Mike Easler was known as “The Hit Man” for a reason. In a career that spanned from 1973-1987, Easler displayed a sweet left-handed stroke that produced a slash line of .293/.349/.454. His best years came with the Pirates and Red Sox — he also played with the Angels, Astros, Phillies and Yankees — and along the way he shared a clubhouse with some of the game‘s most-accomplished hitters. Easler — currently the hitting coach for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons — talks about several of his notable teammates in this interview.
David Laurila: Who is the best hitter you played with?
Mike Easler: Overall, the best hitter I played with was Don Mattingly. I played two years with him and I’ve never seen a guy that could hit for power and hit for average like [he did]. He was a clutch hitter. He could get a single when you needed one, and he could turn on one and burn on one, in Yankee Stadium, and go deep when he had to. He could hit lefties, he could hit righties. He was the best hitter that I played with.
DL: From a hitting coach‘s perspective, why was Mattingly so good?
ME: He was tremendously balanced. He was very confident in his approach. You hear the term, “He trusted his hands.” That means he didn’t over-swing, or try to cheat out with his hips. He kept his body in a good solid hitting position. He read the ball long out of the pitcher’s release point, and he trusted himself to hit the ball deep in the zone. In other words, back the ball up and not try to pull everything by getting his body out front. He just had tremendously good balance and hand-eye coordination.
DL: How did Mattingly compare to Wade Boggs?
ME: They were similar, to a point. Mattingly had a more complete [game] as far as power is concerned. One year he hit 30-something home runs, he hit .350 something, and he had over 50 doubles. Just ungodly numbers. Boggs would get you 200 hits, year after year after year. He was a great hitter. I played with him in Boston. In batting practice, he could hit for power, but in the game, he solely tried to hit the ball up the middle or flare the ball to left. He took a lot of pitches and worked the counts. He was just a good on-base guy.
DL: Is sacrificing power the right approach?
ME: [It is] according to what team you’re on and how the team is built around you. With the Red Sox, he was perfect because you had him leading off, or hitting second. They had Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, and on and on and on. They had the power guys, so he really didn’t have to hit for power. When he got with the Yankees, they might have hit him third there, but he was maturing as a hitter and could hit third. But, according to which team he was on, it was fine for Wade. I mean, he’s in the Hall of Fame, so evidently it worked.
Donnie knew how to look in to turn on the ball, not just to get a double or a base hit. Donnie looked in to go deep. He could take that outside pitch and hook one out of the park in Yankee Stadium with the short porch. That’s the difference with Donnie. Donnie just knew how to get the bat head out, with a good follow through and good extension, for power. Wade stayed inside the ball, backed the ball up and stayed inside, and just hit so many balls up the middle or the other way. Most of his hits to right field were pulled in the hole, or just ground balls.
DL: Who was better, Jim Rice or Dwight Evans?
ME: Jim Rice was great throughout his career. Dewey came on strong later in his career. Dewey is a Hall of Famer, one of the best right fielders you ever saw. He had a tremendous arm and was a tremendous gamer. At the end of his career, he hit for a lot of power. But Jimmy was an RBI-batting-average guy. He was a Triple Crown threat year after year after year. He made himself into a good left fielder by working hard and doing the things he had to do. Jimmy was tough. man. He was a tough out. He was strong. He could hit for power, go the other way. He was very unique in his approach, but boy he was strong and he could hit the ball hard.
DL: A criticism of Rice is that he didn’t draw a lot of walks.
ME: Oh, no, no. Jimmy was a hacker. You come close to that zone, and Jimmy was a hacker.
DL: Conversely, Evans saw a lot of pitches and drew a lot of walks.
ME: Exactly. That’s the big difference. Jimmy could hurt you from the right field line to the left field line. He could hurt you for power this way and power that way. Dewey was a mistake hitter. When you made mistakes middle-in, he’d pull you deep. He didn’t hit a lot of balls out to right field, not to my remembrance. He would strike out on certain sliders or fastballs up, but Dewey made himself into a real good hitter. The work that he did with Walt Hriniak really set the stage for his career, and he turned out to have a great career.
DL: Was Tony Armas a good hitter?
ME: Tony was a great hitter. I hit behind him the year he hit 43 home runs.
DL: He also had struck out a lot and had a low on-base percentage [.287 lifetime].
