Dave Magadan Talks Hitting

Dave Magadan was a productive big-league hitter — he logged a 117 wRC+ from 1986 to 2001 — and he’s followed up his playing career with several stints as a hitting coach. In that role with the Colorado Rockies for each of the past two seasons, Magadan previously plied his trade with the San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers, and Arizona Diamondbacks. His current situation is arguably the most challenging he’s faced. Having Coors Field as a home venue is a mixed blessing, and it goes without saying that today’s offensive environment is anything but ideal. Magadan has a boatload of experience and expertise, but he’s also got his work cut out for him.

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David Laurila: Let’s start with the fact that the game has changed — hitting has changed — since your playing days.

Dave Magadan: “I guess I’m a little biased. I like guys that control the strike zone and hit for a good average. It’s gone so far in the other direction, where guys don’t mind striking out 180 times as long as they’re hitting the ball out of the park. But there’s always a place for guys who give you good at-bats, get on base, consistently hit the ball hard, and aren’t overmatched by a certain type of pitcher. And there are guys like that in the game, but they’re just not as plentiful as when I played.”

Laurila: How much of the balls-in-play issue is swing plane, and the inability to handle the elevated fastball?

Magadan: “We could do about two hours on that, right? I mean, there is so much malpractice out there in the world of baseball. Not big-league hitting coaches, but guys who are trying to make names for themselves being hitting gurus, teaching kids to swing up and create that launch angle that that is so deceptive. Let’s forget about the swing plane; let’s just talk about contact point. To hit the ball in the air, you have to hit the ball out in front, but when you’re consistently trying to create that contact point, you’re going to swing and miss. You’re going to chase breaking balls, you’re going to chase changeups, you’re not going to be able to hit the late-action pitches.

“Always trying to hit the ball way out in front is a recipe for a lot of strikeouts. Yeah, you’re going to hit some home runs, but you’re so susceptible to being pitched to that you limit the times in a game that you can truly do damage. You’re limited to the type of pitchers you can hit and the type of pitches you can hit. A guy that can make pitches is going to get you out most of the time, if not all the time. It kind of feeds into what’s happening in baseball now. Offense is down, and I think that’s a big reason why.”

Laurila: Is the swing itself overemphasized when coaching hitters?

Magadan: “That’s a tough one to answer, but there are players coming to pro ball who are being coached by these guys who are preaching launch angle — get in the slot really early, get your hips involved early, maximize that torque and bat speed, and it doesn’t matter that your bat is in and out of the zone as long as the ball is traveling as far as possible. Max bat speed, exit velocity, and all that stuff. That’s when you need to talk to them about swing mechanics, and how to make adjustments.”

Laurila: When I first interviewed you in 2007, you talked about the importance of a hitter being able to repeat a good swing.

Magadan: “That never changes. It’s like a pitcher repeating his delivery. He has the ability to throw the ball where he wants, his velocities are going to be consistent, and the breaks on his breaking ball are going to be consistent. The swing is the same thing. If you can’t repeat your swing — your A swing — from day to day, week to week, from pitcher to pitcher, you’re going to struggle. It’s ‘Good luck trying to make consistent hard contact.’”

Laurila: Do you consider your hitting approach old-school?

Magadan: “Well, I’m not a dinosaur. I never stop learning. Every year I hear new things, and if they can make me a better hitting coach, I’m open to them. That includes analytical stuff. But I do think you can dive too much into that and get lost in it. There has to be a happy medium. You might see something, then go to the numbers to substantiate what your eyes told you. That can help you sell it to the player.

“I don’t think you can be a hitting coach now and pooh-pooh analytics. The players are into it, front offices are into it, and it helps get our point across. That’s whether it’s with a guy’s swing, or whether you’re talking about how to attack that night’s pitcher. You get stuff that you can’t see just looking at video.”

Laurila: Can you give an example?

Magadan: “I do our advanced scouting reports, and I could see a guy make a pitch, and it’s in the top part of the zone at 91 [mph], and guys don’t get to it — they foul it off, or they swing through it. I may have an inkling of, ‘Gee, this guy has a little little extra on his fastball,’ but now I can go to the analytics and see that he’s got plus-plus extension, or he’s got plus spin, plus carry, whatever it is. I can put that in my scouting report, and tell my hitters ‘Okay, with this guy, especially when you get into a fastball count, you’ve got to think a little more ‘on top of the ball.’

