Don Mattingly Talks Hitting

Don Mattingly knows hitting. The Miami Marlins manager slashed .307/.358/.471 over his 14 seasons with the New York Yankees, winning a batting title along the way. Since his playing days, he’s served as a hitting coach for both his former team and for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Donnie Baseball” also managed the Dodgers, a five-season stint that preceded his arrival in Miami six years ago.

Mattingly shared his thoughts on hitting, both mechanical and philosophical, over the phone prior to a recent game. (This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

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David Laurila: Let’s start with your playing career. How would you describe who you were as a hitter?

Don Mattingly: “I kind of changed over the years. I came up as a guy who was probably known more for just putting the ball in play. I hit for [a high] average in the minor leagues. I used the whole field and had more of a hit-it-where-it’s-pitched type approach. From there, I kind of grew in strength, which allowed me to drive in runs. I became more of a doubles guy.”

Laurila: Was the change mostly a matter of getting stronger, or were there adjustments, as well?

Mattingly: “I definitely made adjustments. The biggest was probably getting physically stronger — that was the start of it — [because] I didn’t really hit for true home run power. I didn’t have home run power through the minor leagues.

“More than anything, Lou Piniella had a huge impact on me going from a guy that was hitting doubles to a guy that was hitting doubles and homers. It was really nothing more than basically learning how to backspin the ball. I’d been more of a top-hand guy that hit a lot of topspin balls in the gap; I thought I hit them really well, they just didn’t go out. I’d always be kind of surprised, because I felt like I crushed it. Then I learned to use the bottom hand, and shorten my route, which unleashed more power.”

Laurila: How does a hitter go about better-using his bottom hand?

Mattingly: “There are a number of drills you can do to use your bottom hand better. There is also a little bit of a thought process in your work. For me, I was a left-handed hitter and a left-handed thrower. My bottom hand was my right, so I was just naturally a little weaker on that side… I don’t know if it’s ‘weaker,’ or less coordinated — when you’re a kid coming up, you’re not as coordinated on that other hand. But there are drills to work on that, and to shorten your route, and you end up getting backspin.”

Laurila: There is a lower-half component in driving the ball, as well, correct?

Mattingly: “They kind of go hand-in-hand, honestly. If the lower half is coming off early, there is no way the bottom hand is going to work. You’re going to come around balls. You’re going to have a longer swing and not be as direct to the ball. So they kind of go hand-in-hand, but there are some drills you can do with the bottom hand that start to put that lower half… it keeps it in better position, and allows it to work on time, in sequence.”

Laurila: I’m guessing that you didn’t think about biomechanics and the kinetic chain back in your playing days. Or did you?

Mattingly: “I did not. I didn’t think about anything like that, but I did know… and again, I credit Lou. I felt like he showed me how that bottom hand worked. When I was coming up, it was kind of Charlie Lau, and I’d say Walt Hriniak was part of that weight shift [philosophy]. Right? People believed in weight shift. And I still… I mean, when you see the very best hitters, they all have that weight shift, that transfer from back-to-front at the right time, and firmed up on the front.

“Lou really… over time, I paid attention, and did things. It helped me to understand. I feel like it helped me be a good teacher. I can watch a guy’s swing and see almost instantly what’s going on with his swing. Lou gave that to me.”

Laurila: Given all the responsibilities of a manager, you probably don’t have a lot of time to work with hitters…

Mattingly: “Yeah, it’s not as much as I would like. That part of it is really hard. Lou was my hitting coach, and then he became the manager and just didn’t have time for me. I’d be scuffling, and he’d show me something and be like, ‘OK, go ahead, you’re good.’ So you don’t have the time as a manager. You have to rely on your people who understand that side of it. Even though I see it… I mean, I’ll talk to our hitting guys when I see something. But I’m not in that cage every day, and I know that if you’re not in there every day, and you’re not on top of that guy… you want to be careful with the voices. You have to be careful about giving information when you’re not backing it up with constant… really, you’ve got to watch every swing that he’s taken, and understand which one is right and which one is wrong. And why. Then you can slowly help him understand what’s going on with his swing. What you’re really trying to teach them is to understand how their swing works.”

