Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays hitting coach Shelton suddenly looks like a genius

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ST. PETERSBURG

So, you still want the Rays to fire hitting coach Derek Shelton?

That has pretty much been the rallying cry of Rays fans for the past four years. Carlos Peña hits .197? Blame Shelton. B.J. Upton takes yet another called strike three? Must be Shelton's fault. The Rays get no-hit? Fire Shelton.

For a guy who doesn't actually play and isn't a manager or head coach, Shelton has taken more heat that anyone in Tampa Bay sports over the past four years.

Admit it, if you're a Rays fan, you've probably called for his head or at least cursed his name once or twice since he was hired prior to the 2010 season.

What do you have to say now?

The Rays are staying afloat in the American League East not because of their pitching, but because they can hit. The offense bailed out the pitching again Tuesday, banging out 16 hits in a 7-6 victory over the Marlins.

You can look it up. No team in baseball has scored more runs since April 17, a span of 38 games. Over that stretch, the Rays are second in the majors in batting average, third in on-base percentage, third in slugging percentage.

They are averaging just about five runs a game, fifth best in the majors.

"I'm sure it takes a little bit of pressure off (Shelton) and a little bit of the weight off of him," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "But I think we all understand how hard he works and how well he's respected (by) the offensive guys in this clubhouse."

Not that anyone outside the clubhouse is patting Shelton on the back.

"He has the toughest job in baseball," the Rays' Sean Rodriguez said. "When things are going well, the players get the credit. When things aren't going well, he gets all the blame. No matter what, he's never in a good spot. It might be the worst job there is."

Shelton smiles when he hears that. He is well aware of the criticism. He knows if it were up to some Rays fans, he would have been out of here long ago. He also knows that the moment the team goes into a collective slump — and they absolutely will because that's the way baseball works — people will start blaming him again.

"If people, at times, want to be critical of our offense, I'm fine with that," Shelton, 42, said. "It's part of the job. I knew that when I signed up for this."

Here's the thing. He has way too much to do to worry about whether Twitter or talk radio is calling for his job.

"There are ebbs and flows and you've got to try to stay as consistent as possible," Shelton said. "So when things are going well, you try to stay consistent and when things aren't going well, you try to stay consistent."

They say a parent is only as happy as his unhappiest child. Well, a hitting coach is only as happy as his worst hitter.

"If we have a big night and scored 10 runs," Shelton said, "my only concern is the guy who didn't have a good night."

Think about it. Right now, Shelton's best pupil is James Loney, who is hitting .331. That means Loney still fails 67 percent of the time.

That's why Shelton shows up at the ballpark more than six hours before every game, looking at video, poring over charts, talking with advance scouts and working with hitters — if that's what THEY want. Some days he's there to help hitters get in extra work and some days he's there to tell them they need rest. He gauges when to offer advice and when to shut up.

Shelton is not there to change swings or stances. The major-league level is way too late to start doing that. He's there to provide information, offer suggestions and, basically, just be there to listen.

Ultimately, however, Shelton cannot step into the batter's box with his hitters.

"If you go up there and don't have success, it's not because of a lack of information," Rodriguez said. "(Shelton) gives you all the information you need. At that point, it's up to us."

This season, the Rays are striking out 6.86 times a game, way down from the 8.16 of a year ago. Fewer strikeouts means more balls in play, more chances at hits, more productive outs and a better offense.

Funny how it all works. You bring in better hitters, hitters have better seasons and, suddenly, the hitting coach is smarter and better at his job. And, these days, the Rays hitting coach is pretty good.

Imagine that.

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