LA's offense takes its cues from Mattingly
Hitting coach's leadership makes him manager material
LOS ANGELES -- When Joe Torre agreed to manage the Dodgers, one of his conditions was that Don Mattingly come with him.
He wanted Mattingly as his chief aide and, presumably, manager-in-training. Torre is now two years into a three-year deal and has never made it a secret who he would recommend to replace him. In fact, he recommended that Mattingly replace him when he left the Yankees, who passed on Mattingly and chose Joe Girardi.
"It's just a feel you get when you're around somebody," he said of Mattingly's leadership skills. "I feel strongly he's capable of managing. He puts his superstar ability on the back burner. He's a detail guy with great communication skills and he just has a feel for the game."
Mattingly got it, he said, coming up with a Yankees team that had role models like Goose Gossage, Lou Piniella, Bobby Murcer, Graig Nettles and Willie Randolph. Leaders all, said Mattingly.
"I like guys that are confident in their own ability," said Mattingly. "I want guys that you can count on. Guys that are great players, well, there are other guys that, you know what, you can count on this guy. He'll be here, be on time, he's like no-maintenance, you don't have to pat him on the back to get him going when he's not swinging good. I like guys that are tough, who -- when things are going bad -- they have the ability to say, that's all right, we'll be OK, it's just something we're going through. That inner toughness and confidence. I want guys that are tough."
Mattingly, 48, was Torre's bench coach in 2007 after three years as hitting coach. As a player, he was one of the premier first basemen of his generation, ending a 14-year career in 1995. He won nine Gold Gloves, was a six-time All-Star, had a career batting average of .307 and was the American League MVP in 1985 with 35 home runs and 145 RBIs.
Often, a former star-turned-teacher struggles to connect with a younger generation of students. But not Mattingly.
"I think the biggest thing about Donnie as a hitting coach is that he doesn't complicate things, he makes things simple and easy to understand," Dodgers first baseman James Loney said.
"I don't think it hurts to have a coach you know has done it on the field. There may be a guy who never played but knows the right approach. But you know this guy did it on the field. Why not trust and believe him? Some of the best players don't know how they did it or can't translate it to a young player. Donnie can. And he knows that everybody is different."
Mattingly is the eighth Dodgers hitting coach in the past 10 years, and the most successful. His offensive approach is one of aggressive patience. The goal, particularly in the early innings, is to make the opposing pitcher work hard, go deep into counts, get the starter out of the game as early as possible and feast on relief pitching.
After taking leave to attend to family issues for the first half of 2008, Mattingly took over the Dodgers' offense at the All-Star break from interim replacement Mike Easler and it posted the second-best team average in the league (of course, the two-month addition of a torrid Manny Ramirez didn't hurt).
More to the point, this year's offense under Mattingly edged the Mets to lead the league in batting average, as well as on-base percentage. This time, Ramirez not only wasn't torrid, he wasn't even there for 50 games while serving a drug suspension.
Right fielder Andre Ethier said one of the reasons he has emerged as a big-time slugger is a swing adjustment that Mattingly recommended: the release of his top hand on the follow through.
"I did it on and off last year, but I've worked a lot with Donnie this year developing this type of swing," said Ethier. "I used to be two hands all the way through. This way, I'm not tied up and my swing is looser and I can reach for balls in front that I couldn't do when keeping both hands on the bat throughout the swing. Donnie has really helped."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.