Greg Walker, the recently hired hitting coach for the Atlanta Braves, faces several challenges in his new position.
First and foremost, he will look to improve an abysmal offense that ranked near the bottom in most offensive categories. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, he will work with the struggling stars of the team in an effort to help them rebound from poor performances last season.
There's no debate as to the biggest challenge Walker faces this upcoming season. Jason Heyward, the Braves' right-fielder who looked like he may be Cooperstown-bound after his rookie season, had a horrific year at the plate this past season.
Heyward's struggles may have been a result of his shoulder injury early in the season, or maybe he lost confidence after his extensive slump in May. It's possible that he overcompensated for his injury which caused him to develop some bad habits at the plate. Unfortunately, and perhaps unfairly, Walker will be expected to not only ascertain what exactly caused Heyward's troubles last season, but also determine the best course of action to remedy the situation.
If Heyward rebounds and performs as expected, Walker is hailed as a hero, and Braves' fans as well as management will be happy. Sadly, if Heyward has a similar season as last year, it's highly likely that Walker and Heyward's days will both be numbered.
While other players had less than stellar seasons, most notably Dan Uggla and Martin Prado, those players have been in the majors for a while and showed flashes of excellence last season. Walker is expected to help their performance, but his job is certainly not as daunting with those players.
The other primary challenge Walker faces is changing the overall approach of the Braves' players. For a team that kept roughly the same personnel from the 2010 to 2011 seasons, their on-base percentage dropped drastically. Furthermore, all too often it appeared the players were either going up to the plate without a plan or trying to hit the long ball. Looking at the Philadelphia Phillies' offense, they work the count, wear down the pitcher, and do whatever possible to extend the inning. While no fan would be upset if the Braves suddenly played like the Phillies, the Braves' offense needs its own identity, whether it's speed, OBP, or power, and it is Walker's job to find that foundation upon which to build.
One thing is certain. It is not easy being a hitting coach. When the offense is doing well, fans are quick to give credit to the players. Hitting coaches tend to back off and not interfere with a hot-hitting player's swing. However, when the offense or a particular player is struggling, the hitting coach is expected to be able to determine the slightest mechanical flaw in a player's swing. Even if a player's struggles are mental, fans expect the hitting coach to turn into a psychiatrist and say the right words to break a player's slump. Walker has his work cut out for him, but his fresh perspective will undoubtedly stir a renewed sense of optimism among fans.
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