In 1992, the Reds took Chad Mottola with the fifth-overall pick of the draft. To put it bluntly, he was a bust. The erstwhile outfielder went on to play 16 professional seasons, but nearly all of them were in the minor leagues. He appeared in just 59 games at the big-league level, the last 10 of which came in 2006 with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Mottola is now in the second phase of his career. He’s also back in Toronto, having been named the team’s hitting coach this past off-season. The assignment followed stints as the organization’s minor league hitting coordinator and Triple-A hitting coach.
Like many who have excelled in his current position, the 41-year-old Mottola understands the craft better than he executed it. A big believer in individuality and communication, he’s a self-professed “mad scientist in the cage.”
David Laurila: How do hitters mature?
Chad Mottola: The more you’re around the game, the more you relax in the box. You learn how to breathe and trust in your ability, which lets your quick-twitch take over.
As the levels go up, there is a lot more mental in the preparation. Guys at the big-league level have the talent. There are phases where it turns into a mechanical problem, but a lot of it is just trusting yourself in the box.
I have a background with a lot of the guys here. I had them in Triple-A the last couple of years, plus I was a minor league coordinator for a year. We already have a lot of the mechanics established, so now it’s more day-to-day maintenance.
DL: Are you seeing differences in the hitters you worked with in the minors?
CM: Sure. There’s a lot more pressure playing in front of 40,000 people. Each day — day in, day out — you’re trying to get them to settle down, because they’re pressing more than they did in years past. But I think it’s okay to push hitters. The last couple of years, at Triple-A, I saw guys come back from the big leagues understanding what I’m trying to explain. That’s different than me trying to explain something and them not having gone through it. Now they’ve failed a little bit, so they’re ready to make those changes. I think it’s OK to push a guy to failure.
DL: Do you view hitting as a science?
CM: I’ve kind of turned myself into the mad scientist in the cage. I played 16, 17 years — however long it was — and didn’t think I would end up on the path I’ve taken. Now I find myself a real student of the game, trying to figure out how to get them to do something, rather than just talking about it. I don’t think it’s fair just to tell guys how to do things; I want to put you in position so your body can feel it.
I want a hitter to be athletic. Take a guy like Brett Lawrie, who does a lot of things that are kind of outside the box; I don’t want to take all those things away. I always want you feeling athletic in the box. That’s the whole thing I want mechanically: that you’re balanced and athletic. I don’t want to talk about where your hands are starting, I just want to say, “Hey, you’re finishing here for a reason.” I see it as athletic mechanics, if that makes sense.
DL: What does Brett Lawrie do that’s “kind of out of the box?”
CM: He’s a high-strung guy who has a lot of movement, pre-pitch. That’s something I’d like to eventually cut down, but at the same time, I can’t take that all away from him, because he’ll have that stuck feeling where he can’t pull the trigger the same way he’s been doing his whole life.
He’s got a lot going on in his pre-load that we’d like to settle down, but that’s something that can take years. If he’s competing at the big-league level, and I want to ask for changes mechanically… I can’t get him un-athletic at the same time.
DL: What’s the difference between a hitch and a trigger?
CM: If it’s not on time it’s considered a hitch. If it’s on time it’s considered a trigger. That’s a thing about hitting — a lot of guys get there a different way. And that’s OK. But when it’s late, everybody thinks it’s a hitch and there’s something wrong with it. Conversely, if the hitch is on time, all of a sudden it’s considered a trigger.
DL: Adrian Gonzalez told me hitting has evolved over the last 10 or 15 years. Do you agree?
CM: I think the understanding of hitting has come a long way. The school I came up with has kind of gone by the wayside. It used to be, “Hey, just go do this,” and you had to figure it out on your own. Now, we — the younger generation of hitting coaches — have a little better grasp of the different ways to get there and get it done. There’s a reason you go to a game each night and everybody steps in the box a different way. I don’t think you want to take that away from players.
Letting a player have a voice is important. It’s his life. It’s his career and it’s his bed he has to sleep in at night. And it’s OK for me to have an argument with a player. I don’t take that as a bad thing. I actually enjoy… I guess it’s too strong to call it an argument; it’s more of a discussion. When a player asks me why, I think that’s the best day ever. He asks why, and I say, “Great, here we go.” Now is the time to learn.
DL: Do you watch video with hitters on a regular basis?
CM: Yeah, we watch video. It’s not a daily thing; it’s kind of watching when times are good. I don’t believe in watching video when it’s bad; I believe in video and a lot of work in the cage when the game is moving a lot slower. I don’t think it’s fair to watch video when the game is going 95 and a guy may just be late. It looks like his mechanics are off — and they are off — but it’s simply because he’s late. If we can’t do mechanics the proper way in the cage, then it’s not even worth talking about in the game.
DL: What about video on opposing pitchers?
