Q&A with HoJo

There are few players in Mets history more beloved than Howard Johnson. He was a fan favorite from 1985 when they acquired him from the Tigers until the very last inning he played at Shea Stadium. Affectionately called HoJo, Johnson gave us his all every time he put on the uniform. He was a model for fans and younger players and now he is the hitting coach of the playoff bound Binghamton Mets.

Johnson's second career is still in its infancy. After managing the Brooklyn Cyclones he accepted the role of hitting coach and is making his way up the organizational ladder. Slowly but surely HoJo is making a tremendous impact on those who play for him. Names like Reyes, Wright, and Duncan have all spent time under the tutelage of HoJo. The results speak for themselves. As the hitting coach for the Binghamton Mets, HoJo has made sure that no matter how many players get moved up to AAA and/or the majors, his team will continue to hit. He works diligently to ensure that the natural slumps that a hitter will face during the course of a season are as short as they can be. In 2004, the Binghamton Mets lead the league in AVG, OBP, runs per game, hits, and doubles. They are second in triples and walks. This is after losing some of their best hitters such as David Wright, Prentice Redman, Justin Huber, and David Bacani.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with HoJo to talk about his team's success and about his own days as a player.

NYF: Brett Harper was in a terrible slump and then he had a session with you. What exactly did you say to him, and can you say it to me and maybe I'll get two hits every night?

HoJo: Well, he's got a real quick bat so all we have to do is get him under control. When he gets out of control and starts swinging max effort he's in trouble. So we've been talking about his pitch recognition, his tempo, and his rhythm. We're just trying to slow everything down and not be so big with all his moves. His stride, his hands, all that stuff we want to slow down.

NYF: Basically, he was over swinging?

HoJo: He over swings when he's early and when he slumps he lunges after the ball which makes him early.

NYF: Do you think that will improve with maturity and more plate appearances?

HoJo: Yea, definitely. He knows how to make the necessary adjustments. He's had a great year at St. Lucie and a good year up here. He gives us a good at bat every time. It's just a matter of keeping him under control. He can't go up there and give a max effort swing every time. We have to bring him down a little bit. He's got to try and see the ball longer and that's what we are working on.

NYF: How do you get a player to see the ball longer? Do you try and keep their hands back? How does it work?

HoJo: In BP we try and take away the right side of the field and keep him hitting up the middle or going the other way. We try and slow down his setup, his stride, and his shoulders so that he's a little more and relaxed. We don't want him swinging 100 MPH. Maybe only 55 or 60 MPH. Because of his bat speed he doesn't need to give any extra. He has such a quick bat that he can make due without swinging full force. That's kind of the way the whole team is. They're all going 100MPH and we're trying to slow them down.

NYF: Wayne Lydon has 116 strikeouts this year. With his speed he should be a contact hitter.

HoJo: He should be but he's really still learning to hit left handed. He has made tremendous improvements. He's hitting over .270. He got off to a real rough start and he's really come along way.

NYF: This team has been among the league leaders in strikeouts this whole season. This is a problem with the big league club as well. Is there anything a hitting coach can do about that?

HoJo: Part of our strikeout problem has been that as a team our philosophy has been selectivity. We want guys to be selective even with one strike. We don't care about two strikes. We just don't want guys making outs on border line pitches. As a result we end up getting ourselves behind in the count a lot and we'll strike out a lot.

NYF: So you encourage the deep counts and suffer the strikeouts?

HoJo: We absolutely want deep counts. We want guys to see as many pitches as possible. To me, we don't want to be getting ourselves out on a 1-1 pitch that is border line just so we don't strikeout. We need to have guys that are not afraid to hit with two strikes.

NYF: There is an alarming lack of power on this team. Pressley, who makes Mr. T. look like he should visit the gym more often, only has 3 home runs on the season. Is there anything a coach can do to improve a team's power?

HoJo: Pressley has played a long time and he does a lot of things offensively and developed a lot of habits that are tough to break. He's hit the ball with a little more authority recently but a lot of times it just involves making a personal commitment to adjust your swing. As far as teaching the team to hit with more power our philosophy is power comes. We don't try and teach guys to lift and separate. We want guys to see the ball better and be good hitters and not so much worry about driving the ball. Driving the ball is something that is natural. You either have it or you don't. You can try and maximize a hitter so that he hits the gaps but you cannot make him a power hitter. We don't want slap hitters. We want guys who can drive the ball into the gap. To me, our power is there. It's just in a different form.

NYF: You keep using the word "we". Is your teaching more an organizational philosophy or is it more of Howard Johnson's personal school of hitting?

HoJo: We have a philosophy in the organization. We work hard on our contact and pitch recognition and that's a big part of our philosophy. Obviously there are certain fundamentals that we as an organization try and teach. But like anything else, you cannot take the individual out of it so what I try and do is take what they as individuals do well and maximize that.

NYF: Do you find that your professional success has helped you as a hitting coach from the standpoint that the players will look to you with a certain amount of respect?

