Friday, November 24, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton target of fans' frustrations

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ST. PETERSBURG

Now, here's a paragraph I've always wanted to write:

Darn that Shelton. It's all his fault.

Over the years, enough people have written it about this Shelton and that one. Finally, it's my turn.

After all, Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton still hasn't turned B.J. Upton into Barry Bonds, and he still hasn't shown Brooks Conrad how to be Tony Gwynn, and he still hasn't mentored Will Rhymes into becoming Pete Rose. The Rays' batting order still isn't Murderers' Row.

And so, despite a rare outburst in which the Rays collected six runs, 10 hits and lost to the Indians by only four Wednesday, Shelton remains a constant and convenient target in this frustrating season of the Tampa Bay Rays. Shelton is the hitting coach, and the Rays are not a hitting team, and for many, that is all the addition that is required.

Except for this: Blaming the hitting coach for the Rays' struggles is like blaming a quarterback coach for not turning Trent Dilfer into Joe Montana.

It is a strange thing, this mythology surrounding a big-league batting coach. People seem to think that Shelton should be able to give a hitter — say, Upton — a couple of secret tips about choking up and shifting his feet, and just like that, Upton should hit .320 with 30 home runs.

Except that wouldn't be coaching. That would be magic.

It doesn't work that way, not here and not anywhere else. If it did, the offseason would include wild auctions that ended with the better hitting coaches getting $50 million contracts and the private phone numbers of supermodels, who naturally they would also turn into power hitters.

Such notions are hooey, of course. Most hitting coaches are hard-working men who study their hitters, who have a tip here and there, who spend days trying to help their hitters get comfortable in the box. But they don't turn bad hitters into good ones, and they don't turn good ones into great ones.

Put it this way: How many hitting coaches in the major leagues can the average fan name without looking them up? Two? One? If they were such starmakers, don't you think most fans would be able to name most of them?

Put it another way: How many of Derek Jeter's 3,000 hits should be credited to his hitting coach?

"I think zero of those," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "I really do. The hitting coach is there to support him, to provide some information. Every now and then, you may get a coach who finds something to help this player or that one. But I think it's small. I think it's about the player."

For the record, Maddon refers to Shelton as "one of the top 10" hitting coaches in the game. Judging from the noise, some of you may disagree.

Still, it's hard to expect a team to run up the score when it gives 120 at-bats to Rhymes and 43 to Conrad and 17 to Rich Thompson and 85 to what is left of Hideki Matsui. Which of those guys makes pitchers sweat?

Remember the start of the year, when the Rays' lineup was supposed to be better because it was going to have Upton and Evan Longoria and Luke Scott and Carlos Peña and Matt Joyce? Guess how many times the Rays have played with a lineup that included all of them.

Five. Out of 92 games, five.

To his credit, Shelton doesn't talk about injuries or circumstances or backup players. Yes, he is aware his name is getting kicked around.

"When you're hired as a hitting coach or a pitching coach, you know there is going to be scrutiny when things go bad," Shelton said. "Do I worry about it? No. My concern is our 13 hitters and how they feel. If one of them had an issue, that would concern me. I'm happy the fans are passionate about our team."

Well, there is that. There are times the Rays make you want to take your own bat and apply it repeatedly to your television set. After Wednesday night, they have scored five runs or more only four times in their past 20 games. They have had 10 hits or more only 21 times (fewest in the majors) in 92 games. They are hitting only .232.

So where is a fan supposed to aim his frustration? The injuries? The hitters? The front office? The coaching? All the above?

Of course, you could always stick with a familiar target. You could always shout how much better that Shelton guy needs to perform.

That one. To be fair, this one, too.

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