Yankees minor league hitting coach Jake Hirst recently took the time to speak with Pinstripe Alley on a variety of topics. In part one of the interview, he discussed his path to the Yankees organization along with his work with current Yankees hitting coach Dillon Lawson. Below the discussion continues as he talks about the communication that comes with players moving through the system, the automated strike zone being used at the Low-A level and a few players who he thinks are strong breakout candidates in 2022.
During the 2021 season a number of the Yankees prospects earned promotions to the High-A level, included high profile names such as Anthony Volpe and Austin Wells. Hirst discussed the communication process that takes place during the season and especially when a player is moving up or down a level.
“There is pretty consistent communication, whether it’s from the level up or a level down,” Hirst said. “Basically, our goal as a hitting department and as a player development system is to provide a consistent message, from the Dominican (Yankees’ Dominican Republic Complex) to the big leagues. I think the cats out of the bag now in terms of our hitting philosophy is ‘hit strikes hard’, obviously there are levels to it. I think when you step back and look at the 10,000 foot view the player has his development plan, and his plan is really that (Hit Strikes Hard).
“If a guy is working on his strikeout rate, and his strikeout rate needs to reach a certain point before were not working on that anymore ... even with that communication there just isn’t a lot of change, we all know what they’ve been working on because we are all around each other during spring training,” Hirst said. “Luckily enough I was able to work with both Volpe and Wells during the offseason so I kind of had a feel for them, even going a little farther back. What they had been doing and things like that … I think that the ultimate goal is to make it so that there isn’t that transition period where they are feeling out a new coach and wondering ‘what’s he going to have me do?’”
Hirst was in the unique position to be working with a number of players who were promoted from the Low-A Tampa Tarpons — he joked that they were called the Hudson Valley Tarpons by the end of the season. While in Tampa, the players were having balls and strikes called by an automated strike zone. We discussed the feedback that the coaches at High-A were hearing from the players moving up from Low-A and how they adjusted to the human element once again being a factor behind the plate.
“Yeah, so off the bat, everybody is very pro automated strike zone,” Hirst said. “I think there is a level of security that comes when you know a ball is going to be called a ball and a strike is going to be a strike. There Is no blame to be projected on those borderline calls. I think late in the count most guys almost welcomed that level of responsibility for controlling the strike zone. So, whether or not it's going to continue to jump up levels, I honestly hope so, but we’ll see ... what I noticed is that guys came up with an improved understanding of the TrackMan automated strike zone. Their ability to define the edges of the zone was seriously impressive and there’s times when that knowledge of the TrackMan, automated strike zone can be a double-edged sword because most High-A umpires and Double-A umpires are not calling that zone right.
“So, it almost like getting them to back off a little bit and being like, I don’t want them chasing several balls off the zone and umpires are going to have those egregious calls, so we’re not asking them to swing at those but what is the umpire calling a majority of the time and balancing that with their knowledge of the true auto zone,” Hirst continued. “It is a bit of a balancing act, some guys came up and they were ready to go right away but other guys took a little longer. It was almost coming to the consensus that the big leagues don’t have the automated strike zone yet, so if I’m going to be up there even within the next two or three years then I should probably get comfortable with at least working the corners of the plate a little bit more.”
If it sounds like Hirst’s thinks the automated strike zone is going to be a big advantage for the hitters, he is very aware of the adjustments that will be made on the other side of the ball.
“On the pitching side, you might get where pitchers are manipulating pitches to just clip an edge,” Hirst said. “You get curveballs that have more depth, you might see pitchers start to pitch differently, I don’t know, it will be interesting to see if it happens, how it happens and what happens after.”
During the 2021 season Hirst worked with over 30 different hitters in the Yankees organization who came through Hudson Valley. While some of the prospects are very well known, I asked him if there were any players who were flying under the radar and might be poised for a breakout in 2022.
“Well, the two I was going to say, who are no longer flying under the radar are Andres Chaparro and Elijah Dunham,” Hirst replied. “Dunham went crazy in the Arizona Fall League, those are two of them. I think the other two guys who really stuck out, we had so many guys up and down the organization with really impressive seasons but the guys that came through me, Chad Bell is one of them, he started in (Low-A) Tampa and he just mashed his way to Double-A. He started controlling the zone a little bit better and the impact that the guy has is really impressive.
“Then another guy who is kind of similar, who started the season with me in Hudson Valley, then went back down to Tampa and then finished the season with me is Eric Wagaman,” Hirst said. “A little bit older guy, but he is also a guy who increased his max exit velo from 108 mph to 115 mph, he is controlling the zone better and recognizing off speed a little bit better. So just the adjustments that he was able to make later in the season, especially as a little bit of an older player, especially that big of a jump in max exit velo.”
Jake Hirst is coming off a very successful season with the High-A Hudson Valley Renegades. On their way to winning the High-A East’s Northeast Division, they outscored their closest division rival by 51 runs on the season. Pinstripe Alley thanks Jake for taking the time to speak with us and is excited to see his work continue with the Yankees organization in 2022.