Fisher Cats Hitting Coach Reflects on Championship Season

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Gosportscards.com photo 

Many people who knew Hunter Mense warned him about taking the hitting coach job at AA New Hampshire.

After a season in the Padres’ organization, Mense had been recommended for the position last off-season by the Blue Jays newly hired minor league hitting co-ordinator, Guillermo Martinez.  Mense interviewed for the position, and two days later was offered the spot Player Development Director Gil Kim.  In preparing for his interview, Mense had done his homework, and saw that top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette, among others, would likely be his charges.  But some in Mense’s circle suggested he would be getting into a no-win situation if he took the job:

I talked a bunch of people and they’re like – Hunter, that’s not a good opportunity because you’ll have all the pressure in the world because the expectations that come along with coaching these guys is so high.

Nonetheless, when Kim called, Mense jumped at the opportunity.  And in the end, he took a great deal away from the experience, which included coaching the best prospect in all of minor league baseball for half a season, and an Eastern League championship:

I got so much more out of those guys than they got out of me. Everyone of them. I learned so much more about hitting and about baseball and about coaching and professional baseball and everything that goes along with it from them. Way more than they learned from me so it was such a great opportunity and there’s no way I couldn’t take it.

 

 

Born in Liberty, MO, Mense was undrafted out of high school, so he went the collegiate route, attending the University of Missouri.  Mense had a tremendous sophomore season, played for Team USA that summer, and after being named a pre-season 3rd team All American by Baseball America, he appeared to be a solid bet to be taken in the first 3-4 rounds of the 2007 MLB draft.  Such was not to be the case for the Outfielder, however, and after getting off to a slow start, he found himself in a downward spiral, and in his own words, “I was hurting myself and the people around me.”   Mense finished his junior season with a .258/.328/.390 line, and his draft stock dropped as a result.  He lasted until the Marlins selected him in the 17th round.

Despite that disappointment, there were a couple of silver linings to that disappointing season.  At this parent’s request, Mense came under the mentorship of Rick McGuire, who was Missouri’s track coach, and more importantly, was the well-regarded head of the school’s sports psychology department.  Mense initially balked at the prospect of meeting with McGuire, but after spending several hours in conversation with him, he felt a great burden had been eased as a result:

I don’t necessarily remember exactly what we talked about or things that we did, or anything like that, but I just remember walking out of his office that day and feeling like I had at a weight lifted off my shoulders.

In his next game, a more relaxed and focussed Mense had four hits, and turned his season around.  And through his exposure to McGuire, a post playing career had been laid out in front of him.  When Mense was released in his fourth season by the Marlins, he eventually returned to Missouri, and began to study for his Masters in Sports Psychology.  If there was a benefit, when all was said and done, to his draft stock dropping, it was that in his first year in the Marlins organization in the New York-Penn League in 2006, one of his teammates was a utility infielder by the name of Guillermo Martinez, who became a life-long friend.

 

After his release from the Marlins, Mense went home and played Indy ball in Kansas City for a couple of seasons, but he could see the writing on the wall, and began to prepare himself for his next career.  He decided he wanted to return to Missouri to finish his undergraduate degree, and he reached out to baseball coach Tim Jamieson, who took Mense on as an undergrad assistant coach, working with the team’s hitters.  Over the course of four years, as he moved into post-grad work, Mense served a variety of roles for the team:  undergrad and graduate volunteer assistant coach, and colour commentator on the team’s radio broadcasts.  When an opening on Jamieson’s staff became available following the 2015 season, Mense was a natural fit, and was offered the job.  Unfortunately, Jamieson had not taken the Tigers to an NCAA regional since 2012, and after he failed to do so again in 2016, he tendered his resignation.  A new head coach came in, and Mense was encouraged to explore coaching opportunities elsewhere, and after a summer off, he connected with the Padres, and was named the hitting coach at Tri-City, their Northwest League affiliate.  When the Blue Jays came calling following his first summer with the Padres last year, the organization was understandably unwilling to let him go at first.  The connection with his former teammate Martinez was integral in Mense’s getting the opportunity with Toronto:

… any time you play with somebody, or you know somebody that continues to stay in baseball like he has, you just automatically stay in touch with those people and you know you always have something to talk about  –  especially when it’s a hitting guy. So we always stayed in contact throughout the years.