“What you say varies for every guy. What I said to Paul Goldschmidt wasn’t the same thing I said to David Peralta. What I say to Charlie Blackmon maybe isn’t the same thing I say to Nolan Arenado. But those numbers … maybe I can see it a little bit on video, but man, there’s nothing like going to a meeting, talking about the starting pitcher that night, and being able to back up what guys are maybe seeing with numbers.”

Laurila: How do you figure out which terminology works best for each individual hitter?

Magadan: “A lot of it is listening to them. As a hitting coach, sometimes you feel like you always have to be the one talking. But especially when I went into a new situation like I did in Colorado, and before that when I went to Arizona … you’ve got to listen to these guys and find out what makes them tick. For instance, when it came to getting on top of that high fastball, for Goldie it was more about thinking ‘a little to the left of center field.’ For Peralta it was about feeling like he was hitting the top of the baseball. AJ Pollock was the same way. It was, ‘I have to feel like I want to hit a ground ball to shortstop when I’m facing this guy.’ Everybody’s got their own way of kind of envisioning how they want to attack a pitcher that’s got really good spin, really good carry — or maybe he’s got a low release, so while he may not have that spin, he gets a little underneath his fastball and kind of stays on plane. Either way, you have to think more about staying on top of the ball.”

Laurila: Who on the Rockies stands out in that respect?

Magadan: “One would be Charlie Blackmon, but first, I want to clarify what I said about repeating your A swing. I didn’t mean that a hitter should only have that one swing. When pitchers are spinning the ball up there at 97, and it’s up in the zone, you do have to be a little more on top of it. But the skill set of different players … for instance, Charlie can go up there and think like he’s top-handing, tomahawking, a ball. He knows that he can’t take his normal, everyday swing. He’ll practice in the cage, trying to get the the barrel of the bat to hit the top of the ball; that way, when he gets that same fastball in the game, he’s got the ability to square that pitch up. He does that as well as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Laurila: You played for a long time. Have you worked with any hitters that remind you of yourself?

Magadan: “Not really, although when Daniel Murphy first got to the big leagues, some people compared him to me because he put the bat on the ball and didn’t hit for a lot of power. But he learned how to get the ball to the pull side and understand his power. He’s made huge adjustments, obviously. But as far as now, not really. I walked more than I struck out and hit for average, but with not a lot of power. There aren’t many guys like that, and certainly not on the Rockies.”

Laurila: Let’s talk about a few of those guys. Why is Trevor Story such a good hitter?

Magadan: “He’s supremely athletic. He’s got incredible bat speed. He knows himself. And probably the most important ingredient is that Trevor wants to be great. He just doesn’t want to be good, he wants to be a superstar. When a guy has that mentality … at the end of the season, he was the first guy to call me. He wanted to know, ‘How can I get better?’ And he listens, man. He listens. He makes adjustments. And as good as he is, he can be better. He can strike out less. He can walk more. He can hit for a higher average. It’s in there.”

Laurila: Based on an interview I did with him two spring trainings ago, Nolan Arenado has a pretty straightforward approach to hitting.

Magadan: “Yes, he’s more old school. He wants to swing down. He obviously knows that he’s not actually swinging straight down — he’s not real steep — but you’ll see him in the on-deck circle or in between pitches where he’ll step out, swing more down. He’ll be thinking top hand and getting on top of the ball.

“What makes Nolan a truly great hitter is that he’s got unbelievable survival skills at the plate. He’s got that ability to abandon everything he normally does. He’ll go out there and try to shoot a ball to right field, especially with runners in scoring position — especially if they’re giving him that hole on the right side. He’ll go up there and hit an 88-hopper through the infield to drive in a run. And when he’s not feeling good at the plate, he still finds a way to put a barrel on the ball. ”

Laurila: Basically, he’s willing to be a different hitter in different situations.

Magadan: “Absolutely. I can’t tell you how many times when he was struggling, they were shifting him, and he would take a pitch on the inside part of the plate and block it to the opposite field. He’d just roll a ball through the infield to get a base hit.”

Laurila: Atypical season aside, why did Arenado struggle last year?

