Q&A with new Padres hitting coach Matt Stairs: ‘I was a student of the game’ (2024)

PEORIA, Ariz.— Matt Stairs put on a uniform again in 2017, moving from the broadcast booth to the dugout, where he oversaw measurable progress by the Philadelphia Phillies’ offense. Now, the former Padres player is back as San Diego’s hitting coach, drawing on lessons he gathered over a 19-year major league career.


Stairs own education, he says, remains ongoing. In the meantime, he appears to have more than enough to impart to another young offense. Veteran additions such as Eric Hosmer and Chase Headley should boost a lineup that reached base less than 30 percent of the time last season. Stairs, the Padres’ ninth hitting coach since Petco Park opened, still faces a formidable challenge.

In these early, hopeful days of spring, he looks and sounds undaunted. In an interview with The Athletic, Stairs addressed his background, philosophy and passion for teaching. Besides working with major leaguers, he has volunteered as a youth hockey coach for more than a decade. He’s currentlyan assistant coach at his alma mater, Fredericton High in New Brunswick, Canada.

When did you start thinking about coaching as a career path?

Matt Stairs: I think it happened probably around the start of 2007. I was with the Blue Jays, having a good relationship with guys, going in the batting cage with guys, being on the same page as the hitting coach; ‘08 (with the Phillies) was probably really the first year. Jayson Werth changed his stance completely (working with Stairs). Working with (Shane) Victorino, those guys, Ryan Howard. That’s probably when it started. I retired. I was kind of surprised with myself when I got into broadcasting. But I think the more I did broadcasting, the more I knew, with the knowledge I had hitting-wise, I should be able to help some older guys and especially younger guys on the mental side of hitting and their approaches. Probably in ‘16 I knew it was time to get on the field. It worked out in ‘17 and now I’m here.

We’re seeing more managers with limited managing or coaching experience in the majors. You played longer than most, but do you see more people following a similar route and becoming major league hitting coaches relatively quickly?

Stairs: I think you’re seeing it. I think you’re seeing just the way the game’s changed, the style of play. Some of the things we see players consistently make outs on and not making the adjustment, and knowing that if you give some insight, we can help them get over those mistakes they continue making. They’re continuing to give at-bats away or not having a game plan. A lot of guys that get up here, they’re all studs. They’re all very good hitters. Now it’s just a matter of us getting them to repeat that great swing over and over and over. I was a student of the game. When I watched the game, I watched the game. I learned from (Mark) McGwire how to become a stubborn hitter and not give at-bats away and keep the concentration level. I think you’re starting to see some older players that are getting involved, because they know how special these kids are talent-wise.


You mentioned Mark McGwire, your former teammate in Oakland (and now the Padres’ bench coach). Who were some of your bigger influences as you developed your hitting philosophy?

Stairs: It was Jay Ward, a guy that was with me with the Expos. He helped me out a lot. José Tolentino was a guy I played against in Mexico. He taught me certain things, and I ended up beating him for the hitting title that year (laughs). You take something small from all of your hitting coaches, and you build off it. Just watching the game, watching guys’ approach, watching their mental side of the game, watching how they don’t swing at the pitcher’s pitch, how important it is to become a patient hitter. The 700-some ballplayers I played with, I probably watched half of them hit, and I had 19 hitting coaches. So I had a little bit of knowledge from all of them, and I put it into one bundle and kept it simple.

You’ve talked about being a stubborn hitter and not giving at-bats away. Is that the best way to summarize your hitting philosophy in a few words?

Stairs: Absolutely. Has to be. If I have a game plan every day, if I stick with my game plan, it means I’m a stubborn hitter. I’m hitting off the fastball, and I’m hitting off the fastball with a certain location. I’m not going to try to cover both sides of the plate. It’s too hard these days, guys throw too hard. Besides, you don’t have the ability to do damage on the inside pitch and the ability to do damage on the outside pitch. You need to pick one of them. If you don’t get one, you battle. There’s a pretty good chance you’re going to get a chance to hit a good pitch or a mistake pitch. Giving at-bats away, to me, is the biggest thing I notice in baseball, and it’s from being a fastball hitter, swinging at the first-pitch changeup and doing a rollover.

It all goes back to being a stubborn hitter and being a gap-to-gap guy. It’s all the same area, but it’s different phrases. If I think about giving five at-bats away per week and 20 per month, now all of a sudden it’s 120 at-bats that I start the season off giving away. You’ve got to battle pretty hard, don’t ya? You cut that in half, keep the concentration level. Everybody talks about hitting being the hardest thing to do, getting a hit or hitting a slider, hitting a good fastball— no. The hardest thing in baseball is keeping the concentration level for 162 games. It’s 580, 600 at-bats. That’s the toughest thing.

How do you drill that into guys? Just talking about it all the time?

Stairs: Just keep on reminding them. Being that pain in the ass where you say, “Boys, it doesn’t matter what the score is. We continue to work and not give at-bats away.” Sammy Sosa never gave at-bats away. Mark McGwire never gave at-bats away. Because their focus was so dedicated to what they wanted to do, what they wanted to become, what kind of player they drove to be. We talked about it today. We said,“Go back and watch McGwire’s at-bats.” You didn’t see him dinking around, laughing, giggling and stuff. He stepped out, took a deep breath, got back in the batter’s box. He was prepared. And that’s what our job is as coaches, is to keep reminding these guys. Doesn’t matter what the score is. You hit a 450-foot home run. Is that enough? Yes. Then don’t over-swing. That’s just what you have to do nowadays. You have to. Because it’s very easy to hit a home run your first at-bat and say, “Oo, I’m gonna get two today!” Next thing you know, you’re 1 for 4 with three strikeouts. You go from having a very good day to an OK day. That’s an area we work on, and I’m a firm believer in it.

