Jeff Manto stresses approach over mechanics and believes in letting a hitter be himself. The philosophy is paying dividends for the first-year Chicago White Sox hitting coach, as his team currently ranks sixth in MLB in runs scored and fifth in home runs. A big part of that success has been the reemergence of Adam Dunn and Alex Rios, who have flourished under his watch.
Manto shared his thoughts on hitting, and four key members of the White Sox lineup, last month at Fenway Park.
Manto on Adam Dunn and confidence: “Adam has great athleticism. He really has a good bottom half in his swing, and as big as he is, he has great eye-hand coordination — despite his strikeouts. He has the ability to put a lot of balls in play, although it’s not necessarily happening right now. And he has a great swing path.
“I would define athleticism, for a hitter, as being able get to all parts of the plate. There are some guys who become too mechanical and strictly have the ability to hit middle-in. Athleticism is showing the ability to take a left-handed curveball, or a left-handed slider, that’s down and away and hit it to left-center. Adam can do that.
“Adam’s swing path is… I don’t know if ‘traditional’ is the right word, but it’s a bat path that comes down through the zone. He has some length in his swing behind him and he has great length out in front of him.
“I don’t think [the length] contributes to his strikeout totals. I think pitch selection does that for him. It’s a timing thing. His swing path is fine.
“Why [is he having a good year]? Number one, he’s healthy. And despite the whole mechanical part of it, I think he just believes that he can hit again. He believes that he is a superstar and believes that he a good hitter. When you have confidence on top of ability, you’re dangerous.
“When a guy is struggling, it’s usually more mental than anything. I firmly believe — and I’m probably in the minority on this — that once you get to the big leagues, your mechanics are just about fine. I don’t think you ever have the perfect mechanics on every swing, but if you have a good approach every night, you can succeed. Everybody at this level has the mechanics to play here.”
On Alex Rios and adjustments: “Rios, right now, is such a great hitter. With him and me, it was an evolution of discussions on what he wanted to do with the ball. When he was spread out… in talking to him, his batting stance didn’t match what he wanted to do with the ball. He wanted to drive the ball to all fields, get on top of some breaking balls, and on top of some fastballs. Being spread out didn’t allow him to do that. As we talked, he moved himself and stood up taller. Now he sees a lot differently and isn’t missing a whole lot of pitches.
“We talked. I wasn’t going to go in there and be a hitting coach who demanded that anything got done. We had conversations and he believed, and trusted, what we had to say. That’s when he took off.
“I’m not a big video guy. I know that video is very important and I know it plays a major role, but it’s just a part of the hitting department. It’s not solely the hitting department. We didn’t look at video, we looked at results. One thing we try to do here is worry about the ball. We believe that if we worry about the ball, the ball becomes the most important thing and mechanics will take care of themselves.
“As a hitting coach, I’m looking for balls hit hard. If you’re squaring the ball up — if you’re hitting it hard — I firmly believe that your mechanics are sound, and your approach is sound.”
On Paul Konerko and preparation: “Our guys will tell me what their plan is, and if I disagree with that, then we’ll have a discussion about it. There are a few guys on our team who like to look middle-in, and hit away. That’s not the traditional way of way of doing things, but there are a lot of successful hitters who do that. The zone you look in varies hitter to hitter.”
“Paul Konerko, probably [wants the most information on the team]. He likes to see where balls are being hit. He likes to know what he’s doing, because he’s such a conscientious guy. He pays attention to a lot of different things. He cares.
“What we look for is where their pitches are, whether he’s an arm-side guy or a glove-side guy. If we know that a guy can’t throw his fastball to his arm side, well, we’re looking glove side, and vice versa. We’re not going to sit here and try to cover the whole plate. We’re looking tendencies. We’re looking to see where they throw most of the time.
“[Konerko] wants a few people involved, but all we do is validate what his plan his. He’s one of the superstars that truly accepts and appreciates coaching.”
On Gordon Beckham and mechanics: “Gordon is finally getting his mechanics to where he can sustain 600 plate appearances. Last year was quite a bit uphill. His hips were moving quite a bit, but now he’s trying to stay in place more often. His lower half was coming up and sliding a little bit, and it was dragging his bat through the zone. He’s cleaned that up quite a bit.
“When you’re running your hips all over the place… there are a thousand drills to help you feel that. You want them to concentrate most on the drills that will help them feel what they need to adjust. And it’s a commitment. You have to mentally and physically commit to making an adjustment.
“In a more general sense, one of the downfalls of hitting is that it has become so darn mechanical. I think there is a time and place for mechanics. When you’re dealing with so much stress and so much pressure at these high levels, you have to depend on your approach. Some might argue, but in my opinion, your approach is more important than your mechanics. When you have 40,000 people screaming down your throat, you have to be able to stick to your approach.
“If a hitter’s approach is correct, and he can’t get it done, then it’s mechanics. That isn’t very common, because like I said earlier, if you’re playing at this level, you have mechanics. There might be a tweak here or there, but nothing that needs an overhaul. If you need an overhaul, you’re not ready to play here.”
On letting hitters be themselves: “We have 13 hitters and I try to teach 13 different ways. I’ll tell 13 different hitters 13 different spots, and 13 different plans. I don’t believe there is one way of hitting. In my opinion, a good hitting coach has to teach 13 different ways. That’s what I try to do.
“When I played, I had Charlie Manuel and Joe Maddon as hitting coaches, and they both made sure that I took care of my strengths. I want my guys to experience what I experienced. I had great hitting coaches who let me be me. When I needed to be instructed, they weren’t afraid to come in and say, ‘Hey, do this,’ but mostly they let me be me.”
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.