 

With top prospects Guerrero and Bichette supported by the likes of Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr, New Hampshire Manager John Schneider jokingly referred to travelling with the Fisher Cats to being with a boy band.  Everywhere the team went, they were the centre of a great deal of media attention.  Underneath it all, however, everyone involved was pretty much having a blast, including newcomer Mense.

It was so much fun being around that group as a whole and then being around that group as an offence. It was it was so much fun just because I was a new one to the group. They were all a bunch of guys that had known each other, and had played with each other and that had played with Schneids last year. So I was the one that had the privilege of getting to know all of them especially through the first half. So they welcomed me with open arms and listened, and tried new things, and tried new drills, and tried new ideas and listened to new ideas from somebody that hadn’t been in the organization. So I felt really good about that just in a sense that they took me in and treated me like one of their own. I think it was like that with everybody that came up – if there was a guy that came up for a day a week a month two months whatever it was or came down it was the same sort of deal so I think when you have that and you put all those pieces together and you have some veteran pieces and better parts that are consistent, and know what they want out of a unit, then I think you’re going to have a lot of success.

With a stellar offence to work with –  the Fisher Cats led all of minor league baseball in OPS by 15 points – Mense was careful not to come in and make wholesale changes right away.  Players like Bichette and Guerrero know their swings so well that there’s little a hitting coach can do in terms of their mechanics.

If you’re a professional baseball and especially at the AA level you’ve got a bunch of guys who – one, they’re older, and they’re more established  – they’ve had success. They wouldn’t be at that level if they didn’t have success, too……  They’re going to be their best teacher, and at that point you think about all the hitting coaches and all the hitting people they’ve had around them up to that point in their lives. And if you’re a hitting guy and you come in and you start trying to tell them they need to do this you need to do this and this isn’t going to work….. You’re going to lose them really fast.

For the first half of the season, Mense was careful to respect those boundaries with his hitters.  He focussed on being available as a resource if he was needed, and spent time with his players in the batting cage and in the dugout, where the conversations were often more about life itself than about hitting.  The rapport that he built with them helped to lend his ideas and presence added credibility as the season progressed:

You start to build up this massive amount of trust, and through that then they start asking questions, and they start wondering different things that they have never thought about. As long as you come with an open and creative mind as a hitting coach, I think you’re going to get a lot more buy-in than a guy who’s just going to come in and just try and tell these guys what they should and shouldn’t be doing because these guys have all got to this point because they’ve had success.

With this approach, Mense feels the best job he did as a coach all year was his work with Guerrero:

(I just took) a step back and just let him do his thing,because I think I truly believe that there are a lot of a lot of coaches…… they just want to get in there and just don’t feel like they’re coaching unless they’re actually doing something mechanical with the player and to me by far the biggest wrong that you can make as a coach is doing that, because if something’s working and it’s really working for them, and you try changing it, you’re not going to get any buy-in from anything that you’re going to do with them.  

 

 

When asked to summarize his philosophy of hitting, Mense puts it down to a basic tenet:  “get a pitch early in the count that you can hit over an outfielder’s head.”  While that seems like a simple statement, it incorporates a number of elements, including being aggressive early in the count, before a pitcher with effective secondary pitches can gain an advantage.  But if you want to hit a ball over an outfielder’s head, Mense feels hitters need to be selective in their aggressiveness:

You’ve got to get the right pitch to do it with. So it’s zoning in on an area that you want to hit in and being steadfast on just dominating that area.

And when a hitter gets his pitch, he needs to get his best swing off:

You can’t hold anything back and you have to really get your A swing off, and then the last part of that is getting it over somebody’s head is not just getting your best swing off and your best swing is a line drive up the middle. Your best swing should  be able to get some air underneath the ball that’s going to make an outfielder turn and run and run back……

In today’s rapidly changing game, hitters need to put loft on the ball, because:

…..if you aren’t hitting balls out of the yard or you aren’t driving balls in gaps and you’re just a singles guy, you’re going to get left behind.

