In 2021, the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros — baseball’s two winningest teams and the eventual American League champions — each employed two hitting coaches of even status. Four of them were 35 years old or younger and had no major league playing experience.
The Orioles, then, seem to be following a trend with their decision to promote Ryan Fuller from Double-A Bowie and hire Matt Borgschulte from the Minnesota Twins organization to serve as co-hitting coaches in 2022. Each is 31 years old, and Fuller’s brief stint in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization accounts for their only playing time in affiliated baseball.
Yet each has clearly established themselves as capable of doing the job in the Orioles’ eyes. Fuller, as Bowie’s hitting coach and the Orioles’ full-season hitting coordinator, was heavily involved in the organization’s implementation of a new and successful hitting program. The Twins liked Borgschulte enough to move him from High-A to Triple-A after the 2019 season.
Now, the pair is in Baltimore, with hopes of remaining there as the high-level prospects Fuller worked with in the minors ascend to the majors. But they’ll have a few clear goals in their first year with the Orioles.
1. Improve plate discipline up and down the lineup
Among the largest focal points on the Orioles’ farm this year was players’ swing decisions, training them to swing at pitches they could be successful with and pass otherwise, even if those offerings were possible strikes. The approach seemed to be successful; 26 of their minor leaguers had an OPS over .800, compared with 15 such performers in 2019.
Many of the Orioles who have already reached the majors, however, arrived without that level of plate discipline. Of their 17 hitters who got at least 100 plate appearances, all of them struck out at least twice as often as they walked, and only outfielders Ryan McKenna and D.J. Stewart walked at least 10% of the time. Meanwhile, 36 Orioles minor leaguers had better than a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
If Fuller and Borgschulte can take young hitters who have always had plate discipline issues, such as Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays, and help to make even incremental improvements in that area, that could lead to them being more complete and productive players.
2. Give Adley Rutschman a successful transition to the majors
It’s likely no coincidence that the hitting coach who spent much of 2021 as top prospect Adley Rutchman’s hitting coach in Bowie, as well as around him at the alternate training site in 2020, is now on Baltimore’s major league staff. With the Baysox, Rutschman posted a .901 OPS, slugging .508 with an on-base percentage of nearly .400, before thriving at Triple-A Norfolk for two months.
He did little to show he’s not ready to be the Orioles’ everyday catcher, with business rather than baseball figuring to keep him off Baltimore’s opening day roster. But since he was drafted first overall in 2019, Rutschman has been the face of the Orioles’ rebuild, and that status will come into even greater focus once he’s at Camden Yards.
Given his talent and ability to make adjustments, Rutschman surely won’t depend on Fuller and Borgschulte to succeed as a major leaguer, but it would surely help support the Orioles’ methodology in hiring them if Rutschman doesn’t miss a beat with the Orioles.
3. Help Trey Mancini recapture his 2019 form
Admittedly, there’s no guarantee Fuller and Borgschulte will coach Mancini, who is not much younger than either of them. He’s entering his final year of salary arbitration before reaching free agency and thus is a prime candidate for the Orioles to trade.
But if Mancini’s an Oriole in 2022, he will be one of the most important ones for Fuller and Borgschulte to work as a fixture in the middle of Baltimore’s order. Their predecessor, Don Long, had more than a decade of experience as a major league hitting coach — though also none as a major league player — and was someone Mancini trusted as a mentor as he battled frustration and self-doubt in his comeback season from colon cancer.
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Mancini was voted Most Valuable Oriole in 2019 thanks to 35 home runs and an .899 OPS, but fatigue amid his return caused a quiet couple of months to end 2021. Although the Orioles’ focus figures to be on the strides of younger players, further return to normalcy for Mancini would surely be welcome as well.