CLEVELAND -- One piece of Cleveland’s offseason puzzle is now in place.
The soon-to-be Guardians named Chris Valaika, a former assistant hitting coach for the Cubs, as their hitting coach on Friday.
At the end of the 2021 season, Cleveland decided it needed a change in its hitting department, informing hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo he would not return to the club next season. Now, the team will look to Valaika to help change the momentum.
“We talked and talked and came upon Chris,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. “We all felt like this is a kid that, although young and not terribly experienced, is going to be really good and seems to be really open to wanting to get better and be a learner. All the things that we value, he certainly seems to fall into that category.”
Valaika was a third-round pick by Cincinnati in the 2006 MLB Draft and worked his way to the Majors as an infielder with the Reds (parts of 2010-11), the Marlins (2013) and the Cubs (44 games in '14). He played in the Minor Leagues in 2015 before heading to UC Santa Barbara as an assistant coach.
He then dug even deeper into the game, spending 10 months working at Sparta Science outside San Francisco, where he dove into learning more about force plates and the data side of hitting. It wasn't long before the Cubs came calling with an offer for him to coach within their farm system.
“I just think it's well-rounded,” Francona said, when asked if there was something particular the club was searching for in a hitting coach. “You have to understand your area of expertise. You have to be able to connect with the players and the coaches and the baseball ops guys. When it was all said and done, we felt like Chris checked those things off pretty well.”
It was last winter when the Cubs promoted Valaika from Minor League hitting coordinator to the big league squad, assisting Chicago hitting coach Anthony Iapoce. Francona did not know Valaika before the hiring, but he thinks that could benefit the club even more.
“We try not to interview people on friendship,” Francona said. “We try to look at qualities and then start to match up names when you get people who you ask around and you start hearing names. We tried to get people to say something bad about him. We couldn't do it. We really tried. We dug. We just couldn't do it.”
Valaika will look to help an offense that has struggled over the last handful of years. Van Burkleo had just wrapped up his ninth season with Cleveland, which made him the longest-tenured hitting coach in the league. But as the offense struggled more and more over the past few seasons, it was time for a change.
In 2020, Cleveland ranked 23rd in the Majors in batting average (.228) and was tied for 22nd in wRC+ (90). This year, the team fell to the 26th-worst walk percentage, while tying for 20th in batting average (.238). It also ranked in a tie for 18th in wRC+ (93) and owned sole possession of 18th in runs scored with 717 (52 fewer than the team scored in the last 162-game season in 2019). Not to mention that Cleveland also became the first team to be no-hit three times in a season.
Now that Cleveland has filled its hitting coach vacancy, the only thing left to figure out with its coaching staff will be replacing former assistant pitching coach Ruben Niebla, who was hired as the Padres’ pitching coach last month.