Laurila: Your bench coach [James Rowson] is a former hitting coach.

Mattingly: “Yes. And James is basically our hitting coach. He came over with the title of bench coach, but yeah, we were able to wrestle him away from the Twins. He oversees the hitting.”

Laurila: I assume the two of you must talk about hitters and swings when you’re together in the dugout…

Mattingly: “Not so much in the dugout. If we’re talking about hitting, it would be more behind the scenes. In-game, [a manager’s] mind is in a lot of different places. But his mind is locked in on the hitters and what they’re doing.

“There’s a process to helping guys. There are certain guys you can help quickly. With other guys, it’s a process of building. With the older guys, you’re more able to show them something, they do it, they feel it, they got it. Younger guys are more… you know, they hear so many voices from the internet, or whoever. They listen to everybody. And if they struggle, they change. If they’re hitting, it’s ‘Oh, that’s why.’ If they’re not hitting, it’s ‘Oh, I’m doing something wrong, and my high school coach used to be able to help me.’ So you get so many different voices for young guys. With those guys you have to stay on some sort of process.”

Laurila: When I interviewed [Rockies hitting coach] Dave Magadan this past winter, I asked him if the swing is often over-emphasized when coaching young hitters. Do you feel that’s the case?

Mattingly: “I think it just needs to be kept in its place. Right? The mechanics of the swing — I’m assuming that’s what we’re talking about — well, we talk about that a lot. Good mechanics just tell you what you can get to and what you probably can’t [get to]. If you’ve got bad mechanics, there are still going to be pitches you can hit, but you’re going to have holes. You’re going to have different holes that you can’t do anything about if the guy makes pitches.

“Hitters with more solid mechanics, with shorter routes, can handle more pitches. That is one separate thing for me: the swing and how it works. And then the other side is the hitting part, which is probably just as important: your game plan, your approach, your understanding of what you do well. You need to be honest with that. You have to understand, ‘Hey, I don’t hit this pitch well, [so] I’ve got to quit swinging at it.’ And that’s where [the pitchers] are trying to go, because they’ve got all the information for what you do well and don’t do well. So they’re two separate issues. The mechanics are one issue, and the approach is probably just as important as the swing itself.”

Laurila: Some hitters like to let the ball travel, while others try to catch it out front. Are those things that can be changed fairly easily, or are they ingrained into a hitter’s DNA?

Mattingly: “I don’t think they’re ingrained, [but] guys that let it travel are guys that are probably more trusting of their swings and are probably shorter to the ball. The guys that are trying to catch it out in front are basically always looking to catch it out front. Basically, to me… I call it ‘cheating.’ They don’t handle nearly as many pitches. If you’re trying to catch the ball out front all the time, then you’re susceptible to way more areas.”

Laurila: Can a hitter do both?

Mattingly: “Absolutely. They can do both, but I don’t know if they will do both, because we’ve promoted one side, as an industry, for a long time. We’ve promoted ‘get the ball in the air’ — basically the launch angle thing — and now we’ve got 10, 12, 15 years of kids that replicate big leaguers. And they may be replicating the wrong one.

“As an industry, we talk about it so much. And we push it. The guys that are teaching these kids at eight years old are teaching that. That’s where I think I get lost. It doesn’t make sense. I feel like you can be a really good hitter, and get the ball in the air. Nobody ever told us to hit groundballs. Right? I never heard ‘hit a groundball.’ But there are times where you work on hitting low, hard liners in your work, to be able to shorten your path, to help you to be able to catch the ball on time, in the game, and get it in the air in the right spot.’”

Laurila: I’ve asked a number of hitters about the number of swings they have. Is it just an A-swing, or do they also have a B-swing? How many should a hitter have?

Mattingly: “I think there’s one swing.”

Laurila: One swing works for all zones and all pitches?

Mattingly: “Pretty much. Yeah, it’s the same swing all the time. You’re not having a swing for the ball down-and-away, and a different swing on the ball up-and-in, or in the middle. It’s really all the same swing, it’s just a matter of where you hit it. It’s the depth of the ball that dictates. It’s the same swing, over and over.”

