Indians' offense a hit without Murray

But team says resurgence isn't linked to departure of 4th-year hitting coach

Baseball

July 01, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

When the Cleveland Indians fired hitting coach Eddie Murray in June, Mark Shapiro, the team's executive vice president and general manager, was thinking about the future, no matter how bad the present looked.

On June 4, one of the top offensives in the American League a year ago was being labeled as one of the biggest disappointments. The youthful Indians ranked last in the AL in batting average (.244), runs (214), hits (449) and on-base percentage (.308). A dark horse pick to win the AL Central, Cleveland was just 25-29 on that date and had lost four straight games.

"What people thought was [Murray's firing] was a momentary reaction to try to spur some production out of our club, and that's not what it was," said Shapiro, who chose Derek Shelton to replace the former Orioles Hall of Famer. Shelton is a former minor league catcher who was the organization's minor league hitting coordinator.

"It did work out that way, but it was a decision we made for our players because philosophically, for the short and long term, we needed to make a change."

Before last night, in 22 games since Murray's firing, the Indians had hit .289 and averaged just more than six runs per game. During that span, they won 16 of 21 games, including nine straight at one point, to jump back into the early playoff picture.

In the season's first 54 games, Cleveland was averaging less than four runs per game, a glaring difference but one the Indians suggested is purely coincidental.

"Our lack of hitting had nothing to do with Eddie being here or not being here," said Indians third baseman Aaron Boone. "It's just a change that was made, and I think that as players, more falls on us as individuals."

Added leadoff man Grady Sizemore: "It's been a slow process. It wasn't just all of a sudden the switch was turned on [when Murray left]. It's been gradual, getting better each series, each week, and that's what it takes."

Sizemore, an ultra-talented 22-year-old outfielder who was part of the package the Indians received when they traded Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos, has improved his average 33 points to .307 since June 5.

Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner has more than doubled his home run and RBI counts in the past 18 games, and Boone and talented catcher Victor Martinez, two players with All-Star appearances on their resumes, have both seen jumps in their numbers.

Sizemore, Martinez, shortstop Jhonny Peralta and outfielder Jody Gerut were among the players whom Shelton worked with through the minor leagues.

"Anytime you have previous relationships, it just helps in the communication with hitters," Shelton said. "I think we're happy with the approach they are taking, and we are starting to take better swings."

Shapiro called firing Murray, who was in his fourth year as Indians hitting coach, "one of the hardest decisions I've had to make" since succeeding John Hart in November 2001 as the club's general manager.

Murray's agent, Ron Shapiro, is the father of the Indians' GM, leading to speculation that Murray's ouster was the decision of manager Eric Wedge. One Ohio newspaper's account of his firing said, "Murray came across as distant and not especially compassionate at times, and some [team] insiders say he has been rather negative and not connecting with some players."

When Shelton arrived, he opted to start with a clean slate. "Anything that happened before I got here is unfair for me to comment on," Shelton said. "I just started fresh when I got here, started talking to guys, and we went from there."

Though not delving into specifics, Hafner said Murray and Shelton, like almost all hitting coaches, share some similar philosophies on hitting but also have some different views. Shelton's message to Cleveland hitters has been to be patient in waiting for their pitch and to not try to pull every ball.

The results have been immediate, though Shelton doesn't want any credit for the Indians' surge, and players maintain that Murray doesn't deserve all the blame.

"You have to find what works for you," Sizemore said. "At this level, everyone is probably their own hitting coach. You know your swing better than anyone else, so it's not always the coach as much as it is what you need to work on individually. It's just a matter of putting it together."

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