This is the second of three stories revisiting the staff of the St. Louis Cardinals Class A Peoria Chiefs.
(BaseballStL) -- Peoria Chiefs hitting coach Erik Pappas is happy. All four of the young Chiefs profiled in BaseballStL’s May series “The Cardinal Way” have shown marked improvement. Three have been promoted to high Class A and the fourth, just 19 years old, has found his swing and raised his average over .300.
He keeps it as simple as he can, reminding them that at this level, hitting is more about the process than it is the results. It was a lesson that took awhile to sink in to anxious young men looking to make their mark in an organization full of promising prospects.
When Pappas and those four position players were interviewed in May, all four were struggling with poor results. Chiefs Manager Dann Bilardello and Pappas patiently stressed to them that mastering their approach to hitting was more important than the results. The season, he told them in May, was a lot longer than high school or college. All of them would get 300 more at bats.
Those 300+ at bats are now behind them and the patience Pappas has shown over the long summer is evident in the players’ progress. “Some of them get it right away,” he said. “Some the next day, some right in the middle of a game. They all want results right away. I understand that because I was here once. I did not forget how hard this game is."
But stressing results before approach can actually hinder a young player’s career.
“Hitting for a higher average but doing everything wrong will not help you advance,” he told them. “Hitting is a process of staying off bad pitches that you can’t do anything with, of swinging the same way every time you go to the plate, of knowing the strike zone. We worked hard to “quiet” their swings at the plate. Some of them had hands moving all over the place before the pitch so their bats were in a different position with every swing. I had them watch video of Allen Craig’s swing. His hands appear to be moving but he’s quiet as the pitch approaches.”
Teaching first and second year professional baseball players – many of whom aren’t out of their teens – requires skill and patience and Pappas, who hit .276 in 82 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1993, is the perfect man for the job.
In the May interview, Pappas stressed to the young players that baseball is a game of failure. The best hitters succeed only three of 10 at bats. “Learning and accepting that is essential. How you handle failure determines whether you can play at the higher levels.”
Carson Kelly, the Cards’ second round pick a year ago and just 19 years old, started the season at Peoria before being sent to the Cards’ short season team in State College, Pa. Kelly credits the emphasis on approach rather than results with his dramatic turnaround. While he hit just .219 at Peoria, he batted over .300 the last two months and appears back on track to advance.
A lot of the success for young players isn’t grounded in their skill, but their work ethic, Pappas said. “All these guys are gifted athletes. It’s more about who wants to work the hardest, who is willing to accept their deficiencies, work on that part of their game and correct the weaknesses.”
Pappas doesn’t just preach that, he lives it. He continues to learn everything he can about hitting and spends hours talking to great hitters about their approach. He has, he believes, solved the age-old mystery of how to handle a pitcher’s breaking ball.
“The secret, according to everyone I talked to about it is this; identify the curve ball early and don’t swing at it, at least early in the count.”
That changes, of course, depending on the situation, whether there are men on base or whether the curve is a hanger. But a pitcher with a great curve ball will almost always defeat a hitter.
“You can’t look for a fastball and a breaking ball on the same pitch,” he said. “You can look for a certain kind of pitch or a certain zone based on scouting reports, but you can’t be ready for both. (Some of the game’s best) hitters confide that even they couldn’t handle a great breaking ball,” he said. It’s all part of the Cardinals’ philosophy of reducing the opportunities for failure.
Pappas has enjoyed his fist year as a minor league hitting coach immensely and hopes the Cardinals invite him back for a second season. “This is what I want to do,” he says.