Milwaukee’s Andy Haines Talks Hitting

The fact that Andy Haines has been coaching for close to two decades doesn’t make him unique among his contemporaries. But his background does differ. Two years into his tenure as the hitting coach of the Milwaukee Brewers, Haines is just 43 years old. He’s either been coaching or managing for basically his entire adult life.

Haines earned a master’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University, and since that time he’s tutored players in independent ball, at every level of the minors — including as a coordinator — and more recently in the majors. An assistant hitting coach with the Chicago Cubs in 2018, where he worked alongside Chili Davis, Haines was hired into his current role by the Brewers in November of that same year.

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David Laurila: What stands out to you about today’s hitting environment?

Andy Haines: “What’s prevalent right now is how things have evolved with technology. Hitting is still at the mercy of pitching — it’s still a reactionary event — and the trends in the game somewhat dictate what hitters need to do to have success. You’re seeing guys rip four-seamers at the top. With technology, guys in the minor leagues can practice not only spinning the ball, but how efficiently they can spin it, and where it gets the outs.

“Everybody talks about the trends — the Three True Outcomes — and how the game is being played. For me, those are the challenges on the hitting side. And defense is a part of run prevention, too. The defense in the big leagues is incredible. Front offices have more research tools and sophistication as far as defensive metrics. They play you where you hit the baseball. So there are a lot of things trending that make it challenging to score runs.”

Laurila: How similar are big-league hitting coaches right now? Do they all speak the same language — not just the terminology, but also the concepts being prioritized?

Haines: “You might hear a phrase differently, but I think the end result of what we’re trying to accomplish is pretty obvious. Even with my background of being a hitting coordinator… there are some skills that translate. But being in a major league dugout for 162 games, with what the competition brings and what players go through preparing every night, there are also some things don’t necessarily translate. I mean, it’s just about scoring runs, man. That’s what offense is.

“It’s not the offseason, and hitting in a cage. It’s not being perfect on this swing-thought, or about the movement of a player. That stuff is important, but it’s ultimately about competing at the highest level, which is messy. It’s a game with the best pitching in the world, and the best defense in the world, and it’s staring you in the face every day. Given those challenges, getting high performance out of really talented players is what’s at the forefront of all of our minds.”

Laurila: That said, do most of today’s hitting coaches actually share the same philosophies? For instance, you’ve worked with Chili Davis and now you’re working with Jacob Cruz.

Haines: “I see what you’re getting at. I mean… it’s a tough question. I would say that for each coach at the major league level, there are going to be tons of similarities. There are also going to be some tangible differences. Everybody is going to use their experiences to help their guys, and everybody has different experiences. Chili played 19 years in the big leagues, and to listen to him talk, it’s easy to be all ears. I don’t have his background, so my experience is more from the coaching and teaching standpoint. There are the different avenues I’ve had to take, with all different types of players.”

Laurila: While you didn’t play at a high level, knowledge and the ability to teach are ultimately what’s important…

Haines: “Look, there’s nobody who respects people who put their feet in the dirt in a major-league batter’s box more than I do. To witness how skillful you have to be, and what it takes mentally — that mental warfare — to put yourself that major-league batter’s box… believe me, it matters. I can never say I did that, but by the same token, being able to do something doesn’t mean it’s going to translate to helping somebody else perform at a high level. I think our game has recognized that.

“There are plenty of guys who have played in the big leagues who can do that, and those guys are very, very valuable. I always want those people around me. When I was a coordinator and doing the hiring, or when we were looking for an assistant, I thought of Jacob. I had Jason Lane here, and he played. And while Jacob has a playing background, he’s also a teacher. He challenges himself and wants to learn.

“Being able to help someone perform at a high level is our job. Players have to think so much about themselves to perform at a high level. As a coach, it couldn’t be any more opposite of that. You don’t even have the right to have emotion as a coach. You have to be the guy that your players needs you to be. You have to walk in the door and think about what they need from you. There has been a lot to learn. I made some mistakes along the way.”

Laurila: Can you give an example?

Haines: “Well, there were plenty of them. One thing I’ll say is that going through the minor leagues, you can be more domineering, especially at the younger levels. The guys you’re working with are way more impressionable, so you can get away with mistakes as long as they know you care, and that you’re invested in them. But in the big leagues, you’re not going to get mulligans with players. They’re more guarded. The circle of people they’re going to trust to influence them is about as small as you can imagine. As it should be.

“In the big leagues, if you’re saying something incorrectly — or you’re guessing with them, as opposed to being authentic and honest — then you’re just Charlie Brown’s teacher with the ‘whah, whah, whah.’ You’re not going to make an impact. When I was a younger coach, I was kind of on a mission. It was ‘We’re going to do this and do that.’ As you mature as a coach, you begin to see very clearly that it’s okay to say, ‘I’m not 1,000% sure, but I’m going to find out.’”

Laurila: Given the proliferation of travel ball and high-tech training facilities, do most hitters come to pro ball with a good understanding of what works for them?

Haines: “That’s a great question, and I’m going to say the answer is no. Our amateur game has changed so much. It’s turned more into showcase-type events, and not really what the game demands in order to be successful, day in and day out — what a professional season is.

“There’s no question they’re more knowledgeable about evidence-based theories. It’s not just concepts to them, it’s about what really happens within the swing. That’s because of technology and what they’re exposed to, but while that’s real, the game is the best teacher. What players are learning — what is getting thrown right in their face in a minor league season — is that the laboratory environment that told you, ‘OK, that’s the correct swing’ doesn’t matter if the ‘right swing’ doesn’t match up to what the pitch demands in a game.

