Most people who change employers and job titles go through an interview process, and Chris Valaika was no exception. A former big league infielder who’d been serving as the assistant hitting coach for the Chicago Cubs, and before that as their minor league hitting coordinator, he was carefully vetted before being hired as the hitting coach of the Cleveland Guardians last winter. What was that process like? He explained in an interview that was conducted earlier this summer.
David Laurila: You were hired by the Guardians last November. How did that come about?
Chris Valaika: “The interview process started a week or so after the season ended. I talked to [President of Baseball Operations] Chris Antonetti and then to [General Manager] Mike Chernoff. The one that really facilitated the process was Alex Eckelman, our director of hitting. We did phone to start and then Zoom with a couple of different groups. Tito [Terry Francona] was on one of them. There were some of our advance guys. There were Chris and Cherny. I also did an in-person interview with a couple of different groups. I talked to the player development department. I also worked with a hitter. I went through the whole gamut.”
Laurila: Can you elaborate on “worked with a hitter?”
Valiaka: “It was a mock. We went through the whole process of… basically, it was a workup of what I saw in the swing, and how I would address swing changes and approach.”
Laurila: This was from video?
Valaika: “Yes. And we did a mock of an in-person, as well — how I would interact in the cage to address certain things — which was to see my coaching voice, how I delivered information. We also went through advance reports and did a mock hitters meeting.
“With the hitter breakdown, it was basically me giving my 10,000-foot view of him approach-wise, bio-mechanically, things that I saw in the swing, and again, how I would address them.”
Laurila: Who was the hitter, and what did you see?
Valaika: “There were actually two. One was Richie Palacios. He’s always had elite contact skills, but it’s not the most orthodox swing. Not knowing him and not having any strength-and-conditioning information or really any of the under-the-hood things, I just went through what I saw in his loading pattern, the pitches he covered, where there were some failures in the strike zone — things like that. From there, I worked through what I would do to address those things.”
Laurila: Who was the other hitter?
Valaika: “It was Nate Freiman, who is in our front office now. If I’m remembering correctly, a lot of it with Nate was trying to get him to leverage his front leg to create a little bit more speed [and] force in the ground. He’s long-levered, and his swing was a little more rotational in the videos that I saw. Trying to get him to establish a little bit stronger front side so that he could hold on to some better direction was my recommendation.”
Laurila: How do you about helping a hitter establish a stronger front side?
Valaika: “I’ve kind of realized that my philosophy is not to have a philosophy. It’s to do what’s best for the player. Different guys create speed, and different guys create force in different ways, so it’s communicating with strength-and-conditioning, communicating with the trainers, and if you have the resources, whether that’s KinaTrax, HawkEye, force plates, it’s being able to see some of the biomechanics data to really understand how these guys create speed. From there you find the prescription to address the needs for that individual player.”
Laurila: Circling back to Palacios, did the video bring to mind anyone you’d worked with, and helped to make adjustments, in the Cubs’ system?
Valaika: “Not anybody in particular. But with the way he loaded and how he kind of had his hands trapped behind him, he would sort of be in a hurry with his lower half. I didn’t know if that was more of a physical limitation, how his body works, how takes slack out of his midsection… he was trying to establish it early. Without knowing that, any time you’re breaking down players you don’t have any background with, it’s really tough to know how they tick. During the interview process, it was basically just, ‘These are the things that I see.’
“That said, Richie has done a great job of being a master compensator. He has elite bat-to-ball skills, so it’s almost like a medical oath; it’s ‘Do no harm.’ It’s not hurting anything, the way he’s swinging. There are maybe some upsides to cleaning some things up, but until it shows us that it’s a problem, is that our place to be? Should we be intervening when what’s happening hasn’t shown us that we need to intervene?”
Laurila: You obviously looked at a ton of video after getting hired. What stands out from those over-the-winter looks?
Valaika: “Having the lockout and not being able to communicate with players, I also read a lot of the organizational reports on guys. I got background on them, and at the same time, I tried to go in unbiased with everything. As for what I saw in terms of guys who stood out… let me go through the my mental Rolodex here. I guess an easy one would be Steven Kwan. He’s not the biggest of stature, and we’ve all seen that he has elite contact skills, but he needed to get to the big leagues to show us who he really is.”
Laurila: Basically, Kwan is better than what you saw on video.
Valaika: “I think that’s accurate. He’s definitely a guy that grows on you. Him not being the most physical guy, and seeing his track record in college and in the minor leagues… he’s done a great job with both batting average and the peripheral metrics. Seeing him in-person, how he can navigate an at-bat and how calm he is in the box… and while he doesn’t have the highest exit velocity, he’s got enough to hit it over the wall. The more settled in he gets to the big leagues, the more power I think we’re going to see from him.”
Laurila: I assume you’re pretty big into hitting analytics?
Valaika: “I try to be, to an extent. As Major League hitting coaches, it’s our responsibility to know all of these things, but at the same time, we’re not evaluators. We’re coaches. We want as much information as possible, but we also have to be a filter. We need to provide context to what is happening and what can be helpful. It’s not just getting this dump of information and trying to coach to certain metrics.”
Laurila: What about in terms of your current and previous positions? Big league hitting coaches and minor league hitting coordinators have distinctly different jobs.
Valaika: “In the minor leagues, you’re still focused on development, so you have a lot of runway to make changes. The minor leagues is still swing-building and approach-building, whereas when you get to the big leagues it’s about production. With a young team like ours, we’re still developing at the Major League level, but when the lights go on at seven o’clock, all that matters is winning.”
Laurila: One last question: What do you think sold the Guardians on hiring you?
Valaika: “You’d need to ask them. But something I’ve always been passionate about is collaboration and the holistic development of players, and not just the hitting side. That’s just one tool, which is something I think can get lost in the shuffle. There is how these guys move, how they think, there is working with mental skills, working with the strength-and-conditioning guys, working with sport science. Taking bits and pieces from all these different groups is going to help us make this guy the most efficient player.
“Going through the whole process, that was probably something that they liked hearing. This is an organization that is very collaboration-oriented, believes in taking all of the resources we have, and from there making the most-educated decision. That’s always been a passion of mine, to get the full picture before making any interventions. But again, you’d need to ask them.”