OT: The (Literally) Thankless Job of a Hitting Coach

It's not often that I write totally off-topic posts, but the recent firing of Mickey Hatcher, the former long-time Hitting Coach for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, got me thinking about just how the nature of the job of a big-league hitting coach. This is supposed to be the great stage not just for players, but for coaches, too. This is supposed to be the place that the best in the business work to keep the best in the business in-tune, and yet so few actually manage to hold down a single job for decades at a time. Even those who do hold down jobs for decades at a time, like Hatcher was able to, see their jobs deteriorate with a bad month and are replaced by the organization's Triple-A hitting coach (as was the case with the Angels situation). This is accepted by fans around the country, but why is that the case? If you'll indulge me and my rambling, I think I have a point to this post.

Remember the carousel of hitting instructors Arizona went through before Kirk Gibson was hired and settled on Don Baylor? First it was Kevin Seitzer for all of eight and a half months, from October 2006 to July 2007. After Seitzer was canned (and subsequently was named the Royals' hitting coach in 2009, a position he's held since), Arizona put Rick Schu in place who held the job through the miracle 2007 season and the in-contention 2008 season. However, Schu also met his end in the position in May 2009, with Arizona off to a rough start to the season. Schu was subsequently replaced by Jack Howell, but Howell lasted only through the 2010 season, a part of the collateral damage of A.J. Hinch's firing in mid-2010 and Kirk Gibson's revamping of the big-league coaching staff.

Since October 2010, though, Arizona has been graced with the presence of former star player Don Baylor as their big-league hitting instructor, and it's hard to argue with the results at the plate that were seen under Baylor's tutelage in 2011. Several players had career years offensively: Justin Upton, Miguel Montero, Ryan Roberts, and Gerardo Parra. Even Aaron Hill had two of the hottest-hitting months of his career with Arizona after looking near-finished in Toronto. Clearly, Arizona has found a hitting coach worth hanging on to, right?

Well, run a comments search for "Don Baylor" on the SnakePit, and see for yourself just how much the 'Pit is enamored with their current hitting instructor. There are just four comments about Baylor in the month of May, but two of them suggest that Arizona should consider firing Baylor and another pegs Baylor as insufficiently preparing the D-backs hitters to succeed against knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. 30 games of mediocre baseball, and we're already beginning to discuss firing our hitting coach? How is this reasonable?

Let's pull this back to the original inspiration of this post, Mickey Hatcher. Hatcher had been with the Angels for over a decade, joining the team's staff when Mike Scioscia took over as manager of the club in 2000. Hatcher won a World Series with the club in 2002 on a coaching staff that included Scioscia and three current big-league managers in Joe Maddon, Bud Black, and Ron Roenicke. That club featured five regular players with OPS marks above .800.

During his time with the Angels, Hatcher oversaw hitters like Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon, Vladimir Guerrero, Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus, Mark Texeira, Chone Figgins, Kendrys Morales, Howie Kendrick, Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui, Mike Napoli, Jose Guillen, Peter Bourjos, Mark Trumbo, and David Eckstein. Number of those hitters who he "broke": zero. So Albert Pujols slumps for a month, and suddenly the narrative that emerges is that it's Hatcher's fault? Does anybody really think that this makes sense, or is this simply the easiest way to "explain" what might be inexplicable statistical variation?

This takes me to a litter of questions I seek to answer in this post. If you place the mechanics and hitting development of some of your most costly assets - your hitters - in the hands of your hitting coach, and if your truly believe that your hitting coach can positively impact the productivity of your lineup, you clearly have to believe in the ability of your hitting coach. So how does one month of bad baseball make that belief crumble to the point where you want to replace him? In what other industry does a manager or instructor get blamed for one individual team member's struggles, even as Mark Trumbo is hitting .370/.427/.640 through 30 games?

Sure, the new regime in Anaheim (Los Angeles, sort of), may have simply been less enamored with Hatcher than the previous regime was, so they may have been more willing to pull the plug on Hatcher early. If that's the case, though, why did the team invest $240MM in Pujols without being confident in the guy they were paying less than a million bucks a year to to teach Pujols? If you spent $240MM on a guy, what's another few hundred thousand dollars to replace your hitting coach with someone who you're absolutely confident to be a good instructor? With team payrolls steadily climbing deeper into nine figures, paying $500k for the best hitting coach in baseball - and keeping him around - has to be one of the biggest bargains in baseball.

Now, you may have noticed that there has been one qualifier from above that has thus far been totally un-addressed:

[...] if your truly believe that your hitting coach can positively impact the productivity of your lineup

Do some teams not believe that any hitting coach could provide a material, positive impact over whatever other hitting instructor they could pluck from some team's minor-league system or some newly-retired third baseman with a career .650 OPS?

Compare the Hatcher situation to any other real-world job. A software engineer who is a twelve-year employee at a production company was a part of the development team for the most successful release in the company's history just ten years ago. However, his team's first-quarter results for the fiscal year are heavily underwhelming, though the year-long project the team is working on is still in its elementary stages. Am I just a naive college student, or is it absolutely crazy to think that this software engineer would be fired and - perhaps most importantly - replaced with someone at a lower level of the very same organization?

If I'm, in fact, not a lunatic, why is it that this is exactly what is happening in Major League Baseball, one of the largest and most lucrative industries in the US? It simply seems to be the case that teams, such as the Angels in this case, don't think that there's a difference between employing the twelve-year worker and the new guy from the lesser division of the company. This is in no way suggesting that they're incorrect in this assumption, but it is a way to say that, if this is indeed the case, baseball is an industry unlike any other and the job of a hitting coach (or pitching coach, for that matter) is one of the most thankless jobs around. When Mark Trumbo has a 201 wRC+, Trumbo is tearing it up. When Albert Pujols has a 52 wRC+, it's the hitting coach's fault.

The phrase that is often heard to justify these sorts of decisions is "well, you can't fire the players." In other words, these hundred-million-dollar franchises go headhunting and finger-pointing when things go wrong for less than 20% of the season, and the only person available for the guillotine is the hitting coach. This, more than anything, seems to be evidence of how little a hitting coach means to some around the game or in the media. The hitting coach is so marginally insignificant to some franchises that the termination of his job can be used as a symbolic morale raiser for the club and its fans.

Now, most good writing is supposed to wrap things up and conclude with some big, definitive statement. Frankly, though, I know far too little about the inner workings and motivations for these decisions to definitively state anything about the wide-scale willingness to let the heads of coaches roll at the first sign of adversity. I'm as flabbergasted by the firing of Hatcher and the assumed expendability of hitting coaches as anyone.

Well, actually, here's something I can definitively state: I think Don Baylor is a darn good hitting coach. Please don't fire him, Arizona.

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