Magadan: “I think that had a lot to do with it. A lot of guys struggled, realizing that they were only going to get 250 plate appearances. Nolan is notoriously a slow starter, and without the cushion of 162 games, it seemed like there was a little more panic and urgency. That was throughout baseball. It happened to guys on our team, and certainly around the league.”

Laurila: You think it was mostly mental?

Magadan: “With Nolan, it was partially mental. He was also hurt. The shoulder injury had a lot to do with it. But Nolan is such a perfectionist that I think it got to a point — which it did with a lot of guys — where you start trying to get two or three hits every at-bat rather than relying on the process. Instead of knowing that if you keep having good at-bats, the balls will start falling in, you have a sense of urgency where you need it to happen today. When you have that mentality, it snowballs, and you put even more pressure on yourself. All of a sudden you’re forgetting your approach and jumping on the first pitch because you don’t want to give up a strike.”

Laurila: There are a lot of other guys I could ask about, but as we only have so much time, is there anyone you’re especially enthused about going forward?

Magadan: “I’m a big fan of Sam Hilliard. He came up in 2019, and between Triple-A and the big leagues he hit 42 home runs. He had about 80 at-bats with us and hit seven homers. And he hit good pitching. He took Noah Syndergaard deep a couple of times. He took Josh Hader deep to tie a ballgame for us. He’s got a lot of punchout in there — he struck out a lot in the minor leagues, and he struck out a lot last year when he was up from the alternate site — but I like him, man. He’s got special power. When he understands that less is more, and that frequency of hard contact is the most important thing for him … when he hits it hard, it’s going to go over the fence.”

Laurila: Approach-wise, are most of your hitters the same at Coors Field and on the road? And should they be?

Magadan: “That’s one of the battles we have. You get away with more at Coors. You can be hyper aggressive; you can go out of the strike zone more often. Soft contact plays at Coors, because there is so much room for balls to fall in. You can bloop one that drops in for a hit, whereas on the road you don’t get rewarded for that same swing. The numbers show that. We’re super aggressive at home, and when you try to take that same super aggressiveness on the road, where the ball breaks differently — the breaking balls are sharper, and the splits have a little more late dive on them — that philosophy doesn’t work. Over the lifetime of the Rockies organization, the road numbers suffer. We’re trying to tackle that as an organization.

“Last year, we were going to do a lot of early hitting on the road, especially early on in the trip, to get used to the different break on the breaking balls. But it was impossible to do with the COVID restrictions. We tried to do as much as we could inside, but it was just too difficult. It’s something we’re planning to do this coming year, hopefully.”

Laurila: Hitting at Coors Field is truly different.

Magadan: “It is, and you don’t fully realize it until you’re part of the organization on an everyday basis. That includes how hard it is on their bodies. When you’re at Coors for a 10-game home stand, you get toward the end and your body is starting to suffer. Those aches and pains are probably 25–30% tougher. Then you go on the road, and everything is different. The ball breaks differently. The fastball has a little more zip on it. The breaking ball you covered at Coors, the one that started in the same spot, now you’re swinging, and it’s in the dirt. Those things factor into how hard it is to make that adjustment from playing at Coors for a week and a half and then going on the road for a week and a half.”

Laurila: I assume the first few days away from Coors are the toughest.

Magadan: “The data backs that up. We had days of meetings last offseason and the offseason before about how to tackle this problem. We ran the gamut on what we were going to do about it. We even got to the point where we were thinking, ‘You know, maybe we can bring guys up from the minor leagues when we go on a road trip and have sim games the first couple of days to get their eyes accustomed to how the ball is breaking.’ We saw that wasn’t going to be feasible, so we ended up buying a machine — a spin rate machine — that you can dial in to how that day’s pitcher’s breaking ball is going to be. Originally, we wanted to do it on the field, but we couldn’t due to COVID and ended up doing it the cage. It just wasn’t the same. There’s nothing like being out on the field and seeing the break on the ball, and seeing how it’s coming off your bat. There were a lot of challenges last year.”

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Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Cavan Biggio, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Joey Gallo, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Tim Hyers, Trevor Larnach, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Trey Mancini, Daniel Murphy, Drew Saylor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Luke Voit, Jesse Winker.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Awesome! So much to chew on in this interview. Sounds to me like Magadan is the right guy for the job with the Rockies.