Baseball America Q&A: Cody Atkinson (Part 2)

Image credit: Sam Huff (Photo by Tom Priddy)

This offseason, the Rangers hired Cody Atkinson as their new minor league hitting coordinator. The 31-year-old played collegiately at Everett (Wash.) CC, Centerary College and Corban University and coached collegiately through the 2018 season.

Atkinson spent the 2019 season as the Reds’ hitting assessment and run production coach before being hired by the Rangers in October 2019. 

Baseball America spoke to Atkinson recently about his ascension to his new role and his coaching philosophies as well as his thoughts on some of the players in the system. 

Similar to swings, players’ learning styles also vary. How do you get a group of players with various backgrounds all on the same page and ready to buy into your philosophy?

This is definitely a thing, right? I guess our answer to that would be that we provide a buffet of resources and we’re not shoving any of them down their throat. There’s guys who learn more visually, and they want to watch a lot of film, then film is available to them. If they learn more through numbers and analytics really makes sense to them and really adds up for them, then every single report is available for them. If they learn through tech and that tech helps them feel, every bit of tech is available to them.

The thing that we would say, too, is: We would rather have our minor leaguers in the minor leagues figure out what makes them tick and what doesn’t—more importantly what doesn’t—we’d rather have them figure that out in the minor leagues than if they get to the major leagues and figure it out there. We want that to happen. We want a guy to go ‘You know what? When I was in Class A, I watched so much film. I was obsessed with film and it really screwed with my head, so I’ve gone away from the film and I don’t watch it very much anymore.’

I hope you learn that in Class A and I hope you don’t learn that when you’re on ESPN, you know? That’s not the time. So, rather than kind of be afraid of our guys trying things and failing—it goes back to one of our core convictions of embracing failure—rather than being afraid that we offer so much that it messes with their head, our opinion here is that, hey, we need them to realize what messes with their head. We need them to learn what doesn’t work so we can hone in on what does work and have a great career.

That’s where we’re not afraid at all of guys doing too much or filling their heads with too much because we need to find what’s best for them. Through the process of providing a buffet of resources they can literally walk into my office at any time and say ‘I want this’ and it’s theirs. By providing that, we believe that we’ve created a system where by the time that they are heading into year four or five or six when it’s either that they’re a minor league free agent or they’re heading to the big leagues, by the time they’ve gotten into those years, they’ve realized and honed in on what really works for them and it’s going to help them long-term.

Can you name the best hitter that you’ve seen in your career, and the hitter with the best swing, and are they necessarily the same?

This is going to be a weird answer, but the best hitter I’ve seen that I believe in and that I think has the best swing is Josh VanMeter. He’s with the Reds and I know him really well and we talk a lot to this day. His swing is very much to my eyes’ style. It’s very pleasing to my style. 

One thing that we do really, really well here is we do not, as coaches, push our style onto people. For instance, if a player asked me this question, I would say, ‘That’s the style I personally like, but that doesn’t mean that’s what you have to do.’ 

(VanMeter) is the best hitter that I know. I don’t think that there’s any holes to him. I don’t think that there’s any places you could pitch him. I don’t know how to get him out. There’s something that we talk about here, we talk about creating dynamic hitters, so we’re trying to have hitters who have multiple pitch solutions or problem-solving solutions.

So, can you solve firm, moving in? Can you solve firm, moving away? Can you solve soft, moving away? Can you solve soft, moving in? Can you solve firm, riding up? Can you solve, firm, sinking down? Can you solve soft, out of the zone? Can you solve firm, out of the zone? Can you solve out front contact? Can you solve deep contact? Can you solve all of those things?

We want to create hitters who can because they have optimized their problem-solving, and that’s what (VanMeter) is. I would say this: I think to truly cover all 11 different pitch types or different problems that you have to solve to cover all of them, I truly believe you have to have a good swing. If there are any issues, mechanically, to the swing, there’s going to be a hole. Then it’s just a matter of how much it gets exploited and how often it gets exploited.

