These are difficult days for major league hitters, but worse for the coaches who try to help them survive the greatest swing-and-miss environment the game has ever seen.
At least half the teams in baseball have changed hitting coaches since the season ended. Baltimore, which still is looking for a manager, could make it 16 changes if Scott Coolbaugh does not survive the turnover there. In that case, 22 of the 30 teams will have changed hitting coaches in the past 14 months.
Only five hitting coaches next season will be with the same team for more than three years: Chad Mottola of the Rays (fourth), Darren Bush of the A’s and Kevin Seitzer of the Braves (fifth), Todd Steverson of the White Sox (sixth), and Ty Van Burkleo of the Indians (seventh).
“I had no idea there has been that level of turnover,” said Brewers GM David Stearns, who replaced Darnell Coles with Andy Haines. “This year we recognized a lot of movement among coaches and we attributed a lot of that to changing mangers and general managers generally leads to some movement. But I hadn’t realized the extent of changes in the hitting coach position in the last two years.
“It’s really tough to hit in the big leagues right now. There are a lot of information sources that have become more prevalent in the last five to seven years and they tend to favor pitchers. They tend to favor the participant who is dictating the action. That’s generally the pitcher.”
Disruptive data and technology has heavily favored the run prevention side of the game. Here is what they have done to hitting:
• The strikeout rate has gone up 13 consecutive years. It is now at 22.3% of plate appearances.
• The swing-and-miss rate has gone up 11% in four seasons–in raw numbers, that’s 8,293 more swings and misses this year than in 2015.
• The rate at which hitters make contact when they swing has declined seven straight years.
• It is harder to get a hit now than at any point since the DH was established in 1973.
• Hitters see 15% more breaking balls than they saw just four seasons ago – and they still can’t hit them. The MLB average against breaking balls since 2015 has been .214, .215, .218 and .212. That’s why pitchers are throwing more of them.
• Batting average with two strikes dropped this year to .173, the worst in the 30 years the statistic has been tracked. Twelve years ago it was .194. It has not improved in any season since then.
• The strategy of pulling starters earlier for fresh bullpen arms is working. Batters hit .250 against starting pitchers last season, a massive 11-point drop from 2017 and the worst such average since 1972, the last year without a DH.
Hitting coaches have done a good job teaching and emphasizing hard contact–when contact is made. Last season, for instance, Fangraphs calculated that batters made hard contact 35.3% of the time they hit the ball, the highest percentage in the 12 seasons they have been tracking it. Offensive baseball has become largely binary: go big or go home.
“My thought is still getting on base and doing damage,” said Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long. “That still pertains to today’s game. The days of slapping the ball the other way and taking it one base at a time–that’s really tough to do. I’ve always been a big advocate of hitting the ball out of the park. At the same time, I like guys who take their walks and get on base.
“I do like hitters with barrel-to-ball skills, too, but it’s hard to find a bunch of them. You’re lucky if you have a couple of guys who have a knack for that.”
Now the high turnover in hitting coaches–and specifically, the type of person getting hired for the job–tells us that baseball is ready for a change. The data-driven revolution that changed pitching may soon make a greater impact on hitting.
“The technologies are on the run production side,” said one club executive. “Now we are getting a better understanding of swing mechanics from a technical data perspective. We are probably at a point where we were on granular pitch data five years ago: the data is all there and some clubs are a little better at understanding what that means than others, such as the Astros and Dodgers.
“I do think there is hope for the game offensively. Part of the data trends we are seeing now are helping us to produce more power, how to impact the ball harder, and how to use the body more explosively. I don’t know that it cuts down on the swing and miss.
“I do think if this trend continues it will introduce information as far as what part of swing mechanics and attributes of a person’s skill set are conducive to putting more balls in play. We will reach a tipping point.”
Another executive put his team’s goal this way: “Helping our young players make the transformation the Red Sox’ youngsters have … complete hitters who can play launch and also play the contact game.”
