Determined to get more from their hitters in 2012, the Braves didn’t just hire Greg Walker as their new hitting coach but also got him an assistant.
Ex-White Sox hitting coach Walker was hired to replace fired Braves hitting coach Larry Parrish, and Scott Fletcher was hired for a hybrid role as assistant hitting coach — a new position for the Braves — and advance scout.
Braves general manager Wren said he and manager Fredi Gonzalez agreed the Walker-Fletcher partnership would give the Braves a “dynamic” tandem for instructing hitters in the improved approach that Braves officials expect in 2012.
Wren said they whittled a list of more than 20 candidates to five, then interviewed three before deciding they’d seen and heard enough.
“We wanted someone who had recent major league experience in this role,” Wren said of Walker, the second candidate interviewed, “and that had a reputation for understanding the swing and an ability to communicate – ability to communicate was a real big factor. And, finally, a philosophy that matched what we want our hitters doing going forward. Greg epitomized all three.”
Walker, a Douglas, Ga., native who still makes his home there, was hired after 8-1/2 seasons as White Sox hitting coach.
The White Sox ranked eighth in the 14-team American League in average (.252), seventh in on-base percentage (.319) and 11th in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.706), down from sixth in OPS (.752) in 2010. They were 11th in the AL in runs in 2011, seventh in 2010 and 12th in 2009.
Since Walker became hitting coach in 2003, the White Sox ranked third in the majors in home runs (1,791) and seventh in slugging percentage (.430).
“It’s pretty humbling that the team you grew up with trusts you to do a real important job with them,” Walker said of being hired by the Braves.
The Coffee High School graduate played parts of nine seasons as a first baseman and designated hitter, all with the White Sox except for part of one season with Baltimore. Walker was a .260 hitter with a .326 OBP, 113 home runs and 444 RBIs in 855 games.
He said it was a lifelong dream to be part of the Braves organization, and after accepting the job on Thursday night he called a list of excited family members and former coaches.
The other significant development Friday was news that Braves would join the growing ranks of teams to pull advance scouts off the road and instead utilize improved video to do the job in-house. Highly regarded advance scout Bob Johnson moves to a position as special assistant to the GM.
Wren thinks that Fletcher’s new hybrid position will allow the Braves to view more games played by upcoming opponents — watching up to 10 games instead of attending one series — while also giving them a second coach to help out hitters and notice quicker what opponents are trying to do to get those hitters out.
Wren estimated that “six to 10″ other teams have an assistant hitting coach, though some don’t use that title. Mike Gellinger served as Walker’s assistant hitting coach in Chicago.
“Having another set of eyes is a big deal,” Walker said. “It’s worked well for us in Chicago. And Scott [Fletcher] is a dear friend.”
Walker was consistently praised by Paul Konerko for his work with the slugging first baseman. But he drew criticism for the regression by former University of Georgia star Gordon Beckham’s since the Atlanta native’s 2009 rookie season, and when Adam Dunn had a career-worst season in 2011 after signing a huge free-agent contract with Chicago.
Former Braves catching prospect Tyler Flowers, traded to the White Sox in the Javier Vazquez deal in December 2008, praised Walker for working with him to revamp his swing during a September 2010 callup. Flowers thinks he’ll work well with Braves slugger Jason Heyward.
After hitting .220 with 16 homers and a .334 OBP in 346 at-bats at Triple-A Charlotte in 2010, Flowers hit .261 with 15 homers and a .390 OBP in 222 at-bats at Charlotte in 2011 to earn his first extended major league stint.
“I’ve learned a lot from him,” Flowers said. “I attribute a lot of my success this past season to him. They brought me up in September 2010 and it basically turned into a month of me working with Greg Walker, just sort of revamping my swing. We had a good relationship, talking to each other and communicating where I could understand what he was saying and he could understand what I was feeling. It’s kind of rare to find that.
“The guy works hard. If you want to hit late or you want to hit early, he’s there for you. I think it’s going to be a good move for the Braves.”
Heyward’s second-season struggles were part of the reason that Parrish was fired, and the Braves wanted to make sure the next hitting coach had a plan and approach to help get Heyward and other hitters back on track.
“I’m still good friends with Jason,” said Flowers, a Marietta native who’s known Heyward since youth baseball. “Him and Walker, I think that’s a good matchup. Jason’s always been open-minded guy, it’s just a matter of translating instruction to what he does. He has a little different swing than most guys, but at same time he has more power than most guys.”
Fletcher, 53, played infield for 16 major-league seasons and has served as a roving instructor in the Colorado Rockies organization. He lives in the Atlanta area and has a son, Brian, who is a Royals minor leaguer who played youth baseball with Heyward.
Scott Fletcher has seen Heyward play since he was 12. Wren said he didn’t know of that relationship before interviewing Fletcher, and that it had nothing to do with hiring him.
The Braves’ offense slipped significantly in Parrish’s first and only season as hitting coach, and their situational hitting was cited by Wren as the team’s biggest weakness.
After leading the NL with a .339 OBP and tying for fifth with a .740 OPS in Terry Pendleton’s final season as hitting coach in 2010, the Braves slipped to 14th in OBP (.308) and 11th in OPS (.695) in 2011. Pendleton was moved to first-base coach after Gonzalez was hired to replaced retired manager Bobby Cox following the 2010 season.