I don’t believe you have to have the greatest swing to be successful, but I do think it handicaps you a little bit (if you don’t). I think that you’re going to have to be very disciplined if you have holes in your swing, you’re going to have to have an approach that’s very disciplined to waiting for your strikes. 

I see guys who I study on film or even guys that I’ve worked with where I’m going ‘We’ve got so much work to do, there’s so much refining that this needs.’ Then you go watch them in a game and when there’s a pitcher standing 60 feet away it doesn’t matter anymore, they can just get the job done. 

I do believe in those guys, I think that those guys are out there, but if you said to me, ‘Five, 10, 15, 20 years from now, what are the best hitters in the game going to look like?’ I think that in the rise of pitching and how it’s going to accelerate in development because it’s a closed skill and it’s going to get really good really quickly here with the advances in technology and just overall how easy pitching is, I think that we’re going to have to see hitters who have really good swing mechanically, and that’s how they’re going to have to be able to have success against really good pitching.

Let’s talk about some players now. Now that you’ve gotten a look at the system, you have a good base of guys who are particularly young, what is the overall impression of the group you have to work with?

I am so lucky, because these guys are all really young. A lot of them have played—for their age—for a really long time. Our system last year had some of the younger teams in their divisions and in their leagues, and the maturity of these guys is really impressive to me. Not just emotional and mental maturity, but physical maturity as well for their age and just the way that they go about their work.

I think it’s a product of the organization before I ever got here and what they were promoting and what they were doing and how they treated guys. Shoot, I think that Maximo Acosta could be one of the most mature players in our entire system and he’s 17 years old. It’s amazing to me.

I don’t look too much at rankings and such but I think that we have a lot of young players who are really underrated and are about to make big splashes, I really do. I know everybody feels that way, but it’s been really eye-opening to meet these guys throughout the offseason and then here in Arizona and get to know them better and see just how good they are. It’s a lot of good, good young players.

Baseball America sent Atkinson videos of three players—outfielder Bubba Thompson, catcher Sam Huff and infielder Sherten Apostel. Here’s what Atkinson had to say about each player.

Bubba Thompson

Bubba was the first player I met here. Right when I was hired I came to Arizona and watched the Arizona Fall League and I was able to work with him, Jax Biggers and Matt Whatley here, so Thompson was one of the first players that I ever met.

It’s funny, seeing that Arizona Fall League video and then how much time I spent with Bubba this offseason—I met him in Arizona a couple of different times for minicamps and talked to him a lot, he’s just so interesting to see his development just in this offseason.

When I saw the video of Bubba, it jumped out at me in the in-game video, the first one, where he kind of buys time into the ground with his front leg. So he gets into his front leg and buys some time—it’s probably a breaking ball or something—with his front leg and then smacks the ball.

I’ve seen him do that a ton. I think that’s what’s so unique about him is that he’s super adjustable with buying time into the ground and adjusting to pitches on the fly. He’s so athletic.

He has so much (bat) speed. It’s out of this world. None of the guys we’ve mentioned really have the same speed as him. With him having so much speed he has to have really good control because he’s so fast. Something that pops out that’s really unique on him is … man, this guy’s got the fastest bat speed I’ve ever seen but he’s never early.

It’s a really cool thing to look at: He’s never early, but he’s got elite bat speed—this doesn’t make sense. As I tried to make sense of it when I dug into him, I found that the reason this does make sense because if you think about a guy like Bubba Thompson in high school, Bubba in high school is probably 100 percent buying time against high school pitching. He probably had to sit there and wait for a really long time.

So when Bubba goes into playing professional baseball and guys are throwing a lot harder, instinctually he’s had all this time, he could wait. He had stupid bat speed against high school pitching, and now he gets into professional baseball and what he’s used to doing is being able to wait and now he’s a little bit late at times.

So, it was really cool to see him realize this and make those adjustments and be able to get to a place where he’s completely on time to fastballs and yet he has that ability to buy time into the ground and hit breaking balls. He can now adjust to breaking balls like he’s always known how to do. That’s one of the hardest things to teach guys—how to buy time and wait a little bit for offspeed—and Bubba has it naturally. 

