Detroit – Lloyd McClendon finds it comical when people congratulate him on his “new” gig.
“Baseball is the only sport where you can get fired and rehired and then promoted to your old position,” he said on Saturday during TigerFest.
McClendon, who managed the Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate in Toledo last season, was the Tigers’ hitting coach under Jim Leyland from 2007-13. And when hitting coach Wally Joyner decided to leave the organization after last season, manager Brad Ausmus hired McClendon and longtime Toledo hitting coach Leon “Bull” Durham to replace him.
“My gut told me late last year that Wally wouldn’t be coming back and in the back of my mind, Mac was the guy,” Ausmus said. “The main thing about Mac, he has a rapport with some of the veterans. He's been around some of these hitters. He has the respect, and I like that, with our veteran core having someone of that type of stature as the hitting coach.
“And then Bull is the other side of the spectrum. He's seen a lot of our young guys. He's been in Toledo for 17 years and has seen a lot of these guys at some point and worked with them. I thought it was a good combination.”
McClendon agrees. In fact, he’s already divvied up the assignments.
“Yeah, I will take Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez, and he can have everybody else,” he joked. “Bull and I have known each other for a long time and we believe in the same things. I think it’s a perfect fit.”
One of McClendon’s initial points of emphasis this spring will be to address the Tigers’ alarming strikeout propensity. The club whiffed a franchise-record 1,303 times last season. Their strikeout percentage was 21.3 – 1.3 over the league average.
“Two-strike approach is an important thing,” McClendon said. “Listen, if Miguel Cabrera can do it, anybody can do it. I think it’s more of a mental state than anything. Particularly with two strikes and a runner in scoring position, you almost have to get into a protective mode more than anything else – just make sure you put the ball in play.”
McClendon understands that the Tigers are built to slug and that with power hitters comes a high strikeout rate.
“Oh, I like the three-run homer now,” he said. “And I don’t mind a strikeout with the bases loaded and nobody out instead of a ground ball to short. It just depends on the situation.”
Magglio Ordonez won a batting title and Cabrera won three of his four batting titles during McClendon’s previous stint as hitting coach. He said he hasn’t altered his methods or his philosophy over the years.
“I’ve always thought hitting is a very individual thing,” he said. “You can’t shape and mold guys. As an instructor, you have a responsibility to find out what makes a guy tick. What are his strengths, what are his weaknesses? Then you build on the strengths and shore up the weaknesses.
“You find a routine for each guy. If you do that, then you can sustain it the entire year.”
Two of the players McClendon and Durham spent a lot of time with last season were two of the club’s top prospects – JaCoby Jones and Steven Moya.
“JaCoby progressed quite well,” McClendon said. “He struggled initially at Triple-A, but he survived it. He showed some mental toughness. His skill level is such that he has a chance to be an impact player at the Major League level. When that happens – coming out of spring training, at some point during the season – I can’t tell you.”
Jones’ inability to hit the breaking ball was quickly exposed during his short stint with the Tigers last season. All part of a player’s maturation process, McClendon said.
“The more you play at this level, the more you know the pitching at this level, the better you become,” he said. “I liken it to Curtis Granderson, when we first got Curtis. He had to make similar adjustments and changes. But the more he played, the better he got.”
Moya’s situation is different. There is nothing left for him to prove at the Triple-A level and he’s out of minor league options. He’s hit 40 home runs and knocked in 140 runs the last two seasons. What he needs, McClendon said, was a chance to play every day at the big league level – and that’s not likely to happen in Detroit, barring an injury.
“I was a bench player and I can attest – it’s the toughest job in baseball,” he said. “And it’s extremely tough for a young player to come to the big leagues and get two or three at-bats a week. It’s just not productive.
“Can Moya be a productive player if he’s in the lineup every day? I think so.… I think he has a chance to be an impact player at the level. It’s just a matter of can we find him the playing time.”
McClendon is thrilled to be back in the big leagues and back in Detroit. But he knows too well, being a hitting coach is a suffering business.
“It's the worst coaching job in baseball, other than managing," he said. "You never have a good day. Somebody is always going to be upset. You have 12 or 13 guys and they aren't all going to get hits that day. So someone is going to be unhappy."