CM: Each guy is different. There’s a little discussion of how he’s going to try to get him out — that’s pre game — and then there are some guys where we’ll discuss things during the game. But a lot of guys… we probably have a 50/50 split who don’t want to talk about it anymore. As long as they’re ready, they’re not concerned about the pitcher. Other guys want to know right away: Are they setting up in? Are they setting up out? How are they working me? It’s an interesting mix, and I believe both sides work.
DL: Is your basic approach “Get a good pitch to hit?”
CM: Absolutely, whether it’s the first pitch or seventh pitch. As good as pitchers are nowadays, and as specialized as they’ve become… everybody wants to get the starter out, but there are four specialty guys down there to throw an inning. If you sit back and let a couple of pitches go… I think you have to be ready to hit. The more ready to hit you are, the easier it is to lay off pitches.
DL: How do you go about working the count, but also attack pitches in your zone?
CM: The simplest way I can say it is that I want to make sure you’re in position to recognize pitches. If the game is moving too fast and you’re swinging early in the count, it looks horrible — and it is bad. But as long as you’re in position to recognize pitches, it will all take care of itself.
There are times when I’ll say, “We need to start taking pitches,” but that’s because the game is moving too fast on you, personally. It has nothing to do with the pitcher having quick outs, or doing what he’s doing — it has to do with you.
You should never play the game with a doubt in your mind. It’s too hard to say, “OK, if I swing, is it going to be a hit?” I can’t say, “Hey, get a good pitch and make sure you get a hit.” It’s impossible to play the game at 95 mph and be result-oriented.
DL: Are the majority of your hitters looking middle and adjusting, or are they looking for pitches in specific zones?
CM: Middle could be different each day. If we’re saying, “Hey, this guy is working you in,” and we have our sights set in, that could be middle that day. If we’re looking away and a guy is throwing his cutter away, that could be middle for you that day. To me, the meaning of “middle” changes by the plan of attack.
I also think you need to have individual plans for each player. There are only 13 guys, so I have the time to discuss what their plan of attack is that day. Jose Bautista is going to be a lot different than [Munenori] Kawasaki, so why should I sit there and say, “Hey guys, this is what our plan is for this pitcher.” No. It takes five minutes to tell each guy, “This is what he’s doing to you; this is what he did to guys similar to you in his last start.” We go about it that way.
When you talk about first-pitch swinging, there’s definitely a difference in a guy like Kawasaki, who damages completely different than Bautista. I don’t want Edwin [Encarnacion] or Jose worried about when they make an out. However, other guys, in different counts, may have to cover for them in a different way. If it’s two pitches, two outs, then we have to see some pitches. But Jose and Edwin have earned that right.
DL: Do you basically leave Bautista and Encarnacion alone and let them do their own thing?
CM: For guys like that — who have established themselves — it’s more maintenance. It’s more the check points they have; it’s not really that deep, whereas with guys like [J.P.] Arencibia, [Adam] Lind, Lawrie — guys I’ve had throughout their careers — it’s a lot more hands-on.
DL: If a hitter wants to make a mechanical adjustment, is he obligated to approach you about it first?
CM: He’s not obligated, but it’s part of my job to be in there with him every day to understand what he’s trying to do. We have Dwayne Murphy here as well, who is going to have suggestions for them. So it’s more about making sure we’re on the same page. It’s about the player getting better. It’s not about me taking credit, or me making sure I have full control of everything. What I want is to make sure they’re in a good comfort zone.
DL: What do you wish you knew as a player that you know now?
CM: It’s funny; I had no intention of ending up where I ended up, but I think playing for eight or nine different organizations I got to hear a lot of different philosophies. And being a pretty big prospect, I had a lot of people hands-on for three days, then they’d leave. Then I’d have a different guy for three days, and he’d leave. So I have a pretty good perspective of the way [hitters] think, and of how I have to make sure they understand what I’m trying to say — whether they agree or not.
A lot of the better hitting coaches I had weren’t the best hitters. A lot of the good hitters really had no good advice for me. They just said, “See it away, hit it for a double the other way. See it in, hit a home run.” The game’s not that easy, but for a select few.
DL: Did you make a lot of changes over the course of your career?
CM: I experimented with everything. And being with all those different organizations, I heard all those different philosophies. That’s why I think you have to have a well-rounded approach. You have all these different swings, different approaches and different personalities in the batters’ box.
What I should have been asking hitting coaches is, “Why do you want me to do that?” That’s not disrespectful, but at the time, as a player, I thought it was. Now that I’m on the other side, I understand it’s not. As soon as you ask me why, I know we’re going somewhere — but I better have a reason.
As I was playing, a lot of guys were throwing information at me, just hoping something would stick. By the end of the year I had tried seven different things, and had actually gone backwards. That’s my biggest fear: getting a player to do something but not understand the why. I want them to keep learning, and keep building and the days they ask why are the days we‘re getting places.