“That’s what those players have to learn, and I think they’re lacking in a pretty large scale because of what they miss out in the amateur game. Again, it’s more showcase-type events now. In the minor leagues, the everydayness of how the game keeps coming at you, and the quality of stuff they have to face, and the mental fortitude it takes to manage their at-bats… it’s not Disneyland. The games are way more messy than how they were raised in this laboratory environment.

“Back in my coordinator days, guys would come in knowing the technology. They were proud of their swing and their concepts. Then they’d get in a game and face a guy who can let it rip at the top of the zone, and they’d have no shot. That’s where teaching can come in. ‘OK, your thought process might be a lot different than what actually is going to happen.’ You have to go from a being-able-to-measure-it type of setting to ‘What does this pitch demand you do to square it up?’ That’s where hitting is so much different than pitching: we’re in this reactionary state. The analytics and technology on the pitching side is much cleaner. That’s why hitting in 2020 is so challenging. You just can’t put things in buckets.”

Laurila: It’s often said that no two hitters are exactly the same…

Haines: “You can talk to one player, and hear his thought process, and walk away like, ‘I can’t believe this guy can think that way and be this successful.’ But that’s his genius, and you don’t want to take it away from him. And then you talk to another player and it can be polar opposite. This guy also has success. He might even be elite. So I think what we’re all learning right now is that as much as we can measure, and as exciting as it is, sometimes we can literally throw that out with an elite player. It’s not possible, in his mind, to get to that high-level swing that works in a game. It doesn’t really mimic what is actually happening.”

Laurila: How does what happened at the alternate site this year factor into the equation? Outside of intra-squads, the players there didn’t have any game-action.

Haines: “First, I can’t give our guys enough credit for how creative they were. They were creating game-like situations and live at-bats, and on some levels the teaching the players got was even greater because… one of the biggest challenges during a season is that it’s hard to teach. You have a game staring you in the face every night. The hardest thing to do in professional baseball, during the season, is experiment. If they have a day off, you can spend that day teaching and be productive. They have a different look on their face if they’re not playing in a game that night. It’s one of the things I’m envious of in other sports. When I have conversations with coaches in basketball and football, I always remind them, ‘Hey man, it’s not the same. You guys get to practice a lot. We don’t. We’re practicing pregame, but it’s game-day.

“At the alternate site, because they didn’t have the pressure of performing every night, I think guys were able to make a lot of strides in certain areas; they were able to make adjustments. But then not having competition to see how that translates… that’s pretty tricky. Looking back to my [minor league] days, my favorite thing was Instructional League because you got to teach all morning, then try stuff that afternoon in a game where the stats don’t count. I loved it. But then almost every organization didn’t want to play games anymore. I was devastated. We’d have a good morning, but if you can’t try it in a game you walk away not being 100% certain. It will be interesting to see this coming season how the work that was done translates.”

Laurila: Jumping back to the big leagues, how are pitchers attacking hitters outside of throwing a lot of elevated fastballs?

Haines: “Teams try to pummel your weakness. Pitchers don’t pitch to their strengths much anymore. It’s pretty in-your-face. Wherever you struggle, they’re going to try to annihilate you with it. A big part of the game now for hitters is having some awareness, picking your spots, and navigating at bats. I think ‘awareness’ is a great term, and that’s something we talk about daily. You’ve got to make decisions throughout the game — throughout your at-bats — because you’re not going to get what you want all the time. There are times you might have to pick what you’re going to get. That’s the reality of it in the big leagues. I think that’s a big separator right now in the game.”

Laurila: It’s often been said that if a pitcher works to his strengths and executes, he’s going to come out ahead the vast majority of the time. Is that no longer the M.O. for most guys?

Haines: “If pitching people tell you that in 2020, they’re probably lying. I don’t see it. And I see some guys unapologetic about it. The analytics on the pitching side have been pretty far ahead of hitting. They’re going to show you where the outs are, and that’s where they’re going. They’re going to show you where the swing-and-miss is, and that’s where they’re going.

“There are guys that will pitch to their strengths. I’m not saying that’s completely gone away. What I am saying is how prevalent it is with R&D and the pitching infrastructures. Again, they know where the outs are, and they’re going to pummel that part of the zone on you. The guys who don’t want all that information are a dying breed. The John Lackey’s of the world are going to go rogue and do what they do, and not apologize for it. But those guys are almost dead in the game.”

Laurila: A question I’ve asked a number of hitters is whether they have one swing or multiple swings. It sounds like you believe that one isn’t enough.

Haines: “That’s a great question. A lot of times when I have these conversations, people get spooked a little bit, as though it’s a zero-sum game. That’s not what it is. I think of it as teaching players what’s required of them, right now, within the game. There are times… it’s like golf. It’s like, ‘Hey, man, like there are times a five-irons is OK right here. This guy’s elite at spinning the daylights out of this ball up top, and he has command. To get a barrel to it, you need tools in your bag. And you need to use them.’

“For guys who are trained, ‘This is the right swing and it’s what you have to do’ … that’s death for players. Team-wise, you need to be able to win every type of game at the highest level. You’re not going to play in one type of game, you’re going to play in games where runs are at a premium, and you’re going to have to execute. You can’t be a one-trick pony in the big leagues.”

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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, 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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Great, frank, insightful stuff. Thanks!