Where do you stand on newer data like launch angle and exit velocity, and how do you incorporate and translate that information for hitters?

Stairs:I’m big on it. I really am. Guys that have low launch angles, a couple things are going to happen with it. They’re going to lose the barrel and not control it properly and hit weak balls to the right side. We thought about it back in the day as “I’m going to destroy the second baseman and shortstop with a line drive.” That’s my job. I’m going to put the ball through his glove. That’s the direction we’re swinging through. If that was the case and we did the proper swing, we end up launching the ball right for the proper launch angle. And with that approach, the ball’s coming off 100-plus miles an hour every time, because that was the philosophy of how to create backspin.


I don’t think it was taught to guys enough when it first started coming out. They thought the launch angle meant I need to uppercut or I need to drop my backside and swing up. Which causes you to either hit more ground balls or have a launch angle above 50 degrees. We try to drive it into these guys’ heads. I love the group I’m around, the minor league guys and the coaching staff, because we all believe the same thing. The proper way to create proper launch angle and exit velocity is to have that proper approach of driving the baseball through an infielder. That’s how we create backspin.

When you talk to hitters, are you bringing up “launch angle” and “exit velocity” in conversation?

Stairs: You have to talk about, first of all, squaring the ball up. If you square the ball up properly, you’re going to have a great launch angle. I don’t say, “Hey, I need to have you at this launch angle.” We do talk about it, because it’s very important in baseball. Proper launch angle is going to create high exit velocity, so that’s an area where you don’t need to talk about it. Unless a guy’s exit velocity is averaging about 84 miles an hour and now you know there’s a problem.

We still drive it into their heads. I’ll have targets in cages, I’ll have fun with it. I’ll have targets at home where I’ll put them up and say this is the perfect launch angle. If you can create repeating that swing and driving the ball in that area these targets are, that’s the approach we want. Have the machine set up behind you. Visuals are great for players. They really are. They think, “Oh, that’s a great launch angle.” No, that’s about 35 degrees. So to have some fun with it, that’s why I hit all the time with the guys. I love getting in there and explaining to them the proper technique to create the nice backspin and launch angle, which will give you the proper exit velocity.

Did you have targets put up in the cage in Philadelphia?

Stairs: No, the cage was a little different in Philly. We actually had an area at the back of the cage where that was where we wanted to aim for. So if we knew we were below it, it was still a good swing. You just didn’t square it up properly enough. If you hit in front of it, you knew you were under it. It’s just a matter of driving the ball. I like to have targets, strings, whatever. Whatever helps these guys understand the proper technique of launch angle.

Any plans for targets in the cage at Petco Park?

Stairs: God, yeah. It’s visuals. We’ve been talking about it, and that’s one thing I’d like to put up there. How we do it, I don’t know. We can figure out a way. With technology nowadays, if we figured out launch angles and all that stuff, we can figure out how to put targets up.

You still coach hockey in the offseason. How does that influence your coaching style for baseball?

Stairs: Communication. Being positive. You have to be positive with high school kids. You have to communicate. I don’t say a lot, but when I do speak it means something for the young kids in an area I grew up in. But I think the biggest thing is the communication skills that I have. I’m not a negative person. I don’t have a negative bone in my body. I’m a very positive person. I can take an 0-for-4 with three Ks and do something positive with it. And that’s the deal with the kids and players. For major league players, when you go home, have something positive. Yeah, you might’ve gone 0 for 4, but you saw 26 pitches today. Those are positives.

How many offseasons have you spent coaching hockey?

Stairs: Thirteen. I was full-time until I started broadcasting, and I stepped down as the head coach and became an assistant coach/ambassador/whatever. . . . It starts as soon as the season’s over. You go home, hockey tryouts start, we start mid-October training and practicing, and (Friday) night we start our first round of the playoffs. (Stairs will cheer Fredericton High from Arizona.)


You know how I got into it? When I lived in Maine, my good friend’s kid went to a private school. They asked me to come out and be a celebrity guest. And when I finished practice, they were like, Damn, you know what you’re talking about. I went on and took over the bench and did all the line changes and power plays and penalty-kill systems and stuff. I spent four years there, I went to the school where my daughters went, and then moved back to Canada six years ago and helped take that program back.

It sounds like something you’re really passionate about.

Stairs: I love coaching, because you learn something every day. Doesn’t matter if you’re a coach. You’re still learning stuff. You learn from players, you learn from other coaches, you learn from other players from different teams, you learn stuff from (McGwire). (Padres assistant hitting coach Johnny Washington) every day gives me something. There’s no perfect coach. There isn’t. We’re still learning, we’re creating stuff, but the thing with the hockey and the baseball, it’s all the positive vibes. I don’t think I’m a mental coach, because I’m not. But I think I do a pretty good job of keeping guys focused. Because I am that pain in the ass where I’ll keep reminding you. You have to.

(Top photo: Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Q&A with new Padres hitting coach Matt Stairs: ‘I was a student of the game’ (2024)
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