HOUSTON — The guiding principles of his coaching style that earn Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola such good reviews from players and bosses go back to his days as a bad player.
The helplessness he felt after working extensively and intensively for hours, even days, on his swing and having none of it transfer to his in-game at-bats.
“I know what it feels like to get in that box and just everything disappear all of a sudden and you go, ‘What just happened?’” Mottola said. “I’ll never forget that feeling.”
Or the one that would wash over him hours later as he stared at the ceiling in the middle of the night, replaying what went wrong. He would jump out of bed and go through his set-up and swing, trying to find something that worked.
“I know how hard this game is. I stunk for a long time for a lot of organizations and at a lot of levels,” Mottola said. “I genuinely know what it feels like to be up all night and wonder what’s going on. So the only goal I have each day is to make them get five more minutes of sleep.”
Most nights lately, Mottola and the Rays hitters are sleeping pretty well.
The American League East title the Rays clinched Saturday and the league-best 97 wins they took into play Tuesday against the Astros are due in large part to the best offensive year in franchise history.
Their team-record 829 runs are second-most in the majors, their 211 home runs eighth, their .320 on-base percentage 11th — offsetting their .242 average (16th) and AL-leading 1,485 strikeouts (third-most overall). This is Mottola’s fifth full season on the job, and they have improved their runs ranking each year.
As Mottola — yes, he was the guy drafted (by the Reds, from UCF) just before the Yankees took Derek Jeter in 1992 — struggled as a player, spending most of his 13 years at Triple-A (getting only 25 hits in 125 big-league at-bats), he had a revelation that would become a major part of his coaching philosophy.
“Fortunately, I played with a lot of good players and realized they all had a different style,” said Mottola, 49. “So there’s no secret out there that somebody is holding that works across the board.”
As he moved into coaching (first with the Blue Jays, including 2013 at the big-league level, then with the Rays, starting in the minors in 2014), he made sure to view and coach each player differently. He molds his methods accordingly, rather than running a uniform program they have to adapt to. Despite the long hours of video study and cage work it entails, it remains one of his strengths.
“It’s not even all based on his coaching that makes him such a good coach,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “Obviously, he’s going to go out there and he wants to make you the best hitter that you are. And one of the great ways of him doing that is he kind of puts everything that he knows off to the side.
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“He wants to know what you want to do, what you’re thinking, what your thought process is at the plate, all that kind of stuff. So when he does get ready to tell you something, it’s in your verbiage and from what you understand. I think that’s one of the main keys that helps everybody that comes here to be so successful is that he’s not cookie-cutter to each hitter.”
Which means not just having specific plans for 14 different players but also methods for how best to communicate with each. “The biggest thing that stands out with him is the interpersonal part of it,” bench coach Matt Quatraro said. “Trying to figure out each guy’s temperament and how far to push their buttons.”
Mottola will ask the players to show him what they’ve done in the past and tell him how they feel when they’re going good so he knows what to strive for. He encourages them to say no — “Tommy Pham-style” — if he suggests something they don’t want to try or had done previously without success.
He empowers Ozzie Timmons, the first-base coach who doubles as the assistant hitting coach, to work directly with players he connects with better at the time.
And Mottola makes clear to his hitters that he has no ego. He is willing to not only listen but welcomes input from the “hitting guys” that many players now employ, dads, school coaches, and other influences, with the trust they are all working toward the same goal.
“I want fresh ideas,” Mottola said. “It’s not about me. Our relationship is good enough they can go, ‘Well, my dad said this. My wife said this. My guru said this.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t (notice).’ I’m blind to it. It’s kind of like when you’re with somebody all year long and they put on 20 pounds, and you don’t notice it. It just happens.”
Unlike Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich calling a play for Tom Brady, Mottola has no control once the hitter steps up to the plate. More like pitching coach Kyle Snyder, Mottola’s job is as much, or more, psychologist — making sure the hitters are prepared and confident and consistent enough in their beliefs to not let one bad game lead them to worry.
“At the end of the day,” Mottola said, “I want them to sleep better that night.”
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