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Harper helps Hens focus on pitchers, not technique

05/17/2017, 12:40am EDT
By By JOHN WAGNER BLADE SPORTS WRITER

New hitting coach spent past 3 seasons with Iowa Cubs


Toledo manager Mike Rojas, left, talks with hitting coach Brian Harper, who held the same job with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs the past four years. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH

For the first time since before Fifth Third Field opened, there’s a new voice talking to Mud Hens hitters.

That voice belongs to Brian Harper, who has taken over as Toledo hitting coach for Leon “Bull” Durham after the latter was promoted to assistant hitting coach in Detroit for 2017.

Harper said his focus on working with Hens hitters is to sharpen their mental skills at the plate.

“Everyone these days seems to be trying to reinvent hitting,” he said.  “At this level, I’m about the mental part of hitting, focusing on beating the pitcher rather than worrying about what you’re doing. A lot of guys are consumed about where their hands are or things like that. 

“I think guys need to focus more on a pitcher’s patterns, or style, or what they’re trying to do.”

Mud Hens manager Mike Rojas said he likes the way Harper has quickly adjusted to his new position.

“He’s a guy who came from another organization, but I think things are going well,” Rojas said of Harper. “In spring training you get to know guys, and over the course of the season you get to know them more.

“To me, the more important thing is the relationship he has with the players, with the hitters.”

Harper’s professional career began when he was drafted by the California Angels in the fourth round of the 1977 draft. He reached the majors just two years later, playing in one game for the Angels as 19-year-old in 1979.

He returned to the majors with the Angels in 1981, then began a vagabond existence that included stops in Pittsburgh (1982-84), St. Louis (1985), Detroit (1986), and Oakland (1987) before signing with Minnesota before the 1988 season.

After never playing in more than 61 games in a season, Harper suddenly flourished with the Twins in 1989, batting .325 with eight home runs and 57 RBIs in 126 games.

“I started watching what pitches they were throwing me and worrying less on what my front elbow or back hip were doing,” Harper said. “I just tried to compete against the pitcher, making educated guesses on the pitches I was going to get. And that completely changed my career around.”

Harper spent six seasons with Minnesota, his best year coming in 1993, when he hit .304 with career bests in home runs (12) and RBIs (73). He also played an important role with the Twins 1991 World Series team, batting .311 with 10 homers and 69 RBIs.

After ending his career with Oakland in 1995, Harper left the game for four seasons before making a brief minor-league comeback in 2000.

The next season the California native switched to coaching, and two hitting coaches that Harper drew wisdom from were Terry Crowley in Minnesota and Johnny Lewis in St. Louis.

“Crowley would come up to me after I had a bad game in Minnesota and say, ‘Man, I feel bad for the other team’s pitcher tomorrow,’ ” Harper said. “When I asked why, he’d say, ‘You’re really going to have a day against him.’

“And I hardly played the year I was in St. Louis, but Johnny always made me feel good about something — even if it was a stretch. He’d say something like, ‘Your timing really looked good on that fastball down the middle that you took.’

“When you’re going bad, nobody feels worse than you. And it’s a grind, so I learned from them to just try to find something positive and build on that.”

Harper’s off-field career began when he managed the Angels’ Arizona Fall League teams from 2001-05, then jumped to Triple-A to lead the Salt Lake Bees the following year. He was a catching instructor for San Francisco for two years before leading the Giants’ High-A team in San Jose to a California League title in 2010.

Harper then joined the Cubs organization, managing the Double-A team in Tennessee in 2011 and the High-A team in Daytona the following season before becoming the hitting coach of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs from 2013 to last season.

Do not misunderstand: the hard-working Harper, who comes to the ballpark early to do extra work with struggling Hens batters, knows that keeping a hitter’s swing finely tuned is important part of his job.

“I’m big on driving the ball to the opposite field,” Harper said. “I think good hitters use most of the field, and even when they hit the ball the other way, really good hitters are in position to pull the ball.

“I work with hitters to make them as comfortable with their swing as possible.”

When the game starts, Harper hopes his hard work on  he physical and mental side of hitting will allow Hens batters to maximize their success.

“A coach’s job is to try and see things, but also to encourage players,” Harper said. “I want to help them, but eventually success is in their hands.

“I just want to help them be ready to compete every night.”

Contact John Wagner at: jwagner@theblade.com, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.

Brian Harper file

■ Name: Brian David Harper

■ Position: Hitting coach

■ Height/​Weight: 6-2/​195

■ Hometown: San Pedro, Calif.

■ Age: 57

■ Family: Wife Kimberly. We have a Brady Bunch family with sons Brett (35), Derek (32), and Lance (26). And I have raised my niece as a daughter; she is Aja (38). And we have my wife’s sons John, who is 28, and Tommy, who is 26.

■ Nickname: Everyone calls me “Harp.”

■ Favorite way to spend time away from the field: Having a nice dinner with my wife.

■ Baseball player you admired growing up: Ted Simmons. He was a catcher who could hit — I came up as a catcher, and most catchers back in the day couldn’t hit.

■ Favorite sport other than baseball: Football. I like watching NFL games.

■ Favorite music: Contemporary Christian and worship music. Chris Tomlin and Hillsong are two of my favorites.

■ Favorite meal: My wife is an unbelievable cook, and there’s absolutely nothing that she cooks that I don’t like. I do like to grill out, especially seafood and steak.

■ Favorite beverage: I enjoy iced coffee in the morning right after I wake up.

■ Favorite movie: For a long time it was Braveheart. Then I saw Hacksaw Ridge on the flight from Lakeland here to Toledo, and now it’s a tie between those two.

■ Favorite TV show: My wife and I watch the Food Channel all the time. My favorite is Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. When my wife and I travel, we try to hit a lot of those spots.

■ Do you have a Twitter account? No. My wife won’t let me have it. I’d get in trouble if I did.

■ Person you most admire: Ultimately the person I admire most is Jesus Christ for his sacrifice, the gift he gave to us.

■ If you could meet any person, who would it be? Babe Ruth. When I was a kid, I carried pictures of Babe Ruth in my pocket in Little League games.

■ Top sports moment: Winning the World Series in 1991. Game 7 was pressure-packed — I was on deck when the winning run scored — and just the relief in winning the game, first, and second the satisfaction of the payoff for all the work I’d put in. All the squats, all the running up hills, all the road trips, and everything we go through was worth it.

■ Baseball superstitions: Most coaches are superstitious, so I try to be anti-superstitious. I have routines, but I don’t wear the same clothes if we win.

■ Something nobody knows about you: I’m an avid long-distance runner. I’ve ran three half-marathons, two with my wife and one with a friend. During the season I’ll put in four runs of four to five miles apiece. And I love running in the city, running downtown.

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Tag(s): Pro  Mud Hens  John Wagner