New Hampshire had a board in their locker room that listed all hitters who had hit balls over 100 mph, which really helped them buy into the best-swing/in-the-air mentality.  Perhaps the hitter who bought in the most and benefitted from it significantly as a result was Harold Ramirez.  Back in AA for a third season, Ramirez hit the ball as hard as any Fisher Cat, but in 2017 the result was primarily into the ground, leading to a disappointing season for Ramirez.  Some adjustments to his swing this year led to a batting title:

….we worked the whole year on putting his body into a different position to where he’s still hitting balls hard, but they’re just coming off the bat at an angle where it’s going up instead of going down, and then instead of hitting .267, he’s hitting .320 and leading the league in hitting, and he’s got 40+ doubles.

 

 When he does get to Toronto, likely by mid-April, Vladdy Jr will be subjected to a Mount Logan-sized amount of pressure, carrying the expectations of a country  – most of which has only heard or read about him, or maybe has seen him on grainy internet video. Mense thinks he’ll be more than up to the challenge:

The really cool thing about Vladdy is whenever the situation is challenging , whenever the situation is hard,  whenever we’re facing a guy that was really good, he would always like just rise up to a different level….I’ve never been around a guy who has wanted to be challenged and steps up and rises to a challenge more than him.

 Mense tells a story that demonstrates Guerrero’s ability to tackle challenges.  The Fisher Cats took a pitching machine on the road with them, which Mense operated.  During Guerrero’s last series with New Hampshire before his planned promotion, Mense set the machine to throw fastballs.  A few hitters took him up on it, but Vlad was content to watch curiously from the sidelines. The hitters would take turns moving closer to the machine, trying to square up balls, until they were about 15 feet away, at which point they could no longer get around on the pitches:

… there isn’t any one of the three guys who could really do it – they’re struggling, anything they hit was going straight into the ground and they were late on it. And I catch Vladdy out of the corner of my eye – he’s over in the other cage. He’s watching what’s going on and he’s seeing that this is really challenging. I can see the wheels spinning in his head and saying to himself, “OK, this is challenging.”

At that point, Guerrero decided to take a turn:

He goes up there – boom! – Takes a step up -boom! – Takes a step up -boom! – Takes a step up barreling up things and gets to about 15 feet where (the other hitters) were. Takes a couple swings doesn’t barrel it up, kind of goes straight to the ground, and he takes a step out. Two more to the back of the net. Take a step out leaves the cage. Kinda like this look on his face like yeah OK what’s next. That was it. It was like he was so intrigued and so interested in what these guys were doing because it was a challenge. He saw that it was hard for what they were doing. And that’s and that’s how he is he will take on challenges that nobody else will take on.

 Like all great players, Mense says Vladdy Jr makes everyone else around him a better player:

He’s one of those kids he makes everybody around him better when he comes in these are all such clichés that you hear about all the time, but it’s so true with him. When he comes into the clubhouse, he brings an energy to him, and when he comes in the dugout he’s got an energy to him. He’s got this aura around him, and he just makes everybody else better.

 

 Of all the players he worked with in New Hampshire, Mense is the proudest of what he and Bichette accomplished.  But it wasn’t easy.  After leading all of MiLB with a .384 average in his first year of full season ball in 2017, Bichette had his struggles against the advanced competition in AA.  Bichette’s troubles stemmed largely from being over-aggressive and expanding his strike zone, and word quickly got around the Eastern League, with Bichette seeing fewer and fewer pitches in the strike zone, and his average bottoming out at .237 in late May.  For some hitters, that might necessitate major tinkering with their swing mechanics, but Mense was prepared to stay the course with Bichette, and pointed out to him at mid-season the source of his troubles:

We were in Portland – this was right before he went to the Futures Game, and we sat down and I showed him some numbers and it was all just numbers based on his chase percentage and the percentage of pitches he was swinging that were outside of Zone, and how compared to guys in the big leagues when they were at the AA level. It was really good for him to see that, because he saw even guys chasing a lot in the big leagues when they were in AA, they weren’t chasing that much.

