At the end of this month, the Chinatrust Brothers of the CPBL will be losing a very important piece of their team. He hasn't thrown a single pitch nor even taken an at-bat but his effect on the team, and on the country’s baseball program, is immeasurable.
Hitting coach Tommy Cruz, or Papi as the players call him, has helped change the landscape of the hitting philosophy during his brief coaching stints with the Brothers and various other national squads in Taiwan. With over 45 years in professional baseball, the beginning of Cruz’s relationship with the country began with a phone call.
“I was at home and my wife got a call from Taiwan and she said that somebody was looking for me. What does Taiwan want with me I asked? They asked if I was interested in some semi-pro work in the Popcorn League. It was only for three months and I said that was good enough for me.”It was a phone call that really paid off for the nation's baseball program. Almost every competitive age group has benefited from Cruz’s help, from teenagers and students all the way to professional veterans. Since coming to Taiwan, the soon-to-be-former Brothers hitting coach has done nothing but make teams successful.
In 2014, during his first coaching job in Taiwan, he helped turn one of the worst teams in the Popcorn League (Taiwan’s industrial league) into champions, and later that same year he helped coach the Taiwanese national team to a championship at the 21U Baseball World Cup in Taichung.
Due to his success, the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions offered the former Nippon-Ham Fighter player and two-time NPB Pacific League All-Star a job as the team's hitting coach, but Cruz would turn down the offer and head back home for a short break to spend time with his family.
After coming back to the island the following year to help as the hitting coach for team Taiwan at the 2015 18U World Baseball Cup in Japan, the Chinatrust Brothers would inquire about the services of the 65-year-old Puerto Rican.
|The Oliver Photo|
“I happened to talk to the Brothers and said I'll go for three months but they said they needed me for more than that,” Cruz mentioned before a game in late May between the Brothers and the Monkeys. “I said my family first. I'm 65, I'm passed my time already, so they said okay, but they signed me for five months and then six months.”What the Brothers and Cruz have done offensively, nearing the halfway point of the 2016 season, is unprecedented. They are projected to smash every offensive record in the 27-year history of the CPBL.
Taking a look at average runs scored, hits and home runs from the Brothers teams during 2009-2014, and the numbers from 2015 versus this year’s projections, we discover some astounding comparisons.
Note: 2009 was the first year that the CPBL adopted a 120-game schedule. The projections are based on the cumulative stats collected after 52 games played.
- The Brothers hit 125 percent more home runs in 2015 than they averaged during the previous six seasons. That is an alarming increase in just one year. However, the 2016 Brothers are projected to hit almost 100 more home runs than in 2015. That is an insane 360 percent increase versus the 2009-14 average and a 104 percent increase versus the 2015 total.
- In 2015, the Brothers set a franchise record for runs scored with 684. The 2016 team is projected to score 997 runs, 46 percent more than the 2015 team record.
- The Brothers could possibly score more runs in 2016 than 2013 AND 2014 combined (476 and 475 respectively)
- Last year, the Brothers surpassed the 2012 team record for hits in a season by 101 hits. The 2016 Brothers are on pace to collect 1,535 hits, or 17 percent more hits than 2015
It is almost impossible to quantify the effect that hitting coaches have on a team's offensive production, but if we look at the philosophy and ideas that they try to instill in their players, we can get a better understanding of where their accomplishments lie.
“For me it's more the game mindset,” Cruz humbly answers when asked about his role in the team's success. “Positivity, believing in yourself, focus more and concentrate. I know they can make contact, but they don't know how to make contact with power. That's what we try to create.”
But what about all this power? Where does it come from? It’s not like one morning the team just decides to increase their home runs by 100 percent versus the previous year.
“The approach is more like power,” says Cruz, who had 120 home runs over his six seasons in Japan from 1980 to 1985. “That's the exciting thing about baseball. The check-swing and get a little blooper, people don't want to see that. They want to see power. The guys start swinging the bat more aggressively and now the guys have many home runs because of that. For our practice, that's what we try to develop: drive the ball, gap-to-gap and see how far you can hit it on a line drive. The more line drives the better. That's how we work, day in day out. Let the guys play the game.”
|The Oliver Photo|
With many of the younger players on the roster lacking experience in any baseball outside of the country, having Cruz, the zen master, to help them through inconsistencies and slumps is just another one of the facets that the coach brings to the big club.
“For the young guys, you have to be concerned because they're young, they're not mature yet,” Cruz says sitting inside the tiny locker room of the Brothers' home stadium in Xinzhuang. “Unconfident guys, every time something goes bad it multiplies. So we have to have a mental game plan. Just work on the good things and stay positive.”
Cruz definitely has a plan for his players, as most coaches do, but it is how he implements his ideas and beliefs in the game that makes the players trust him and listen to his advice. So how does one gain the respect of his players, many of whom don't speak English?
“I stay consistent. You have to stay consistent. If you stay consistent everything will follow the plan. Not being consistent causes too much confusion. You want to be straight and clear with your message.”
Great teachers always make things sound simple. Maybe therein lies the success of Tommy Cruz: Simplicity, honesty, positivity and, of course, power.
Cruz is scheduled to leave the Brothers after the first half-season is completed at the end of June. He will go home, spend some time with his family and his grandchild. The break will be brief as he will be back in Taiwan in October to help coach the Taiwanese national team at the U23 Baseball World Cup in some exhibition games before setting off for the tournament in Mexico.
What does Taiwan mean to a man who has traveled the globe playing and coaching the game of baseball and gaining experience for nearly half a century?
“Everything. I am very happy and humble here. The people are very nice to me and friendly. Everything is a good thing, so when I go home, I'm going to miss this place.”