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Barnett ready to get cracking with hitters

Barnett ready to get cracking with hitters

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Barnett ready to get cracking with hitters
HOUSTON -- Now that's he watched hours of videotape this winter and has had a chance to talk extensively with some of his younger pupils, Astros hitting coach Mike Barnett is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work in the batting cages.

Barnett, who was hired to replace Jeff Bagwell in early November, will arrive in Kissimmee, Fla., on Thursday from his home in Knoxville, Tenn., and plans to be at Osceola County Stadium on Friday morning. The work begins in earnest when position players hold their first workout Feb. 20, but Barnett's been hard at work for two months.

He was in Houston two weeks ago and spent time with several players at Minute Maid Park, including Brett Wallace, Hunter Pence, Jason Castro and Clint Barmes, and he's been poring over hours of batting stances and dissecting what works and what has to change.

"I tell you what, I've been ready to go," Barnett said. "I've talked to several of the guys, not only in Houston, but I've talked to a couple of the younger guys coming into camp like J.D. Martinez and guys like that. These guys are tremendously excited. That's why I like to get down there early because younger guys tend to show up early, and I'm ready to get the cage Friday morning, that's for sure."

Koby Clemens and Drew Locke are among the young players already in Kissimmee, and the number of hacks in the batting cages will grow exponentially between now and Feb. 20. And Barnett can't wait. He can't wait to work more with Wallace and can't wait to see what Pence is capable of doing.

Barnett, who has served as hitting coach for the Blue Jays (2002-05) and the Royals (2006-08), spent the previous two seasons as the Astros' Minor League hitting coordinator. He takes over an Astros offense that ranked 14th in the National League in batting average (.246), 15th in runs scored (611) and RBIs (577) and 16th in home runs (108), on-base percentage (.303) and slugging percentage (.362).

Barnett spent hours this offseason watching videotape of the at-bats of the players when they were at their best over the last two years. He watched at-bats of every base hit and then went back and observed the at-bats of the extra-base hits.

"When guys are driving the baseball, that's when you start seeing the things you want to see and what's important with each individual guy," he said. "That just kind of gives you a basic, good, grounded foundation of where these guys are when they're going good."

One of Barnett's biggest jobs will be getting Wallace straightened out. Wallace made his Major League debut last year after being traded from Toronto and hit .222 with two homers and 13 RBIs in 144 at-bats. The Astros are counting on him to be the heir apparent to Lance Berkman at first base.

"The biggest thing was getting together with Brett Wallace and being able to talk to him, because we had not known each other before," Barnett said. "I really liked what his mindset is. I know it's a big transition for him. You're looking at a guy who played [professionally] only 2 1/2 years and has been with three different clubs.

"Now, all of a sudden, you're traded again and in the big leagues for the first time. We had a real good talk, and I'm really pleased with what we talked about from a mechanical approach and his mindset. I love the fact this guy has a track record and knows what he's doing at the plate."

Another player who could be crucial to the Astros' success is catcher Jason Castro, the 2008 first-round Draft pick who hit .205 in his Major League debut last year. Barnett says Castro needs to go back to doing some of the things he was doing before he was called up, and he's worked with him on lowering his back elbow and helping him stay behind the ball and using his hands better.

"We want him to try to finish off swings better, because a lot of times he had a tendency to cut some swings off and [the bat] kind of gets in and out of the zone in a hurry," Barnett said. "We reiterated a few of those things, and he really, to me, is as excited as he can be.

"Different guys have different experiences the first time they're in the big leagues, and the guys that have a tough time the first time, they get up there and I think it benefits them a little bit more than the guys who get up and all of a sudden have instant success. The next year it gets a little bit tougher for them because the league starts catching up to you."

Barnett is eager to see what Pence will do this year, coming off a season in which he hit 25 homers and set a career high with 91 RBIs en route to team Most Valuable Player honors. He says Pence is more committed to hitting the fastball to the middle of the field and not trying to guess as much.

"He's got a tremendous feel for what he's doing at the plate," Barnett said. "As long as he prepares well, the sky's the limit. Sometimes it takes guys four years before they get their feet on the ground, but it was good to hear him say that he [wants to] stay focused on the middle or going the other way and hitting the fastball more, because that's where he'll have success. That's my job -- to continue to remind him when he does it right."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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