TORONTO — The coaches assembled into their newfound positions on Thursday afternoon.
Dale Sveum, the latest in a string of Royals hitting instructors, stalked the visitors clubhouse at Rogers Centre and engaged in a series of conversations with the players who got the last hitting coach demoted. At another locker, new third-base coach Mike Jirschele conferred with players about defensive assignments. Outside the clubhouse, crouched over a Lenovo Thinkpad, Pedro Grifol peered into the laptop’s screen in silence.
One day away from the one-year anniversary of their last hitting coach shakeup, the Royals shuffled the deck once more. Hired to assist George Brett last May and promoted to replace him last July, Grifol was re-assigned to catching instructor. Sveum, the former Cubs manager and Brewers hitting coach, is now tasked with catalyzing the worst offense in the American League, the group who just suffered through a three-game thrashing by the Houston Astros.
“It was just time to do something,” manager Ned Yost said. “We needed to do something. We couldn’t keep going the way we were going.”
The Royals entered Thursday’s game against Toronto mired in an offensive malaise that has lasted two months. They were ranked last in runs, last in on-base percentage, and, of course, last in home runs. They hit neither for power nor for average. They do not draw many walks.
The combination is sinister. And now it is another’s man’s responsibility.
When problems occur with a baseball team, Sveum said, “you always go back to the hitting coach. It’s a tough job.”
Sveum becomes the sixth hitting big-league hitting instructor employed by the club since the end of the 2012 season. The line of succession traced into the opposing dugout on Thursday. Toronto hitting coach Kevin Seitzer held the same position with the Royals from 2009 to 2012. The Royals fired him because of a philosophical disagreement with Yost, who felt the club capable of hitting more home runs.
The subsequent duo of Jack Maloof and Andre David achieved little during their tenure in 2013. As the team’s season turned around after their departure, Brett received credit for engaging in what team officials called a “mental rescue” of the hitters. Grifol contributed much of the technical, mechanical work.
“Pedro is a phenomenal hitting coach,” Yost said. “He’s the one that pulled us out of our trouble last year. But here, a year later, we find ourselves in the exact same spot.”
This current rut feels more deflating. Mike Moustakas blundered his way into a minor-league demotion. Eric Hosmer batted .180 in his last 15 games with scant power. Billy Butler carried a .593 OPS, which ranks 105th among the 106 players with 200 plate appearances.
The collective slump became too much for Yost to stomach. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he sounded more openly critical of his players and their approach than ever before. He ticked off a list of problems, from breakdowns in timing to mechanics to pitch selection. His candidness stemmed from his certainty. “I had made my mind up by then,” he said.
Yost did not inform his staff until Thursday. As Sveum scanned his new charges, he settled on one root issue: “Elevation,” he called it.
“We’ve swung at pitches down in the zone way too much,” Sveum said. “And from thigh high to the top of the strike zone, we’re not doing enough damage.”
Sveum is a friend and close ally of Yost. The manager persuaded the front office to hire Sveum this winter. He coached on Yost’s staff in Milwaukee, replaced him as interim manager during the Brewers’ playoff run in 2008 and remained on staff as the hitting coach until 2011.
Yost credited him with the ascendance of Brewers like Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and Casey McGehee. He also pegged Sveum as an expert at tinkering with a player’s head movement and hand positioning. Sveum insisted the process would be gradual.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that things don’t turn around quickly,” he said.
Sveum spoke with reporters for seven minutes. Then he settled into his new position behind the batting cage. He had already run rounds of early batting practice in the afternoon. Grifol was not on the diamond during the session.
Grifol sounded upbeat despite the decision. As he stood outside the clubhouse, ready for first day in his new role, he repeatedly referred to himself as “an organizational guy.”
“It’s change,” Grifol said. “And sometimes, change is good.”
Grifol continued on his way to the diamond. He crossed paths with backup catcher Brett Hayes, who queried him about their upcoming schedule of drills.
“Full gear?” Hayes asked.
“Yeah,” Grifol said. “Let’s go do some work.”
Grifol marched up a flight of steps and into the Royals dugout. Across the diamond, he spotted a colleague who had experienced a similar plight. Kevin Seitzer was chatting with outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson. The two former Royals hitting coaches embraced.
Then Hayes emerged on the diamond, covered in his equipment, and walked with Grifol toward the visitors’ bullpen. As Sveum would say a few minutes later, “We’re in these jobs to be fired.”
Or, in this case, reassigned.