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Tom Brunansky is getting a feel for the job

Attached Image: Brunansky.jpg In what is thought of as one of the greatest Simpsons episodes of all-time, nuclear power plant owner turned softball manager, C. Montgomery Burns gave one of his ringers, Daryl Strawberry, an invaluable hitting tip.

“You there. Strawberry. Hit a home run,” advised the decrepit hitting instructor. Strawberry took the counsel and smacked a dinger onto the Springfield Expressway.

In a perfect world designed by major league hitting coaches, life would be that easy.Certainly, the Minnesota Twins’ newest hitting advisor, Tom Brunansky, would likely agree with that.

In reality, hitting coaches have to work with players who have different styles, personalities and needs. There is no “easy button” that fixes mechanics or gets them to recognize what they are doing wrong. Hitting coaches have to surf through a sea of information, digest it and then present it back to the players in a manner which the players can relate to.

Brunansky, much like a couple of his students, made the jump from the minors to the majors this year.

In the minor leagues, you have buses and Red Roof Inns. In the majors, you have jets and the Four Seasons. Tools for hitting coaches have just as much separation between levels. In the minors, there are no extensive databases of pitch charts to turn to or PitchF/X cameras lining the walls of the single-tiered stadiums in the Eastern League capturing every bit of movement a pitching prospect has. Minor league hitting coaches work on instinct and experience.

“Up here it’s a lot about the approaches and not about all the prep work you put into getting ready to do it because there is so much information, there’s so much video, everything you can have to get prepped and ready to go. Lower level, you don’t really have a lot, you just go out and play. Here you can really get a good idea what you’re getting into and set up a pretty good approach and have an idea what a [pitcher’s] got before you face him.”

At the major league level, you can have anything you want supplied for you at the ring of a bell. Justin Morneau, before a game, wants to know about every slider that the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia has thrown to lefties? Brunansky could have in that in charts, numbers, graphs or videos at the snap of the finger. That said, even with all the availability, Brunansky does not overindulge his hitters in the deluge of data and video. It’s not that he is advocating flying blind - it is that it can often be overwhelming.

“You can get enough stuff here to choke a cow with,” says Brunansky wryly. “You can get anything you want here. There’s some in-depth stuff. You can get any stat, any number, anything you want to look at. But how does that apply? It’s taking it and seeing the [pitcher] and seeing how he pitches out there and translating all that information and breaking it down and going ‘OK guys.’ These guys don’t want to hear all that garbage. It’s my job to go crazy and decipher all that garbage and say, OK, look, this is what he does.”

What about the duty of being the swing repair man? After the first month of the season, Brunansky, it seemed, would have his plate full just getting guys comfortable at the plate.

The Twins offense in April was fairly anemic. They completed the month with a .239 batting average, 23 out of the 30 teams, and a .355 slugging percentage, ahead of just the hapless Marlins. Rookie Aaron Hicks was posterized by pitchers. Justin Morneau provided very little punch in the cleanup spot; Ryan Doumit as well.

How does a hitting coach retool on the fly during a sport which has about two scheduled off-days a year? Like a pit stop at Daytona, it seems that major league hitting coaches have just a few moments to tinker under the hood with the mechanics, then pat them on their butts and say go get ‘em.

For example, Morneau, as was pointed out numerous times by the Twins broadcasters, was pulling his front side open like a screen door in the wind; this left him vulnerable to being pitched away, which flaw teams happily exploited. When the month concluded, Morneau held a middle infielder-esque .253/.309/.379 batting line and fewer extra base hits than he had fingers on his hands.

Would Brunansky set Morneau up with a video viewing room much like the one in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, holding his eyes open and re-watching his swing until the idea of performing that act would make him violently ill? No, although that would be an interesting technique that an experimental hitting coach should try someday (perhaps in the forward-thinking Rays’ organization). Brunansky’s philosophy revolves around executing a physical feel rather than driving home the appearance.

“A lot of that goes to just the feel. And that’s what hitting is anyways. Like anytime you play the game – it’s feel. You want guys to not really dwell on what they look at, it’s what they feel. And feel is easy to replicate, the look is tough. You can see something that looks like it needs a mechanical change in the swing and we’ll go try to implement it in the cage or on the field with the rest of the team, but it is feel that is easy to replicate and take that back into a game.”

Likewise, the season snowballed quickly out of control for Hicks in the early going. After one month of play Hicks was staring at a .356 OPS and had struck out in over a quarter of his plate appearances. Many openly wondered if he would benefit from additional seasoning in Rochester. Would it even be possible to correct course at this level? How do you straighten out a player like that on the fly?

Brunansky says it goes back to reintroducing the feel of hitting, getting hitters like Hicks and others scuffling back to the point in the batting cage and drills where they have a fundamentally sound swing. Dozens of at bats may go by without reaping the benefits of the changes but the message is that the coach would like to see the seeds of success sown during prep time.

“It’s not so much that it is ‘to take effect on the field’,” says Brunansky. “It is more or less ‘to take effect in the cage’. That’s all I look for. Look for replication in the cage, the feel in the cage and take it on the field for BP. And then after that I don’t them to think, I don’t want them to do anything. I want them to set the approach for the guy that they’re facing and the situation that they are in and trust what they did. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, you have a [bad] swing. Heck with it. We go back to work.”

Has Brunansky’s influence been a factor in the offensive resurgence in May? Obviously there are plenty of reasons for a significant rise in performance in a small period of time – some of that begins and ends with Joe Mauer. Yet the Twins find themselves with a .272 average in May, ninth-best in baseball, with a much improved .449 slugging percentage, fifth-best of the month so far. Individually, those struggling in the first month have rebounded nicely. Hicks has vastly reduced the number of strike outs and has put the ball in play with some power. Morneau is hitting .375. Doumit is slugging .500.

It is nearly impossible to separate Brunansky’s contributions from the player’s talent, but this month they are working well in tandem.

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