Hart, Braves continue search for hitting coach

With Walker's absence, Atlanta targets candidates for difficult role

Hart, Braves continue search for hitting coach

ATLANTA -- Along with determining who will serve as the full-time general manager of their already reconstructed front office, the Braves are now evaluating how to complete their coaching staff by filling a role that is widely considered to be the most difficult job in baseball.

Some might argue that there are more difficult tasks in baseball other than serving as a hitting coach. But those who saw the mental anguish Greg Walker felt while filling this role in Atlanta this year can clearly understand why this is often considered a thankless job.

So now that Walker has walked away from a maddening Atlanta offense that underachieved based simply on the standards it set under his direction one year earlier, the Braves are now in search of their fourth hitting coach within a span of six seasons.

It should be noted that this turnover rate is not necessarily out of the norm. Of the four remaining teams in the League Championship Series, the Giants with Hensley Meulens are the only member of this group with a hitting coach that has been around for more than four consecutive seasons. The Royals' rise to prominence came with the guidance provided by Dale Sveum, who on May 29 became the club's fifth hitting coach within a 19-month span.

Though Braves interim general manager John Hart has not provided indication he will take the GM job on a full-time basis, he will play an instrumental role in the search for the guy he hopes will have an impact similar to the one made by Sveum. The Braves are still gathering a list of candidates who are bidding for the hitting coach job without any assurance of how Atlanta's lineup might look next year.

Though the job might be more attractive if there is an assurance that the Braves will definitely part ways with B.J. Upton this winter, the Braves have to conduct the search now with the confidence that they will find the right fit to fix an offense that tallied the third fewest runs per game (3.54) in Atlanta history, which dates back to 1966.

Hart and Charlie Manuel have shared a bond that dates back more than two decades to the time they shared together in the Indians organization. Manuel established himself as one of the game's top hitting instructors before becoming the manager of both the Indians and Phillies. But at 70 years old, he seems more fit for his current role, as a senior advisor to Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr.

The Braves discussed the possibility of adding Jim Thome, who has a strong bond with Manuel and Hart going back to their days in Cleveland. But Thome, who currently serves as a special assistant in the White Sox front office, has indicated that he is not interested in the job.

So, the Braves will continue to scour a still-growing candidate list that has included Manuel's former hitting coach Milt Thompson and former Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein, who recently left the Angels organization to become an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky.

Terry Pendleton, who served as Atlanta's hitting coach from 2002-10, does not appear to be a candidate for the position. But Pendleton, who is still having the back problems that kept him off the field during this past season's final week, is targeted to once again serve as Atlanta's first-base coach.

It is interesting that the Braves at least considered Thome, who along with hitting 612 home runs, also struck out once every 4.05 plate appearances. The only players to strike out more frequently while compiling at least 5,000 plate appearances going back to 1968 are Adam Dunn (3.50), Ryan Howard (3.56), Jose Hernandez (3.66), Carlos Pena (3.74) and Upton (3.79).

Given that the Braves have tallied the franchise's four highest strikeout totals over the past four years, it might not be deemed wise to go with a swing-and-miss guy. But for argument sake, there is another way to look at this. Even if the club follows through with the plan to part ways with Upton, the roster would still include a number of grip-and-rip, high-strikeout players who might relate to the mindset of somebody like Thome.

As the Braves spend the next few days and weeks looking at candidates, they will have to determine who is best suited to communicate and understand the players who will be present. This task is complicated by the fact that this winter's turnover could also lead to trades involving Evan Gattis and possibly either Jason Heyward or Justin Upton, who will both be eligible for free agency at the end of 2015.

But while recognizing that their lineup's DNA will likely once again lead to a high strikeout total, the Braves have to find a hitting coach who can improve situational hitting approaches and understand that this is an aggressive group best suited to rely on power.

When the Braves produced a 4.43 plate appearance/strikeout ratio in 2013, they led the National League in homers and ranked fourth in runs. As they produced an identical PA/strikeout ratio this year, they ranked 11th in home runs and second to last in runs.

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