saw the team score 10 runs in six games, the Hickory Crawdads scored four runs in the first on the way to a 6-2 victory over the West Virginia Power Thursday night. It was the team’s initial win of the season.

The Crawdads came home holding up the bottom of the South Atlantic League in most offensive statistics. The .182/.239/.251 slash was easily the worst in the league in all three categories. Yet, in talking with the coaches, the collective feeling is that the team performed well overall and they were in a period where they couldn’t catch a break.

As one looks at where the team is at the plate, the big picture of how they will perform ultimately at the plate is still coming into focus and it will develop over a longer period of time than a week. The bad start perhaps has skewed perception of what this team will be eventually. Put the slump in the middle of July and the average fan will shake it off as a bad week. Yet, we see the numbers what they are and panic.

Fans must remember that class Low-A is a laboratory of minor league baseball. The guys have showed potential at rookie and short-season level – that’s why they are even at Hickory – but now the real work begins: the process of becoming a professional hitter.

I took some time Thursday to talk with Crawdads hitting coach Chase Lambin about the mindset of the hitters coming off the road trip and about “The Process” of learning about hitting at a professional level.

 

I know it’s a long season and I know this isn’t the way you wanted to start, but you and I talked prior to this, that it was a little bit of a perfect storm with Delmarva (Md.) throwing some guys, the cold weather, etc. Take me through the week of your hitters and the mindset of where they are at the moment.

Lambin: Yeah, it was tough. It’s challenging for them and it’s even challenging for us as a staff. Through it, it was remarkable to see the resilience the guys had and how their work didn’t change and how their attitude didn’t change.

We had some meetings where guys said powerful things and every day the energy in the dugout and the clubhouse was strong. It’s a resilient bunch, but it’s a young bunch. So. They’re going to have their bumps, especially early. Maybe, we didn’t expect it to be this early and this big of a bump, but it’s part of it and part of the process. It’s part of what the maturation process is about and learning how to handle adversity and especially in an environment they’ve never been in.

 

You guys always talk about “the process”. Jose Jaimes (Crawdads pitching coach) will talk about “the process” and (Crawdads manager Matt) Hagen, and so on. What is the biggest part, as far as your hitters, of getting them to understand the process of getting from here to the next level and on up to Arlington, or wherever they are going?

Lambin: It’s understanding the routine, understanding their body, understanding their mind and all those things have to come together. If one is missing, you’re going to struggle. You’ve got to know what you’re doing before the game. You’ve got to have a plan in your approach when you go to the plate. You’ve got to understand your movements. It takes time to learn those things.

They’ve all been successful at lower levels, but that level doesn’t ask you to do as much. Each level you go up has new challenges where you have to be a little more dialed in with each one of those things. That’s what they’re doing. They’re young. They’re 18, 19-years-old and they’re trying to figure out themselves and their approach and their plan, and they will because they’re tremendous athletes.

 

What’s the biggest hurdle in getting them to trust that process?

Lambin: The adversity that baseball puts on them, and the doubts and fears and anxiety that the game puts in your mind. I mean the game is a great equalizer and it will challenge you and it will rip your guts out and make you feel miserable. So, how do you take that pain and turn that into good?

On the other side of pain is growth. That pain is a part of it, like you’re being hardened from the inside-out. You have to explain it like, “I don’t want you to struggle, but this is a part of it and it’s better now than in Arlington.”

This is what you have to do and the game will expose you. It’s exposing some of them that they don’t have a clear plan. They don’t have a clear approach. They don’t trust the routine. They don’t understand their swing. This will show you that you need to make these adjustments because until then, if they’re batting .330 every year, they’ll be like, “This coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

 

Who is the person right now – and I get it, it’s six games in – that has the best understanding of where they are in that process?

Lambin: That’s a good question. There are some cerebral guys that are good thinkers. (Kole) Enright has been pretty good in the conversations I’ve had with him mid-game. Pedro Gonzalez is a sharp tack. He talks through what he’s feeling, what he’s seeing from the pitcher and what he going to do in the next at-bat. Chad Smith is another smart one. Justin Jacobs and (Ryan) Dorow are the college kind of veterans. They are the guys that are lower end on talent but they’re higher end on approach and plan and the mental toughness. So, combining all those together, they each have their shortcomings, but they’re all getting better.

 

Who is the person right that you think in the long run will get through that process? Maybe they don’t understand right now, but you talk to them and you see – maybe it’s not the ability necessarily – but you see they’ll have a chance to work through that?

Lambin: I think Pedro is a combination of talent and the mind and the deliberate work ethic. He asks questions and he’s hungry to learn and he’s humble enough to know that he needs to learn.

Some of these guys are so talented that that humility hasn’t hit yet. This six-game losing streak and batting .180 will give you some of that humble pie. Pedro stands out for me. (Miguel) Aparicio’s got a really good feel for hitting. (Yohel) Pozo is a tremendous, instinctual hitter. He’s still learning the thought process that goes behind it, but he’s the type that is just going to hit and hit and hit. He’s an unbelievable barrel finder.

There’s a lot of guys on this team. For me, my job is not to pick who’s going to be a big leaguer. Some are more advanced that others, but my job is to teach them up to be big leaguers.

 

What’s the biggest hurdle for you as a coach to help them get over that?

Lambin: Building trust as a coach is always difficult. I feel like that’s one of my strong suits. I teach with empathy and kindness and service, and I’m not a dictator.

I get with them on their level. I understand the struggles they’re in, I’ve been through it. I’ve been down that road and back 100 times. This game has ripped my guts out. So, I get on their level and I let them know this is going to be hard, but I also know how to work. I show them how to get after it and to have clarity and to have the right intentions with their work and in their process. In doing so, they start to listen to me more.

It’s challenging because they’re still young and their retention level. They may understand it for one day, but to get them to understand it the next day, it’s like they forgot everything when they fell asleep. It’s like a blank slate again the next day. It’s like, “Man, I need you to remember what I told you yesterday.” But at this level, you’ve got to tell them over and over again.”

 

Is there a point as a coach were you guys as coaches step back and let the failure be a part of the process? You see what they’re doing and let them get the golden sombrero.

Lambin: Failure is a gift. It’s part of being a baseball player. It’s going through the failure and rebuilding, fail, rebuild. The way you’re rebuilding your mind, and then your body and your routine.

Yeah, it’s hard, because I want them all to go bat .330 from start to finish and have a great year. But, the reality of it is that you sometimes have got to let them – it’s just like a young kid learning how to walk. If you’ve never let them fall, then they’ll never learn how to walk. You got to let them fall like a parent would let a child fall. They’re like my children in that sometimes I want to make it easy on them and make the fall stop, but sometimes pain is a great teacher. Nobody wants to go to its class, but pain will let you know.

It’s hard on me sometimes, because every time they get out, I feel it in my heart. It hurts me, but I want to grow and get better, too.

 

Melvin Novoa

Melvin Nova strokes a double during the Crawdads 6-2 win over West Virginia Thursday night (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

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