Chris Valaika takes over Guardians hitting department with 'specialized' goals in mind
Chris Valaika knew he had the coaching bug toward the end of his playing career, which came to a close in 2015 after he spent the year with the Chicago Cubs' Triple-A affiliate without securing a job in the majors.
In a way, Valaika said on Monday, he was already coaching at that time, albeit in a less official role. He was a veteran, having played in the majors in parts of four seasons, among a group of young prospects working their way to the big leagues.
But once he made coaching his official occupation, he did so at the University of California Santa Barbara, where he met a pitcher named Shane Bieber.
Fast forward a few years, and Valaika and Bieber are again wearing the same uniform. The Guardians hired Valaika to lead their hitting department after cutting ties with Ty Van Burkleo. The team said at the time it wanted a "new voice" to enter the department.
That led them to Valaika, who at 36 is one of the younger hitting instructors in the league.
Valaika has spent the past several years both sharpening his coaching techniques and diving into sports science and the analytical side of game improvement. It was a solid match based on ideology.
Hitting coaches are often seen as scapegoats for hitting issues that pop up on a team. They don't always get the credit for hitting successes at the same rate that they are blamed for slumps. The struggles of Oscar Mercado often seem to outweigh the success of Jose Ramirez.
For that reason, the average tenure for a hitting coach is relatively short. That hasn't been the case in Cleveland, though, and it made the Guardians an attractive landing spot.
"When it comes to looking for jobs, they kind of seek you out. When I got the opportunity to interview here, I'd always heard great things about the culture in Cleveland," Valaika said. "The coaching staff, the organization in general. Then just the longevity that they've had with their coaching staff. All of those factors were attractive to me.
"You want to go somewhere that you can really dig in and make some change. This was a great fit for me. Having looked at Ty's track record, having been here nine years, that's something hopefully I can strive for as well."
Cleveland's pitching development has been among baseball's best the past several years and is now the backbone of the organization as a whole, with Bieber and others serving as success stories.
The hitting side hasn't had that same fortune, at least not at the same rate. That's where the Guardians hope Valaika comes in with a specialized approach blending individualization and sports science alongside assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez and hitting analyst Justin Toole.
"I think trying to — I don't want to say mirror [the pitching department] as much as possible — but you lean on different people's strengths," Valaika said. "I don't think any one person has all the answers, so you try to surround yourself with people that have knowledge and are valued for different reasons.
"Victor's been around for a long time, and the relationships that he's built here with these guys, and Tooley being in the dugout and coming through the minor leagues with these guys. Those are valuable pieces for a new guy like me coming into the fold and really trying to maximize what I can, if that's the advancing and more the analytical things or the technology and leaning on Victor and Tooley to be more of the relationship building and continue with the focuses that they've had the last couple years that have made these guys successful."
A major point to Valaika's coaching philosophy is to avoid any blanket programs for a large number of hitters. This is an easier path to follow considering the mountains of data, video and science that can be applied to each hitter's individual swing.
"I'd like to have it individualized as much as possible," Valaika said. "The goal is to make it as specific to each guy based on what they're doing in the cage, what they're doing in the game, how we attack pitchers. I want to make it as specialized as possible and as simple for these guys going forward."
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.