When hitting coach Chili Davis left the A’s within days after the end of last season to seek a significant increase in pay from the Boston Red Sox, it left Oakland with a big hole to fill. Chili will rejoin the Boston organization as their new hitting coach, taking over for Greg Colbrunn, a man who had health issues and saw his charges plate only 634 runs last year. Davis previously held the same position for AAA-Pawtucket and was a teammate of Red Sox skipper John Farrell with the Angels back in 1993-94, so he’s not in unfamiliar territory.
Despite some less-than-flattering comments by Josh Donaldson and Josh Reddick about Davis’ approach to his job with the A’s players, I personally liked him and feel it’s usually better to have a former All-Star hitter be a hitting coach than not. Nothing against Ty Van Burkleo, who was Oakland’s hitting coach in 2007-08, but he played only 14 games in the big leagues before leaving for Japan. This doesn’t mean he can’t coach, but he’s a no-name and I assume it’s more difficult to gain respect when you’re teaching something you never could do yourself.
This bring us to the A’s new hitting coach, Darren Bush. As a player, he spent three years in independent ball before toiling in A-ball for another three. He made a name for himself in the coaching ranks, having managed at A+Stockton, AA-Midland and AAA-Sacramento in the A’s farm system. He spent the last two years as Oakland’s bullpen coach before getting promoted to replace Davis. On paper it doesn’t seem to be an ambitious or inspiring hire, but apparently he has a great acumen for teaching hitting and established relationships with the players. Yet a little help was needed and therefore Billy Beane brought Rookie League manager Marcus Jensen up from Arizona to assume the role of Bush’s assistant.
Marcus Jensen is an Oakland native, having attended Skyline High School before being a sandwich pick (#33 overall) of the Giants in the 1990 draft. He was described as the “catcher of the future” for San Francisco, and I remember seeing him behind the dish at Scottsdale Stadium in 1994 during Spring Training. He played in only 39 games for the Giants at the big league level before he was shipped to Detroit. It was a rather fortuitous deal for San Francisco because they received another Skyline catcher in the bargain, Brian Johnson. The former Stanford quarterback would go on to hit one of the most famous home runs in Giants history while Jensen got into just 8 games for the Tigers before he was cut. But Jensen was still only 24 years old and had what many saw as a tremendous upside. In the next five years, he would get opportunities with the Brewers, Cardinals, Twins, Red Sox, Rangers, Phillies and Yankees.
In the end, the most games he ever played in a season was 52 with Minnesota in 2000, and his career batting average was a paltry .184. After bouncing around independent ball for a couple of years, the A’s brought him on in a coaching capacity in 2007 and he became the full-time AZL rookie manager in 2009. I was always very impressed with how he ran his games under the peaceful and serene night skies of Papago Park. Perhaps he learned something from his former Little League manager, Shooty Babbitt.
Three summers ago in Phoenix I interviewed Jensen for a few minutes after a game (pictured) to talk about his philosophies on baseball and if he wanted to work his way up through the system. He was well aware that his players were sitting in classrooms and going to proms just days before suiting up as professional athletes, so a firm but soft hand was required in equal measure. And yes, he most definitely desired to coach at a higher level – who knew he would skip so many levels in one swift move. So while not former MLB stars, I believe the combination of Bush and Jensen has a chance to be successful because many of the A’s have already played for these guys, and because I think they’re both very good coaches.