Young Sox hitters have Manto excited for 2013
First-year coach sees big things ahead for players like De Aza, Beckham
CHICAGO -- Jeff Manto knows all about his hitters' shortcomings over the 15 games leading into the 2012 finale, when the White Sox watched a three-game American League Central lead on Sept. 18 quickly turn into postseason elimination.
As a team, the White Sox hit just .232 from Sept. 18 to Oct. 2 and posted a dismal .198 average with runners in scoring position during their 4-11 stretch. This slump came from a group that had the fifth-best RISP average in all of Major League Baseball.
Almost two months after the forgettable finish, the White Sox hitting coach still looks at his first year on this job as a success thanks to the talented group he oversaw. He also believes the late September fade came as much from the mental side as it did from the physical approach.
"These guys tried so hard and they really wanted it, that they ended up trying too hard," Manto told MLB.com during a recent phone interview. "It wasn't like they were facing new pitchers or there were any surprises.
"They wanted it so bad that they might have come out of their approaches a little bit. But it was not by any other fault than by desire. They were trying to do the right thing so bad, it just didn't work for them.
"Sometimes that's the way it goes," Manto said. "We had some guys who were in that situation for the first time and it will serve as a great learning experience."
That development of young hitters has Manto excited to get going on the 2013 campaign. For example, Manto looks at leadoff man Alejandro De Aza and Gordon Beckham and sees players whose best seasons are ahead of them.
De Aza had a great finish to the 2011 campaign, batting .327 with four homers, 23 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in just 152 at-bats after his callup from Triple-A Charlotte. Yet, Manto now can admit that De Aza privately was one of his biggest concerns going back to Spring Training because he wasn't sure how the fleet-footed, left-handed hitter would adapt to the ups and downs of a 162-game regimen.
After hitting .281, scoring 81 runs, and most importantly seeing 3.97 pitches per at-bat, Manto had his doubts erased. He feels comfortable with De Aza returning in the top spot of the White Sox order.
"He did a tremendous job leading off, but he definitely left himself room to improve," Manto said. "The only thing I see with him is when he learns how to bunt more, it will open up a lot of holes on the infield and he could become elite.
"Right now, he's probably one of the few true leadoff type hitters. There are a lot of guys who hit first but aren't true leadoff hitters. He has the knack and ability to get deep in counts and the patience to do it."
Beckham, 26, checked in with a .234 average that was marginally better than his .230 mark from 2011. A large part of those struggles could be attributed to Beckham hitting .153 in April and .188 in July.
Considered one of the best fielding second basemen in the American League, Beckham also took a step up with a career-high 16 homers and drove in 60 despite 308 at-bats from the ninth spot in the order. Manto pointed out that Beckham had himself in a good place offensively at the season's finish and expects that same upbeat attitude to carry over into 2013.
"He'll be a both sides of the ball type of guy," Manto said. "He's going to be real good offensively. Sometimes it takes a little bit of a setback to get better. I don't think it's unusual for guys who took lumps to come back."
During these past couple of months, Manto has stayed in contact with his hitters but he isn't "swallowing them up with phone calls" because he has a group of hitters who know what they are doing and he wants them to have the offseason. Manto went to Texas last offseason to get on the same page with Adam Dunn, with the slugging designated hitter coming off of his miserable 2011 showing, but Manto will only meet with the Comeback Player of the Year as chosen by his peers if he requests a meeting over the next few weeks.
"Adam is in a good spot, a good place," Manto said. "We are going to ask a lot of him next year."
Alex Rios falls into that same good place category, after the right fielder put together arguably his best pro season. Rios has himself in a position where "he could sustain this the rest of his career," according to Manto.
So what does Manto want to see as far as offensive improvements or changes? He doesn't seem to be worried about a right-handed heavy lineup if free agent A.J. Pierzynski doesn't return and pretty much left the rest of the roster concerns to general manager Rick Hahn and manager Robin Ventura.
Thanks to Ventura's leadership, Manto deemed his first season "truly awesome." His hitters contributed to that feeling, with a big finish to match a great start standing as the only thing missing.
"I'm not sure what Rick is going to do, but I'll support whatever he does. It's not like I have a wish list," Manto said. "There were a lot of guys who got better and moved in a positive direction, but I don't think everybody played up to their expectations. A lot of guys left a lot of room to get better."