Bill Mueller’s Day Off: Do Hitting Coaches Really Matter?
Okay, let’s just get this out of the way: I do know that his name is pronounced “Miller.” That said, I’d like to apologize to all those I either confused or led further astray in their own incorrect articulations of this incongruous surname. But given the title character’s recent departure from Ferris’s hometown, I simply couldn’t resist.
Beyond driving my incessant desire to shoehorn pop culture into sports articles, the news of Bill Mueller’s resignation got me thinking about the overall necessity and viability of his role in general. Hitting instructors are not typically afforded the same type of credit or notoriety as offensive coordinators in football, as their work isn’t manifested with the same immediacy.
When it comes to football, we can often see the results of a change in philosophy in a space as small as a week, or even a series or a single play. Bears fans have suffered through a revolving door of OC’s over the last decade or so, and that lack of consistency often gets the blame for some of the issues at Halas Hall. But that’s a whole ‘nother sack of cats.
Still, the concept remains that consistency in teaching methods and philosophy is important, particularly for a young team. Consider that Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, neither of whom has been with the Cubs for more than 5 years, have worked with three different hitting coaches.
When he left the Texas Rangers to join the Cubs after the 2009 season, Rudy Jaramillo did so with a great deal of fanfare and a contract to match. His 3-year, $2.4 million deal made him the highest paid coach of any kind in baseball and even put him ahead of some highly-respected managers. To wit, Joe Maddon was making around $550,000 at that time.
So what did the Cubs get for their money? During Jaramillo’s tenure on the North Side (2010-12), the Cubs slashed .251/.312/.394, hit 434 home runs, walked 1,351 times and struck out 3,673 times. He was actually relieved of his duties in mid-June of that 2012 season, replaced by James Rowson, but we’ll go ahead and give credit for that last year.
That said, if we look at the Cubs’ hitting from 2012-14 (Jaramillo/Rowson/Mueller), we see that they slashed .239/.301/.385 with 466 home runs, 1,328 walks and 3,942 strikeouts. Hey, the homers went up! So does this indicated that getting rid of Rudy was a good idea? Let’s take a look at the three years prior to his arrival before we answer that definitively.
During the three seasons prior to Jaramillo’s arrival at Wrigley, the Cubs hit .268/.340/.424 with 496 home runs, 1,728 walks and 3,425 K’s. Wow! Based on these numbers, it appears quite obvious that the combination of Gerald Perry and Von Joshua was quite superior to any other coach or group of coaches the Cubs have seen fit to employ since, right?
Sure. Well that, or the roster was just significantly better from 2007-09 and then significantly worse from 2012-14. Wonder of wonders: a team full of good hitters will perform better than one populated by aging vets and AAAA hangers-on. So does a hitting coach even matter?
Well, yeah, but it’s not as easy as looking at the numbers and then either praising or blaming the guy running BP every day. By the time a player has reached the majors, he’s pretty well set in his ways and those ways have probably been really successful. After all, you don’t typically reach the highest level of baseball without a pretty good handle on how to hit.
At the same time, no one is perfect. As we saw with Javier Baez this season, some people are far more imperfect than others. A hitting coach’s job then is to find and fill holes in a player’s swing, to work on making small tweaks to recognition, execution, and approach that might go unnoticed over a small sample size.
In today’s era of suppressed offense, those changes and improvements might be even smaller than in the past but that doesn’t mean they’re any less important. Not too long ago, I went into great detail on the factors that have led to the increased volatility and epic collapses in baseball since 2007.
In that 2007 season, the first of the Gerald Perry era no less, the average slash for an MLB team was .268/.336/.423. Teams combined for 4,957 home runs, 16,079 walks and 32,189 strikeouts. Those numbers have declined at a depressing rate, to a nadir of .251/.314/.386, 4,186, 14,020 and 37,441 in 2014.
For those of you who are really bad at math, that’s a drop of 18 points in batting average, 22 in OBP and 27 in slugging with 771 fewer homers, 2,059 fewer walks and 5,252 K’s. That latter mark can pretty much be attributed to Javy Baez and the Cubs alone. With that in mind, maybe this drop-off is just a case of the bad teams getting worse. Surely the playoff teams are holding up their end, right?
