Smithfield resident Johnny Narron has done a little bit of everything in his 40-plus summers of baseball. All of it was just preparation for the most recent and most important one of his career in the game.
In some ways, Narron’s debut season as hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers was about building a foundation. But in the world of professional sports, where production rules all, time to build is all relative.
Fortunately for Narron and the Brewers’ offense, things started to click just in time to turn the team into a surprise contender for a playoff spot and the best offense in the National League.
“A lot of this year was just building a foundation,” Narron said. “Toward the middle of the season and the All-Star break is when things started to fall into place.”
When he was named the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, Narron was an interesting choice to some baseball observers.
Originally hired by the Cincinnati Reds as an accountability partner for Josh Hamilton, Narron’s role expanded yearly.
He shifted to the Texas Rangers as an assistant hitting coach in 2008 when Hamilton was traded to the Rangers.
That role expanded each year, as Narron was part of a coaching staff that led the Rangers to back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011.
Those experiences led to his chance with the Brewers.
He’d get the chance to work with former National League MVP Ryan Braun and an offense that featured proven stars Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks, Carlos Gomez, a Japanese standout in Norichika Aoki and young catchers Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado.
“It was a different year than any of my years with the Rangers,” Narron said. “I knew the players there and they knew me. It was always just maintenance. With the Brewers, I had to learn them and they had to learn me.
“I had to fit into them more than they had to fit into me. I had to learn how to impart the information they needed to them.”
Narron’s approach, as he worked on manager Ron Roenick’s staff that also included his brother Jerry Narron as bench coach, was to build relationships with players. He wanted to learn what they expected and needed from a hitting coach.
“You have to be able to listen and not just walk in and start telling them what to do,” Narron said. “You try to blend what you know with what they need to know. You listen to them and learn what they think they need from you to be successful.”
Through observation and conversations with players, Narron found some things he thought could help Brewers’ batters.
His main theme with Braun, who hit .319 (six percentage points above his career average) with a career-high 41 home runs, was making sure he used his hands, taking advantage as much as possible of his great hand-eye coordination.
Weeks saw his batting average rise 62 points in the second half of the season after working with Narron on the basics of the swing.
Aoki had a solid rookie season with a .288 average and 150 hits, while Lucroy hit .320 and Maldonado .266 in his first extended run in the majors.
“Working with Maldonado, Gomez and Aiko, players who are getting ready to working to establish them on a Major League level,” Narron said. “It’s exciting to see that young talent grow.”
Brewers’ players learned to thrive on Narron’s helpful, optimistic above all else approach.
“When you’re a hitting coach, it’s half-mechanical, half-psychological and mental,” Braun told cbn.com during the season. “So having somebody who continues to just be positive and optimistic and tell us we’re going to have success is really important.”
The Brewers’ offense started to come alive after the All-Star break as the team took to Narron’s “productive team plate appearances” approach.
“My approach with them wasn’t any different. I wanted to make sure they swung at strikes,” he said. “Two-strike contact is something that can make a huge difference in a team’s production. We want productive team plate appearances. If you keep those two-strike misses down, it can make a big difference in the amount of runs we score.”
Narron defines a productive team plate appearance five ways: any hit, a free pass on base, a sacrifice, advancing the lead runner or battling the pitcher for eight pitches or more.
Milwaukee finished the season with a National League-best 776 runs (4.79 per game), 202 homers and 158 stolen bases.
The 83-win season was one that brings new expectations and excitement for a coaching staff, a staff that will return intact for 2013.
It’s a season that will begin earlier than normal for Narron and the Brewers because of the World Baseball Classic, which extends spring training by two weeks. There could be bigger news for the Brewers and Narron before Christmas, though, as recent media speculation has named Milwaukee as a potential landing spot for Hamilton, baseball’s most coveted free agent this off-season.
It would be a chance for a reunion of two friends and a new addition to an offense that’s already elite. For now, Narron won’t speculate on that potential, he’ll only look forward to the turn of the calendar to 2013.
“I’m already very excited about (it),” he said. “I’m going to enjoy my time off and at home, but I’m already looking forward to getting back with the guys. The hard work they put in as a team and the way they worked as a team and individually has me very excited about next year.”
“I feel like we’re the best offensive team in baseball.”
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