When looking back at the month of June for the Columbus Clippers, going 8-20 during the month, it is clear that it did not go the way they might have hoped.
It would be easy write the team off as a lost cause but if you dig deeper you see that while the final score of the games might not have gone their way, the Clippers have been hitting the ball well this season, especially as of late. Overall the Clippers had 15 out of their 28 games in June where they had nine or more hits, with seven games of 12 or more hits. To go along with the heavy hitting, the Clippers are also third out of all Triple-A teams in both leagues in walks, drawing 343.
The large number of hits and walks drawn by the Clippers this month can be attributed to a focus on making every at bat a solid one, a lesson preached by hitting coach and former MLB player Phil Clark.
“Every player should make sure to take bad pitches and swing at quality pitches,” Clark said. “The guys for us that have been doing that have been finding success both swinging the bat and getting walks. If you can focus on doing just that every at bat, only swinging at pitches that you like and want to hit, you will do great batting.”
The patient approach is a concept that is not lost on the players, as Jeremy Hermida and Tim Fedroff both rank in the top five of walks in the International League. Both of them are also hitting the ball well, as Hermida has a .246 batting average and 43 RBI for the season, while Fedroff is posting a .275 batting average and 27 RBI, to go with the walks they both have earned.
Clark is a hitting coach that has earned the respect of the players due to his time in the major leagues. Clark was drafted in the first round of the 1986 draft by the Detroit Tigers and played five years of major league baseball, for Detroit, San Diego and Boston.
During his playing time, Clark posted a lifetime batting average of .276 while driving in 65 runs and hitting 17 home runs. After he finished playing in the MLB in 1996, Clark went to Japan and played in the Japanese Pacific League. During his time in Japan, Clark posted batting averages of .331 and .320 during his first two seasons, 23 and 31 home runs. He won three Best Nine Awards, the Japanese equivalent of the Silver Slugger Award. During his time in Japan, Clark had to deal with many different issues, such as the language barrier and being away from the comforts of home.
“Being in another country has been a different kind of experience and different kind of struggle that has helped me as a coach,” Clark said. “Not having someone to communicate with me at an English level is something I can relate with international players and forced me to learn on my own. It taught me to help these guys and give support to get them through a season and never feel alone.”
This ability of Clark to relate and interact with international players is key to the growth of their skills and careers, as the Clippers have a very diverse and international roster. With players coming from places such as Brazil, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Taiwan, and Venezuela, often times players could have trouble relating and feeling comfortable in the clubhouse, which could dampen their growth as a baseball player. The Clippers however do not seem to face this issue as much as other teams might, since they have a coach in Clark who can relate to international players and focus on making them feel as thought a support system is there for them. This has helped the players focus more on the game and not on outside issues of fitting into a new culture.
Some of the key pieces of the Clippers lineup this season have been international players, such as Chun-Hsiu Chen, Luis Hernandez and Omir Santos. During the course of this season, they have posted batting averages of .284, .274 and .275 respectively. These three players all have different home countries, Taiwan, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, yet all have thrived under the coaching of Clark and the way he creates a supportive clubhouse.
Another key part of Clark and coaching for the Clippers is that he has a strong understanding of the different levels of the minor league system and what the players at the Triple-A level needs from a coach.
“When every player gets to the Triple-A level, they have had at least some level of success,” Clark said. “The biggest thing is the difference in personality between rookies and Triple-A players. These guys don’t need you to teach them everything but focus on fixing the small things so they can consistently have success and get to that next level they thrive for.”
Clark has had the ability to coach in many levels of the Indians organization, starting with the Gulf-Coast League Indians in 2007-2008, moving to Mahoning Valley in 2009, Lake County in 2010, Kinston for 2011 and now Columbus for this second season. This experience means that Clark has had the ability to learn from the different coaches he has worked with and learned the different types of coaching that players at every level need to succeed.
Overall, the Columbus Clippers have a team that is struggling to win games but is not struggling to swing the bat. The season has shown that the approach Clark has taken with the players of focusing on getting good pitches that each player likes to hit, helping the international players feel comfortable enough to only worry about the game itself and approaching coaching Triple-A players in the way that he has felt is the most appropriate, has created a team that is finding success at the plate. If Columbus and Clark can keep up their approach at the plate, the wins will start coming and this season has the potential to turn back around quickly.
Photo: TJ Perreira