In 2007, the average playoff team carried a .275 batting average and got on base at a .347 clip; those are 7 and 11 points better, respectively, than the league averages for that season. In 2014, playoff teams hit .258 and reached base at a .321 rate, both 7 points above the league averages. Okay, so it’s definitely a systemic issue.
As I found in my earlier study, there’s no one factor upon which to hang the blame for these precipitous drops in hitting and scoring, but I did find some interesting figures. Among other things, FanGraphs tracks plate discipline across several different metrics. If the column headers below are foreign to you, I’ll just refer you to this handy-dandy guide.
From the numbers above, we can see that hitters saw 5.4% fewer pitchers in the zone in 2014 than their contemporaries from 7 years ago. They’re also swinging at and making contact on more pitches outside the zone, 6.3% and 5% more to be exact. And that’s pretty remarkable, given the fact that the average size of the strike zone has increased by 23 square inches since 2008.
Predicatably, BABIP has dropped from .303 to .299; makes sense when you consider that outside-the-zone contact is not going to be as solid. That 4-point difference might seem trivial, but when you extrapolate it over 170,000 ABs in a season (680 hits)…okay, still a little trivial in those terms.
Pitchers are also being more aggressive, throwing first-pitch strikes at a higher rate. And whether they’re avoiding the zone or hitters are just less discerning, the results are evident: swinging strikes are up a little, as are called strikes, elevating the overall K-rate by over 3% since 2007. So hitting coaches must be at fault for these shortcomings, right?
No, of course not. I don’t have the time or the inclination at this point to delve into all the reasons for the changes in these metrics, but I do think this information presents us with the stark reality of the state of offense in baseball right now. To that end, it’s imperative that a team seek out and exploit every possible opportunity to improve its hitting.
You can’t have a cookie-cutter approach to hitting, particularly with all the advanced metrics available to us today. It’s not as simple as busting out the batting tee or sending him to the cage for more reap. You can’t just tell a free swinger to take more pitches or change an overly-patient guy to a see-ball-hit-ball approach.
Gone are the days of Jaramillo marking his territory by forcing Sammy Sosa to pick up all the BP balls, or some guru coming in with a singular philosophy on hitting. The Cubs don’t need a cookie-cutter approach, they need a guy, or team of guys, who can help to recognize and correct the inefficiencies in individual player’s swings. That might be Javier Baez’s hammer or Arismendy Alcantara’s recognition of strikes (57.6 Z-Swing%).
To be sure, Baez will be at the top of the new coach’s list when it comes to making adjustments. The young slugger swings at far more pitches outside of the zone and makes much less contact on those pitches than the average MLB hitter. What’s more, he swings at and makes less contact with good pitches.
Oof! We all knew Javy was a strikeout machine, but these numbers are staggeringly bad. However, this is also the same young man who’s been able to overcome early struggles at every step along the way thus far in his career. Baez’s tools give him the ability to overcome the poor performance he displayed in 2014, but he just needs a little help to learn how to use them properly.
This isn’t a job for a demolition expert, someone who wants to come in and affect massive change by blowing things up. The Cubs need a master sculptor who can see the difference between a hundredth of a second here and a couple millimeters there and who can help his young apprentice to share that vision.
At the same time, he will need to help Anthony Rizzo maintain the form that enabled him to hit .300 against lefties and will have to continue to hone Starlin Castro’s newfound pull stroke. Regardless of the highly-touted talent the Cubs have at their disposal, the role of hitting instructor for this team is no easy task.
So, yes, hitting coaches do matter, but they’re usually only as good as the roster they’ve got to work with. By and large, guys like Rowson and Mueller were asked to rake out the bottom of the chicken coop and use the findings to create chicken salad.
Whoever the Cubs bring in should have a little more to work with, but don’t expect any dramatic changes or overnight turnarounds with the team’s hitting. If all goes well, the improvements will be incremental but also noticeable, like a sculpture emerging from a block of marble. Or perhaps a more fitting image for the naysaying crowd is that of the Grand Canyon being formed over millennia by the Colorado River.
That said, if things don’t get better relatively soon, this team will more closely resemble a ’61 Ferrari in a smoking heap at the bottom of a ravine.