After a season filled with struggles on offense up and down the lineup, the Atlanta Braves made two moves Friday to improve the team's hitting.
General manager Frank Wren announced the hiring of former Chicago White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker to fill that job with the Braves. And Scott Fletcher was hired from the Colorado Rockies organization to take a newly created position of assistant hitting coach and advance coach.
"We were all very impressed with Greg," Wren said on a conference call Friday afternoon. "Not only his experience, but his presence and his knowledge of hitting and the record and reputation he has in the game."
Walker spent the last eight seasons in Chicago and helped manager Ozzie Guillen guide the White Sox to a World Series title in 2005. In 2006 they led the major leagues in home runs, slugging percentage and batting average with runners in scoring position, a category in which the Braves particularly struggled in 2011.
Walker replaces Larry Parrish, who spent one season as the Braves' hitting coach. Atlanta had a team batting average of .243 in Fredi Gonzalez's first season as manager, and the team lost an 8 1/2-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card race in the final month and failed to make the playoffs.
"I'm thrilled to be part of the Atlanta Braves family," said Walker, a native of Douglas, Ga. "It's pretty humbling when the team you grew up with actually trusts you to work for them and take on the important job of hitting coach. I'm very proud of that."
In addition to helping with batting instruction, Fletcher will use the team's video services to prepare scouting reports on upcoming opponents, a job traditionally performed by a traveling advance scout.
"We are changing our model of how we approach hitting," Wren said. "In talking with Greg, he was comfortable having an assistant -- someone to work with him directly, give hitters another voice and someone else [for players] to ask questions."
Gonzalez said he looked forward to working with Walker and Fletcher.
"I'm really excited about having Greg and also Scotty on board," the manager said. "In going through the interview process with Greg, he was very impressive. He had all the characteristics that Frank and I were trying to meet.
"He lives right down the road, so he can jump right in there with our guys right away this winter."
Wren said the Braves were looking for three things in their search for a new hitting coach: someone with recent major league experience as a hitting coach, strong communications skills and a hitting philosophy that can help move the team forward offensively.
One of the challenges facing Walker will be trying to return right fielder Jason Hayward to the form he showed during his rookie season in 2010. Heyward finished his second big-league season with a batting average of .227, 14 home runs and 47 RBIs.
"Jason is a big part of the future of the Braves, and he's someone we'll be getting in touch with soon," Walker said. "I plan on spending a lot of time in Atlanta this winter so we can get started. [Heyward] is a big part of the team, but they have a lot of players that are really good, and that's one of the exciting things about being a part of this team.
Despite the concerns about Heyward, Wren stressed that one player was not the determining factor in choosing a new hitting coach for the Braves.
"Jason is a priority for us, and I don't want to make it sound like he's not," Wren said. "But that was not the priority in [selecting a] hitting coach. The priority for the hitting coach was someone who was well-rounded, understood the swing and understood the mental aspects of hitting and could convey that to major league hitters."
Jim Tanner has worked as assistant sports editor at the Times Free Press since late 2006. He started at the Times Free Press in 2001 and worked as a news copy/design editor from 2001 through 2006. In addition to working as a night and weekend editor producing local and national sports coverage for print and online readers, Jim occasionally writes local sports and outdoors stories. Jim grew up in Ringgold, Ga., and is a graduate ...