I wouldn't be a blogger if I didn't begin this post by apologizing for my lengthy absence from these pages. I have a variety of excuses. Would you like to hear them? Drop me a line if you would. We'll chat it out.
Mickey Hatcher got fired today. He had been the Angels' hitting coach since 2000, when Mike Scioscia took over the manager role. Twelve full seasons of hitting coaching, and beginning a thirteenth, seems like a really long time, although you'll note that I'm an A's fan. The A's buy hitting coaches by the gross and swap them out whenever they're feeling grumpy, so my perception on the question of how long hitting coaches last might be skewed. The Angels are, of course, not hitting. They're ahead only of the Twins (sorry blogfathers) in runs per game, which means that both the A's and the Mariners are scoring more than the Angels are. They've actually got some guys hitting well as individuals: Howie Kendrick is slugging .464, Mark Trumbo's got one of those early-season absurd slash lines, Kendrys Morales is doing exactly what Angels fans hoped he'd do, and Mike Trout has a .306 True Average since being called up a few weeks ago.
The problem is that there have been three notable offensive sinkholes, one of which has been devastating: Albert Pujols is still, 149 PAs into the year, hitting .197/.235/.275. That's not acceptable on any team at any position besides pitcher, and we've seen Albert Pujols throw. He's no pitcher. Aside from Prince Albert, there's Erick Aybar, who's hitting about what the first baseman is except with less power, and Vernon Wells, who is replicating his incredible 2011 to a frightening degree: .218/.248/.412 and .233/.258/.408. Which is which? It doesn't matter, and I've already forgotten. The point is that it sucks.
What does Mickey Hatcher have to do with this? We all know that slumps and randomness and getting old just happen, and hitting coaches get hired and fired and nothing ever changes. Right?
I'm prone to this kind of thinking myself. I mean, behold:
Everybody grab Vernon Wells in your fantasy leagues now that Mickey Hatcher is gone. He's definitely going to turn it around.— Jason Wojciechowski (@jlwoj) May 16, 2012
But I walked that back a little later on, referring to it as emblematic of what I call the "sabermetrics 1.0" mindset. For a long time, a lot of internet writers took essentially the position that because we had the stats, nothing else mattered, and the teams that weren't using the stats (i.e. all of them) were stupid and would be soon taken over by all sorts of Young Turk outsiders, and then, oh my then, how things would change.
Well, we (yeah, I've been blogging for a while, and I wasn't/am not immune) were half right. The baby geniuses are in charge in baseball. General Managers openly admit to reading Baseball Prospectus. Win expectancy tables are on the scoreboard in Houston. The validity of certain publicly available defensive statistics are debated on the same terms by front office types as by outsiders instead of being dismissed out of hand.
And yet! Inning-based bullpen roles still exist, batting spots are still treated as job classifications instead of PA-distribution devices, and hitting coaches still make more money than an entire squadron of minor-league outfielders. Nobody, to my knowledge, has found hitting coaches to have any tangible effect, but the Red Sox, with Bill James on the payroll, the Astros, with Mike Fast, the Pirates, with Dan Fox, the Rays, with James Click and Chaim Bloom and Josh Kalk and goodness even knows who else, all have hitting coaches. You can look this up. Gregg Ritchie works for Pittsburgh.
So why? Inertia probably has something to do with it, sure, but there's a good chance that hitting coaches actually are worth the money. The cost and value of a win in major-league baseball are astronomical. Depending on how you measure things, you often hear figures like "$5M for a win above replacement on the free-agent market." This is based on dubious inputs at times, but it's probably not off by an order of magnitude or anything. Teams are willing to pay seven figures to improve their club by one win. Hitting coach salaries aren't heavily publicized, but if you figure that Rudy Jaramillo's $800 thousand per year represents some approximation of the ceiling, you see how tiny the dollars are relative to the amount being spent on Jeremy Affeldt and Rod Barajas and Erik Bedard and Willie Bloomquist.
Even if a hitting coach has a counterproductive relationship with a player or two or messes up the mechanics of somebody or completely fails to reach a significant swath of the roster, is it so ridiculous to think that one hitting coach might be worth a couple of runs over the course of the season over another hitting coach? And that we'd be completely unable to measure that because we're talking about less than 1% of a team's total offensive output for the year?
Now, that gives me pause, I admit. When I preach an understanding of what teams know that we don't, it's often because of inside information, better data, things like that. But in this case, the argument boils down to "maybe hitting coaches have an effect that's way too small to measure." Is there any reason to think that the Rays' brain-trust has a better ability to measure things down to two runs on offense over the course of the season than we do? I'm not sure there is. But what they can have is the ability to actually see coaching happen, a deep understanding of the hitting mechanics of the players on their team (born of watching hours in the cage, not just five at-bats per game on TV), and knowledge of the mental and emotional state of the squad. Maybe this is a strawman, but if you try to tell me that these things can't matter and/or that a coach can't have any effect on them, I'm just going to go ahead and refuse to listen to you.