Laurila: A lot of hitters have swings geared to lift balls down in the zone. Does that swing work for elevated fastballs?

Mattingly: “That’s what we’ve created, right there. I like telling the story that in one room, the powers that be — the guys that are talking about the analytics — are going into the hitting room and saying, ‘Hey, we’re hitting too many groundballs. We’ve got to get the ball in the air. This is the correct launch angle: X, X, X.’ Then they walk out of that room, and into the pitcher’s room, and they say, ‘Hey, throw the ball up here, because with what they’re trying to do, they can’t hit that.’ To me, that’s basically what has happened in this game. The same side is telling both of them to do different things.”

Laurila: With as cyclical as baseball often is, do you think we’re going to trend away from that? Or is this what we’re going to see for the foreseeable future?

Mattingly: “I don’t know. It depends. If they try to make changes to the strike zone — if they lower it to try to get more offense — you’re just promoting what we’ve been doing. If you take the shifts away, you’re saying, ‘OK, go out and hook’ to the guys that are pulling the ball and rolling over, the guys who are pulling everything.

“What I have seen over the last, probably couple of years, is that more guys are getting to that high ball better. More guys are learning to flatten that ball up there. They’re still susceptible with the amount of velo that we have, but I think there’s more anticipation of it now, because everybody kind of does the same thing. It’s like ‘down, down’ — the tunneling down — and then up. Right? So I see more guys anticipating that high fastball today than I did a couple of years ago. And I think the lack of the sticky [substances] has helped hitters a little bit, too. But I’ve definitely seen more guys trying to flatten [their swings] up there.”

Laurila: I work out of Boston, and from day one of spring training, Alex Cora has been stressing the importance of putting balls in play. He’s not the only manager who has been doing that.

Mattingly: “I do think there’s been a tide turning. Even Derek [Jeter]. But it’s hard to fight the industry on this, because the guys in your own office don’t believe in it. Putting it in play. Don’t worry about the strikeouts; they don’t matter. It’s just an out. Right? But I think there is a little bit of trend from certain people to get back to a little bit different time.

“We’re seeing more numbers that talk about contact rates, more analytics about in-zone swing-and-miss. Your chase rates and your swing decisions. All that kind of stuff. And they’re important. Those are things that tell you about a hitter. For guys that are missing in the zone, there is probably quite a bit of length in their swing. Guys that don’t miss in the zone… when it’s a strike, they get a pretty good swing on it. That’s different. So there are more numbers with that. So I think it’s changing a little. Again, I think that’s it’s… boy, it’s been going on for a long time.”

Laurila: You mentioned Derek Jeter. Can you elaborate on his thoughts?

Mattingly: “Derek talks about how we need to have some type of two-strike approach. There are times when you really need to put a ball in play. That’s when you need to at least have that in your bag. When you talk about two different swings… two-strike approach is more of a thought-process than it is a change in the swing. You might shorten it a little bit, but it’s more of a thought-process that helps you to put the ball in play.

“What’s really happened over the years is [a philosophy of] ‘Never get away from your best swing; always keep going for it.’ That’s probably good for certain circumstances, but there are other ones like, ‘Man, we’ve got second and third, and they’re playing the infield back, and all I need is a groundball to the right side to get a run, and to get a guy to third with a chance for another run.’ Instead, you get a strikeout and a pop up, and you’re out of the inning.

“Derek is definitely a believer in putting the ball in play, being able to move runners, being able to add on a run. But you don’t totally go away from some of the things that the numbers tell you will score you more runs. You listen to both sides. There are times for everything [and] never one absolute way to do it. You need to add some common sense to the whole thing.”

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Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Joey Gallo, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Tim Hyers, Trevor Larnach, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Daniel Murphy, Drew Saylor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Zac Veen, Luke Voit, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Nick Yorke.





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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Jim
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Jim

Not only is Mattingly a great hitter and a great manager, I think he is a really good guy. I was at the Dodgers’ spring training facility a few years ago, standing just outside the ropes on the path to one of the main fields. And Don came by, with a smile on his face, and reached out to shake my hand — at no prompting from me. I’ll never forget that.