I think that now that he has a feel for timing, there’s some timing reference points and some things that he’s doing to be on time to fastballs where he’s trusting his ability to be on time to breaking balls. I think that he’s going to have such a big season. Before we got shut down here he had hit a bunch of home runs in live BPs and he was looking really, really good.

Sam Huff

Just seeing that video of Sam, it was like ‘Oh, man.’ Sam has come a long way. Sam is so interesting to me because he’s been through a lot. He’s tried a lot of things. He’s done a lot of different things with his swing. He’s very unique in that way because he was a guy who, throughout his career, he was very, very interested in learning.

I think he’d be the first person to tell you he drove himself crazy early on in his career trying different stuff. With Sam, he’s found something that he feels really good with that he wants to stick to. The first things that stick out (when comparing BA’s video, from the 2019 Futures Game, and now) is that he just uses the ground really, really well.

His ability to get a clean sequence is pretty sweet for a big, big guy. He repeats a good sequence over and over and over again because he uses the ground so well and he’s on the ground and uses transfer of energy extremely cleanly.

One thing we believe is that it’s not about force production, but it’s really about force transmission. We want clean transfer of force into the bat, and that’s what Sam has and Sherten has as well.

Watching the video, I saw a little sloppiness to it. If you saw a video of Sam now I don’t think you’d be able to pick up that all these things are different because there’s not an unbelievable, huge difference. I would say he’s probably about 3 inches more narrow and taller but he’s really done a lot of breathing techniques and relaxation-type of stuff to make sure that he stays loose.

I think that one of the things for him that he was very aware of right away was when it goes wrong for him, he gets tense and jumpy. So he asked about things he could do to not get as tense, not get as jumpy. What he came up with was getting a little bit taller—like I said, maybe 3 inches more narrow—in his setup. Then he does this really cool breathing technique where he breathes out as he’s gathering—it’s called the double-breath—and he breathes out and he’s able to launch from any position and he’s been looking really, really good. 

I think when I look at video of Sam from last summer and you’re on the phone with someone and they’re like ‘He’s made all these changes,’ that’s not true. He looks the same and he is the same, because he’s really good. He’s a really, really good hitter. This guy has juice that I’ve never seen—he can put balls over the hitter’s eye and then you ask him how hard he was swinging, he’ll say ‘It feels like it’s about 40 percent.’

There’s really not much to change there. He’s a guy who, I think the best thing we can do for him is be there for him when he’s searching or he needs something, but otherwise just let him go, let him do his thing and just constantly promote the things that he wants. He’s a guy who wants to talk about feeling loose and feeling relaxed and quick.

It’s very unique for such a big guy to be able to have the quickness that he does have because he’s so big and long. It’s very unique for him because he uses how long his levers are, how long his arms are, to stay on plane forever, so his path is really good as well.  

Sherten Apostel

Sherten has this ability to move from balance to balance. When you watch him and pause it at different spots in his swing—including the swing that you sent—when you watch him you’re like, ‘This guy is never in a bad position.’ There’s not any point in his entire gather, to go, to launch, that he’s in a bad position. He’s in an athletic position the whole time.

I think that because of that, because he’s so balanced and he’s so athletic throughout the course of the whole swing, he has this really good ability to turn tight and get to pitches that he might be a little bit late on or needs to get there quickly. Then he also has this ability to stop, hit the brakes and stay through balls the other way. I think his opposite-field power is something I rarely see. He’s got unbelievable juice to the opposite field.

The things that stuck out from the video—even though it’s from 2018—are that he has elite brakes, we call it deceleration. His brakes are unbelievable, he can just hit them whenever he needs to and he can stop rotation and keep his barrel heading through to drive a pitch the other way or make sure that he hits the brakes on time on an inside pitch to make sure that he’s not spinning it or over-rotating. I think that comes from being in such a good position of balance with such a good swing.

He’s got a lot of work to do to get better at hitting breaking balls, and we’re starting to see that happen. It really comes down to trust as he gets older and sees more pitching and starts to trust himself to pull the trigger on some breaking balls. There’s no issue with the swing, it really just boils down to him letting himself go and letting himself hit those pitches.

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