CLEVELAND -- Sometimes, even coaches can feel like the new kids in school. But for Guardians hitting coach Chris Valaika, he’s not letting that prevent him from diving headfirst into his new role.
Valaika was an assistant hitting coach for the Cubs this past season before heading to his new home in Columbus in October to join his fiancée, who is currently getting her fellowship in cardiology at Ohio State. That’s when he heard from the Guardians, who had a hitting coach position open after parting ways with Ty Van Burkleo. On Nov. 5, Valaika was hired as Cleveland’s hitting coach.
“You want to go somewhere that you can really dig in and make some change,” Valaika said. “This was a great fit for me. Having looked at Ty's track record, having been here nine years, that's something hopefully I can strive for as well.”
Van Burkleo was the longest-tenured hitting coach in the league, having held the position with Cleveland since 2013, when Terry Francona took over as the manager of the club. Although the coaching staff helped turn the team into one of the most successful in the past decade, the last handful of seasons have been filled with more-than-the-usual hiccups, especially offensively.
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 21st in batting average (.238). It also tied 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 '19). And on top of it all, the club set a Major League record by being the first team to get no-hit three times in one season.
“I try not to think about those things, really focusing on the team we have at hand right now,” Valaika said. “I think we’re gonna be younger, just like we were at the end [of the season]. So just really trying to educate those guys at the big league level and continuing to develop in the big leagues, not be fear-based with any of that stuff but really trying to teach them more of the fundamentals of the things and how to go about their business while we still have some of the veteran leadership with [José Ramírez] and [Bradley] Zimmer that have been around a little bit.”
The most beneficial part of this transition for the Guardians is having a different voice leading the offense, attempting to bring new ideas to a group that’s fallen silent all too often. And the 36-year-old has unique experience under his belt to help bring a different perspective to his new organization, having spent 10 months working at Sparta Science outside San Francisco, where he dove into learning more about force plates and the data side of hitting.
“Taking that over to Chicago,” Valaika said, “it wasn’t necessarily the technology, as much as it was really understanding how each athlete moves and how they tick and being able to try to tailor a plan based on what they do well, what they don’t do well, rather than just trying to throw blanket drill packages or approach or goals, things like that.”
It’s a plan that sounds great on paper, but Valaika will need some time to get acquainted with his new team before he can begin understanding the best path for each player moving forward -- something that’s difficult to do during the offseason without much face-to-face contact with the team.
“We're doing the best we can,” Valaika said, “talking, texting, things like that.”
Valaika is turning to his new coaching staff to help him make the transition. And he hopes that his even-keeled personality is going to be the perfect match for an offense that needs new guidance.
“I think you need that in this role,” Valaika said. “There's so much failure that goes into the day to day with these guys, so showing up and being the same guy for them is really important.”