Andy Haines still gets jitters walking into Wrigley Field. He got them as a kid growing up in southern Illinois. He got them last year as an assistant hitting coach for the Cubs. And that feeling was most definitely prevalent when he walked into the ballpark for the first time as Brewers hitting coach on Friday.
“I think any time you walk inside Wrigley Field, it's just a different type of feeling,” said Haines, who’s in his first year with manager Craig Counsell’s staff. “Last year I lived walking distance. You walk into Wrigley, I don't know what the right word would be, but you definitely have emotion walking in the building. It's a special place, it's unique. You get the same type of jitters and excitement and see a lot of familiar faces. I'd be lying if I didn't say it'd be pretty special to be back.”
In early November, Haines took the Brewers job, leaving the Cubs after two seasons (he spent 2016 as a minor-league hitting coordinator). The shift from one NL Central team to another meant he was no longer tinkering the approach of players like Javier Báez, but it also afforded Haines the opportunity to work with another loaded offensive unit, including reigning MVP Christian Yelich. And though their on-field styles aren’t identical, the 42-year-old Haines sees a lot of similarities in the two players’ games.
“I think with both guys, with Javy and Christian both, you're dealing with guys who's skillset and overall talent is just immense,” Haines said. “It's like these guys are elite, two of the best players in Major League Baseball and they both care about the right things and they're very similar that way. Perception of them would probably be a lot different to the fans, their demeanor on the field but eerily similar as far as talent and ability.
"And then at this level, when you combine that talent level with caring about the right things, you're just unstoppable. And that's what both of them are right now. I think it's probably the most difficult thing to coach is a player that elite because they're so elite that when they get a little bit off, it's harder to see.”
Haines worked in the Marlins organization as a minor league hitting coach and manager from 2008-2015. In those early days with the organization, one player whose progress he was responsible for overseeing was a teenage Yelich. Their previous relationship made the reunion all the easier, with the All-Star informing Haines to not go easy on him.
“We're staying on top of it and that's what I told him at the beginning of the season; I told him 'I want you to stay on my [butt], don't let me get lackadaisical, or if you think something is wrong or something is starting to stray, tell me,’" Yelich said. “I told him if we gotta get in a fist fight in the cage and hug and make-up afterwards, then it's all good. That's the kind of guy he is and the kind of relationship I like to have. That's what I value with Andy, that's how it's always been. He cares a lot and as a player you can appreciate that.
“When you get a new coach it's not always like that because the familiarity with each other, we know each other. He's known me since I was an 18-year-old kid. There's familiarity there and a comfort level that allowed us to dive in right away in spring training and get up to speed quickly.”
Though there haven’t been any reported melees in the cages, Haines appears to be pushing the right buttons with the Brewers’ offense, which ranks fifth in the NL in runs scored entering Friday. Team OPS is sixth in the NL, its hard-hit rate is up more than 6 percent from last year and the walk rate is up nearly a percent as well.
Individually, Yelich isn’t the only player benefitting from Haines’ tactics. Infielder Mike Moustakas is out to a fast start this year, with a slugging percentage that is 100 points better than 2018. The veteran appreciated Haines’ no-nonsense approach and believes it’s made a difference.
“I love Andy, Andy is incredible. He just laid it out to me flat out in what I was getting beat with and all that stuff, Moustakas said. “As far as the hitting coach goes, you have to individualize each person, you can't be a cookie-cutter mold of hitters. I hit different than [Yelich], I hit different from [Lorenzo Cain], and the thing Andy does great is he finds what works great for you and he works with that.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.