 To reinforce this mindset, Manager Schneider would deliberately throw pitches out of the strike zone to Bichette during batting practice, forcing him to corral his aggressiveness and improve his selectivity skills.  Once Bichette decided to focus on pitches he could barrel, his average climbed:

And that was the thing – he kind of came to the conclusion of instead of trying to cover the entire strike zone, he just had to shrink what he was trying to swing at, and get it earlier in the count. He just had to shrink that down a little bit and once he did it – once he realized that’s what he needed to do, man it was……… I mean he took off,  because the path that he has as a hitter that he takes to the baseball is an elite path.

 Bichette takes great pride in his hitting, and when he wasn’t putting the barrel on the pitches he was chasing, he knew he had to make a change in his approach:

His (struggles) had nothing to do with (lack of pitch recognition). He has bat speed, and an ability to not have to guess, and not have to start his swing early, which gives him an opportunity to be better and cover more pitches in the zone if he wants. It was just a change in mindset and in the end, he takes such pride in being aggressive….. But he also takes pride in getting a lot of hits too. And I think he realized that he had to adjust. Once he started to get exposed a little bit by pitchers – they felt like they didn’t even have to throw strikes to get him out. Once he realized that he wasn’t getting the hits, he was like, “Okay I gotta make a change because I like getting hits”

In the end, the struggles Bichette faced for the first time in his pro career will likely serve him very well in the future.  Mense thinks in many ways his 2018 season was better than 2017, because of the lessons he learned:

… in 2018 I can tell you and I can assure you was a way better year for him because he had to work through some things that are going to be going to be more sustainable for him for the rest of his career.

Cavan Biggio’s 2017 numbers didn’t stand out, but there were some inklings that big things were likely to come as a result of changes he had made in his mechanics following his rookie 2016 campaign.  In an attempt to swing harder and put more loft on the ball, Biggio’s flyball percentage jumped in 2017, as did his K% rate.  In the large Florida State League ballparks in the humid southern summer air, however, only 11 of those flyballs left the park.  This season, Biggio continued that approach, and made another mechanical adjustment.  Mense says Biggio’s experience coupled with that change allowed him to become one of the most dangerous hitters in the Eastern League, leading the loop in Home Runs, Walks, Slugging, and OPS:

(He’s a) guy that’s a year or more advanced in his career, and  advanced with what it is that he knows he can do damage with. And you couple that with he lowered his hands in the offseason, and felt like he was getting into a better spot where he could consistently get balls in the air. You put all those things together,  I think it is a recipe for doing that and hitting a bunch of home runs. I mean you look at his average exit velo from this year to last year and it went up a couple of miles per hour. So he was consistently hitting balls harder in the air. And I do think that probably has a little bit to do with him lowering his hands, and more so than anything I think it was it was just a conscious effort from him to try to do more damage and not just be a Singles hitter.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr was not with the Fisher Cats for long before his promotion to Buffalo, but he left a lasting impact on his teammates, and was a completely different player from 2017, which could be attributed to injuries, and as Mense points out, some rust:

 I think in talking to everybody and hearing him talk about it, it was just swinging at better pitches. And I think that probably had a little bit to do with the lay off that he had and not playing really competitively (for almost two years)……… So he was very meticulous with how he worked, and he was probably the best worker in the cage with what he wanted to do, and how he went about doing it, and how dead set he was on getting these things in. And that was really cool to see. I mean it was really cool for our guys to see, especially a guy like Vladdy watching him do these things every day, and then seeing the success he was having, then going up to the big leagues. He was putting in the work, and he was working his rear end off every single day that he came into the game, and he had an idea and a plan as to what he wanted to do.

Not every hitter Mense worked with was a success story from start to finish.  Max Pentecost caught a career-high 77 games, but the 2014 1st rounder struggled at the plate for the first four months of the season before making some changes and catching fire in August:

So he made a change, and I think there are a couple of parts to it. He got to a point when we were entering August, he was hitting about .195, and it got to a point where it was like, hey dude, we have to change something, because we can continue on this path, or we can change and hopefully something goes better. But if at the very worst you continue do what you’re doing. I mean what are going we to lose? So he was at a point where he was ready to make some changes, so we kind of let him mess around with it and kind of come up with his own ideas to what he wanted to do slowly, starting start having started incorporating like a little gather a little toe tap gather.