ME: That was the way it was. What you saw with Tony was what you got. Tony let it go; he didn’t hold back. He would swing and he would swing aggressively. But boy, when he got hot, he could carry you for a week or two. He was a pretty good outfielder too. He ran the bases well, played a good centerfield. I love Tony Armas. He’s a good-natured guy who always had a smile on his face. He was a gamer, always playing hard. Boy, I saw him hit some long home runs that year when I first got here, I’m telling you. 1984 was a great year. He just killed the ball over there.
DL: If you’re his hitting coach, are you concerned with his high strikeout totals and lack of plate discipline?
ME: You are concerned about it, but what are you going to do? If you have him cut down on his swing, and tell him to go to other way and make contact, then you mess up his whole swing. He was a shithouse or castle type of guy. He saw it and let it go.
Who made the statement — was it Reggie Jackson? — “Don’t let the fear of striking out stop you from swinging the bat?” He’s that type of guy. He had to swing the bat to be successful.
DL: What made Bill Madlock such a good hitter?
ME: Bill Madlock was not only a good hitter, he was a tough hitter. That SOB wouldn’t give an inch. He stayed there, and he stayed there long on the ball. He was short and quick to the ball. He had tremendous balance. He had tremendous hand-eye coordination. He could get that bat head to the baseball as quick as anybody. People didn’t realize, but he hit with a split grip. His bat was right here and WHAP! He just had short, quick hands, and boy he could hit. He could hit the ball here, or over there, and every once in a while he’d cheat and hit you a long ball. But, I didn’t really see him in his prime. I played with him later on in his career when he was with the Pirates, but in Chicago and San Francisco, man, he was a good hitter. A damn good hitter.
DL: Who among your former teammates had the best short, quick swing?
ME: Short, quick, and powerful, it had to be Wade Boggs. Wade Boggs was short and quick. The best power hitter I played with was Willie Stargell. Nobody hit the ball harder than he did when I was around. I mean, I played with him for five years over there, and goodness gracious. He was old as heck, but oh god, he hit the ball hard. It just exploded off his bat.
DL: What about for distance?
ME: Oh [expletive]. Probably hit the ball off the moon. I don’t know if you watched BP, but did you see the ball that (a player who had just taken batting practice) hit over the flagpole? That’s what Willie did regularly. And regardless of whatever is said, I’ve seen no one alive hit the ball as hard, and consistently, as Mark McGwire. I was the batting coach in St. Louis for three years. I don’t care. I don’t know. He hit a lot of home runs when he was a rookie over there and he hit them hard and far. But, with his approach and with his new stance — they say this other stuff helped him; I don’t know — this guy launched baseballs. He had perfect mechanics, perfect extension, perfect body parts exploding at the right times. His head was on the ball, good follow through. I mean he just did everything perfect. Willie Stargell hit the ball as hard, but not as far.
DL: What kind of hitter was Dave Parker?
ME: Dave Parker! David Gene was a slasher. He hit balls to all fields. He’d turn on it go [the other] way. When I played with him, he had his hands up here. Then he got to Cincinnati and he put them out here. When he put them out here — lower — BOOM! He started hitting for more power. Before, he was basically batting average, slice the ball and hit the ball the other way. Use his speed. People don’t realize that man could fly. And he was tremendously strong. When he got to Cincinnati he dropped his hands down here and started hitting for more power. He started getting more whip in his swing.
Parker was a great overall player and to me should be a candidate for the Hall of Fame. He was just as good as anyone in the Hall of Fame now, like Andre Dawson, or Jimmy Rice. Any of the recent guys. Parker is right there with them. Parker was a difference maker. He made a difference on the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club, year after year after year. Not only offensively, but defensively and the way he ran the bases. He intimated opponents. He played day after day after day; he played with injuries and pain. The guy was the ultimate gamer.
DL: What about Mike Easler? Who were you as a hitter?
ME: I’ll put it this way: My hero coming up from the minor leagues was Reggie Jackson. I took a lot of things that Reggie did with his legs – how he dropped with his knees and finished high with his follow though. I studied Pete Rose – how he followed the ball in. Mike Schmidt – how he used his wrists. I just put together a lot of people’s stances.
I was an adequate hitter. I loved the game, I loved hitting. I still love hitting. I studied it, and that’s how I became better, just by doing the little stuff, like extra work in the batting cage. That’s why I enjoy working with hitters. Get them that extra work, and try to get the best out of them.
Basically, I was an inside-out hitter made for Fenway Park. I had my power to the opposite field. I could turn on the ball, but that wasn’t my strength. My strength was actually finishing high and going the other way. Very similar to Prince Fielder. My swing was close to his, or something like that. Or his is close to what mine was. I was a decent hitter. I was a good hitter.
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.