HoJo: That gets you in the door but you have to be able to teach and get guys attention and know what you're talking about for it to work. If I don't know what I'm talking about then these guys here will sense that, and it doesn't matter who you are, you could be a Hall of Famer, and these players won't listen if you cannot help them. Bottom line is can you help the kids? Are they improving? Are they making the necessary adjustments? That's what we grade ourselves on.

NYF: You managed the Brooklyn Cyclones. Now you are the hitting coach for the playoff bound Binghamton Mets. Do you prefer coaching to managing?

HoJo: Well, right now, I really enjoy what I do. I like coaching. As a hitting coach, I can watch guys improve every year and make the adjustments. Right now I'm satisfied with what I am doing.

NYF: What was your best moment at Shea and you can't say '86 because that's too easy.

HoJo: No it wouldn't be 86. Probably my first 30-30 season. I stole my 30h base against the Cardinals at Shea and that was really special.

NYF: Toughest pitcher?

HoJo: Tom Browning of Cincinnati. He had a real good changeup and used to get me out a lot.

NYF: Do you still keep in contact with any of your former teammates?

HoJo: I do. Some of them are coaching now. I talk to them or run in to them and I try to keep those communication lines open.

NYF: The reason I ask is because Keith Hernandez said in a Mets broadcast....

HoJo: Last year about the cork thing. He was just joking.

NYF: No, that is not what I am referring to. He said you were on steroids.

HoJo: No way! I have never been on steroids.

NYF: Well whether you or you weren't I couldn't believe a former teammate would come out and say something like that. I would never ask you if one your teammates was on steroids because it would be unfair to put you in that position.

HoJo: He was probably joking.

NYF: It didn't sound like a joke. It was just weird.

HoJo: You got to remember back in those days steroids were much more dangerous. I'm still scared to death because of Lyle Alzado who had cancer. Remember? So, no, I never did any of that stuff. My weight never ballooned. That's how you tell.

NYF: I think there are three ways to tell. 1) If a guys numbers go threw the roof all of a sudden. For example if a certain player hits 50 homeruns one year in the middle of his career and never before or after hits 20, that to me is a sign.

HoJo: But, did he get bigger?

NYF: Whether he did or he didn't, guys who are notorious for their lack of power should not be hitting 50 home runs. Also if a player has a lot of weird injuries especially involving back muscles or if their faces begin to change shape and become squarer. Sometimes you can look at a player's rookie card and they don't look anything like that anymore.

HoJo: True. Those are very good points. I can tell you with certainty that I never was into any of that stuff.

NYF: This is something I have always been curious about. Binghamton will play New Hampshire in the playoffs. Norfolk will not be in the playoffs. Will the organization send players back down so that Binghamton has a better shot at a championship or is it the organization's philosophy to keep player's moving up unless their performance dictates otherwise?

HoJo: It does matter, but really in our situation, and in all organizations from AA on up what happens in the big leagues really dictates player movement. For example, McEwing got hurt so a guy like Keppinger gets a shot until McEwing's healthy, and once that happens there will be a backwards movement. As far as guys coming back to us for the playoffs, there will probably be some movement back.

NYF: Will we see Bacani again?

HoJo: I don't know about that.

NYF: So is help on the way?

HoJo: We're not going to send a proven AAA player back to AA.

NYF: But guys like Bacani and McGinley who were in Binghamton for half the season could potentially make a return.

HoJo: Potentially but it is hard to gauge.

NYF: Do you model any your coaching style after any of your minor or major league coaches? Do you take any of what they gave you and impart it to these players?

HoJo: I learned a lot from Davey Johnson. He made everybody feel like they were a part of things. The biggest part of my style is trying to get to get to know these guys and find out what is important to them. You have to be almost a father to them at times because they go through ups and downs. I think the best coaches are the ones that communicate the best. The ones who have the best interest of the kids at heart are always successful and that's what I try and do. I'm out there with them every night.

NYF: I heard that you encouraged a struggling David Wright to keep a diary of his at bats.

HoJo: I wanted David to get in the good habit of cataloguing his at bats so that it would be easier for him to look back on himself. You always think that you will remember the last adjustment you made or the last time you faced a pitcher but at bats and pitchers inevitably run together so it's hard to remember where you were when you were successful. It always helps to have it in black and white so that you can go back and read what you did and what a pitcher tries to do to you.

NYF: Is that something you did as a player?

HoJo: Yeah. I kept logs of at bats. It's more important to do as you climb the ladder because the quality of pitching obviously improves. As a hitter, you have to have an awareness of how they will try and get you out.

NYF: Is there a part of you that wishes you were still in the batter's box? If there is a tight game do you feel like you want to contribute by taking a bat and hitting a home run?

HoJo: No! [laughing] In my mind I try and project myself in to every at bat that these guys have whether it's the first pitch of the game or the bottom of the ninth.

NYF: But you're a competitive guy. Are you telling me that there is no part of you that wants to be on that field?

HoJo: I get my competitive juices flowing when we win championships. It's really important for me to help these guys be the best they can down the stretch and hopefully win another ring.

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