The difference in Pentecost’s hitting as a result of making those adjustments were swift and dramatic.  He started driving balls with regularity, and hit .375 for the month of August, leading the Eastern League in Slugging and OPS, garnering Player of the Month honours.  A small warning light that was flashing on Pentecost’s dashboard, however, was his .381 OBP.  As a result of being aggressive and attacking early in counts, he wasn’t drawing walks (all of 1 for the month).  In the playoffs, when he was probably feeling a bit tired at the end of a long season, Pentecost appeared to be just going up to the plate and hacking at the first pitch near the strike zone that he saw:

Towards the end of the year he kind of started getting worn down a little bit. I think that gather that he started having was a little bit quicker and so he wasn’t seeing pictures out of the guy’s hand as well as he was in that month of August. And so then he’s trying to make up for it by swinging and trying to get his best swing off and he was just trying to swing at everything and trying to do his damage with everything instead of just going back to slowing it down and just getting something in the zone.

Mense thinks that it’s still reasonable to be optimistic about Pentecost’s future due to his makeup and athleticism:

I like when he started doing that little gather – the old toe tap – it literally took him one day and then the next day he implemented it and it was like Home Run here, and Double here, and it was like it changed that fast. So he has the ability to make adjustments and change really fast. He did it from the Catching side of it too……. He’s he’s such a good athlete and has such good feel that he was able to make those changes.

 

Mense’s season started in Florida in Spring Training.  After five-plus months with New Hampshire, it was back to Florida for Instructs, and then off to the Dominican to work with hitters at the team’s complex there.  Among the hitters at this last two stops who impressed him were:

-2018 1st round pick Jordan Groshans:

I watched a couple of inter squad games, watched him hit a double off the wall in right field, it’s just like he’s got some Bo-ish type of athleticism to him in the box. He’s  a free and easy mover in the box and he’s always had success. And so it’s one of those things to work just let the guy go, and let him have that big leg kick, let him have this big hand pump. And if it continues to work don’t change it and just keep letting him do his thing and refine some things.

-2018 10th rounder Cal Stevenson, who led the Appalachian League in Runs, Walks, and OBP, and always seem to make things happen on the basepaths for Bluefield:

 I really liked watching him here. I really liked being around Cal Stevenson. The kid that was in Bluefield, just talking to him and his approach to his ABs. I mean they were so advanced with what he was trying to do. I mean gosh you look at his numbers with the amount of walks compared to strikeouts, and just the year that he had was unbelievable. 

OF Steward Berroa’s name may only be known to the most hardcore of Blue Jays prospect watchers, but he had a decent year in his first stateside season with the GCL Jas in 2018.

He’s the kind of kid that just epitomizes everything that the organization wants that a player just plays really hard, does everything that you ask, and he’s going to do it 110 percent and run. And he’s starting to learn how to hit a little bit. He’s got a little bit of juice, and he’s a plus Centrefielder, and when you throw all those things together and I think he’s a kid that. I think he’s going to win. I thought this when I first saw him when I  was down here last year, but he’s just like an explosive kid. When you have that quick twitch if you can figure out how to use that quick twitch in the right way you have a chance to be pretty good.

 

Mense’s profile was raised this summer along that of his hitters, and it’s understandable that people ask him what his future goals are.  Although having listened to him for almost an hour, it’s obvious that he’s a player development guy through and through.  He enjoys the process, and doesn’t necessarily have a burning ambition to be an MLB hitting coach as soon as possible:

   I just know that what I see myself doing in five years or whatever it may be,I just know that I really enjoy helping. I really enjoy working with players, and I really enjoy being with players and around players and watching them develop and watching them grow. I just know that I’ll be doing that in some sort of capacity or if I feel like I can do it at a big league level great, if I do like I’m doing at AAA or AA or whatever. If they create a role for me that’s different….. I get the most satisfaction out of that and I feel like  watching guys develop and helping guys make it accomplish and their life long goal.

 

After his time in the Dominican, Mense was off to Madison, NJ.  His fiance is a dietitian with the NFL’s New York Jets, and a guy used to the cold (but not the snow) of a Missouri off-season is now in search of a winter sport to keep him occupied until spring training.  Wherever he lands in the Blue Jays organization next year, their minor league prospects will have a patient and insightful mentor to guide them.

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