During the endless days of spring training, or even the slogging grind of the regular season, trying to get Tim Laker for an interview is almost impossible. Heck, locating him is difficult.
As the Mariners’ hitting coach, and with a maniacal work ethic, he’s always on the job, whether it’s observing and instructing in the batting cages, analyzing video, reviewing scouting reports or holding on-field batting practice.
But with baseball shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak, Laker doesn’t have film to watch, instruction to provide or batting practice to throw. He’s sheltering in place like everyone else. So he was available to talk via conference call Wednesday.
“I’m in Southern California at home,” he said. “For me, my days are a lot of TV. I do text and keep in touch with some of the coaches, some of the hitters, stuff like that, but pretty much a lot of sitting on the couch, playing with my dog and watching TV. And some Twitter time, too, of course. It seems like everybody’s always on Twitter now.”
He was supposed to be working in the third week of the 2020 season. Now he’s just hoping for a season.
“It’s really weird,” he said. “As long as I’ve been in baseball — 1988 was my first year, and the years are flying by, that’s like 32 years now — I’ve had a baseball season. This is the first time without it. … It’s different. It’s frustrating.”
So with his hitters spread out across the country, Laker is monitoring them via phone calls and texts with assistant hitting coach Jarret DeHart.
“We’re just making sure guys are trying to stay in shape as best they can,” he said. “You feel like that’s one thing guys can do. Everybody has access to some home workout equipment, stuff like that, they can go out and run. All of the coaches kind of divvied up the team, and we’re all making sure somebody talks to everybody every week, kind of checks in with them and sees what they’re doing.”
Some players can do more than others. Second baseman Shed Long has a place to hit in a cage, but designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach does not.
“What we found out is there’s only a couple of guys who have access to places to hit,” Laker said. “A lot of guys, as much as they’d like to hit and stay in baseball shape, it’s kind of impossible because the facilities aren’t available. …
“I was talking to Vogey yesterday. He doesn’t have a place to hit. So I was like, ‘Why don’t you at least go out and buy a net, a tee, and just at least kind of keep moving and keep that flexibility work on like all offseason.’ ”
Hitting off a tee is something MLB hitters do as part of their daily routines during spring training and the season. It’s a drill that is more useful than on-field batting practice in terms of refining their swings. But this sort of work has other benefits during the baseball hiatus.
“Just kind of keep moving around,” Laker said. “ … Even if you’re just hitting off the tee, just trying to repeat those moves, just so you don’t lose it. But, I think a lot of times you take off that time and it’s hard to get that feeling back.”
Vogelbach’s changes to his approach when facing lefties and his pre-swing set-up at the plate looked promising, Laker said.
“I thought it was good,” Laker said. “He showed the first half (of the 2019 season), the guy can hit. I think things kind of got away from him a little bit as the season went on, and some bad habits creeped in. His adjustments were more aimed toward just getting him back to where he was the first half of the year. I did see it.
“He was frustrated a little bit in spring just because he hadn’t hit any home runs yet, but Daniel Vogelbach is not a guy that is going to have to worry about power. It’s not like he lost his power. I felt like he was having better at-bats, wasn’t striking out nearly at the clip he was in the second half (of 2019).”
Laker’s first work with young first baseman Evan White left him hopeful.
“I hadn’t seen him a whole lot,” Laker said. “One thing he does is he hits the ball really hard. He’s a really strong kid and smart. That’s the thing that stood out to me the most. He’s a really intelligent guy. His swing, I guess when you look at it compared to everybody else, it’s a little bit maybe unconventional, but I think he’s got an ability to find the barrel and hit the ball hard.”
And of course, he came away impressed with phenom Jarred Kelenic.
“He’s doing everything he can to be ready,” Laker said. “It’s pretty clear for a guy that age to just go in there, one thing I noticed — everybody talked about it — was just how confident he is. He wasn’t intimidated by the situation at all and really felt like he shouldn’t be (intimidated) facing guys with big-league experience.
“He felt like he was better than the competition. He really believes that. That kind of confidence is I think rare. A lot of guys try to fake that confidence, but I think he really believes it. He has a lot of natural ability. For a kid that age, it’s special, it’s different.”
Most hitters felt almost regular-season ready when baseball was shut down in mid-March with opening day around 10 days away. This time off has removed that feeling.
“Even if guys are swinging and doing some soft-toss and some cages or anything like that, it’s not the same as seeing live pitching,” Laker said. “We were getting really close to being ready, having a full spring training under the belt. The biggest thing for hitters is seeing live pitching. That’s the biggest challenge is just getting enough live at-bats to feel comfortable once the season starts. And now it’s kind of like we have to start that all over again.”
Ideally, Laker would like another month of spring-training work for his hitters when MLB re-opens, but he probably won’t get that long.
“I think anything shorter than that would probably — if we went with three weeks, I think you could do it —but I don’t think what you’re going to get on the field is probably quite up to snuff,” he said. “If you really want guys to be as close as they could to being ready, I think it’s probably about a month.”
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