Getting the ball airborne—and the best technique for doing so—has made for the best initial use of growing data and technology. Swings have been grooved for maximum damage at the cost of more strikeouts. The major league average launch angle has increased every year it’s been tracked–10.1 degrees, 10.8, 11.1, 11.7.
“I’d say there are a lot more teachers out there that are actually teaching techniques,” Long said, “not only with approach and mechanics but what their intent is. There are a lot more specialized guys. They get four months to take a hitter into their lab. That’s what we’re seeing. They’ve helped quite a few. They’ve hurt quite a few. At the end of the day, there’s passion and some guys willing to think outside the box.”
The next stage is to add to that base Launch Angle swing–to find and build other approaches and swings to combat a pitcher with four-seam fastball ride up in the zone or a two-strike count.
To begin this Next Era of Hitting, teams are turning to a new profile of hitting coaches. They are younger, more tech-savvy and, when it comes to their playing resume, far less accomplished than their predecessors.
The average age of the 13 new hires is 42.3, down from 53.0 from the men they replaced. (The Rockies and Mets have not yet named a new hitting coach). This trend dovetails with what is happening with the men playing the game; baseball is becoming a younger man’s game. The average age of a major league hitter last season was 28.1, the lowest since 1979.
The Cubs, for instance, replaced 58-year-old Chili Davis with 45-year-old Anthony Iapoce. Davis admitted to the Chicago Tribune, “I guess I need to make adjustments in the way I deliver my message to the millennial players now … I hope the next guy connects better with the players, because I felt that there were multiple players there I didn’t connect with. It wasn’t that I didn’t try. It just wasn’t there.”
Lloyd McClendon, 59, of the Tigers is the oldest hitting coach. Only eight hitting coaches are older than 49. Six are in their 30s. The average age is 46.2.
The trend of valuing connectivity with young players over experience began with the hiring of managers, and now we’re seeing it with hitting coaches.
“I think connecting is really important,” Stearns said. “I don’t think that’s specific to age. Connecting with players is the starting point. If coaches can’t connect with players it doesn’t matter how good their information is.”
When Coles, 56, left the Brewers (he wound up landing with the Diamondbacks), Stearns wound up hiring Haines, 41, the assistant hitting coach with the Cubs, though nobody in the Milwaukee front office had first-hand experience working with Haines.
“Nobody knew Andy personally,” he said. “When we go through the process we try not to limit it to existing relationships. It’s generally dictated by references, and Andy was extremely well referenced by various people.
“First and foremost, he gets the relationship part. He understands he has to build relationships with players. He’s also constantly looking to grow. He’s trying to better understand hitting in all new ways that are applicable to hitting. Whenever we find coaches–in any facet of coaching–who want to learn and get better, that intrigues us.”
For generations hitting coaches passed on a kind of oral history of teaching. They passed on the way they were taught to hit and, in a typical hitting coach, the way they did it in the major leagues. Those days are gone. The game has changed so rapidly that the knowledge one gleaned from playing 1990s baseball, for example, is extremely limited in its application to today’s game and technologies.
Think of a retired PGA player who learned to play golf with persimmon woods and copying Johnny Miller’s “reverse C” swing trying to teach a young PGA player today. Ridiculous. That young player today is using TrackMan to dial in his swing speed, ball speed and ball spin rate and a swing guru who probably never played on tour but understands the technology, the mechanics of the swing and the kinetics of how the body works.
The baseball equivalents of golf swing gurus–those best at studying and teaching–are now getting big league jobs. The smartest front offices understand that a major league playing career has almost no bearing on the ability to teach, to connect with players from all over the world, to apply technology and to deeply understand hitting. It’s one of the more refreshing trends in baseball: that when it comes to all kinds of jobs in the game pitching coach, hitting coach, general manager, manager, scout, etc.–don’t make the mistake of conflating playing skills with knowledge. It’s why we will see more major league coaches coming out of private facilities and colleges.
“Across the game when I was starting out whether it was in the front office, scouting, or player development, there was a strong preference for major league playing experience,” Stearns said. “That has probably decreased for a couple of different reasons. First is that major leaguers are making so much money that they aren’t as motivated to stay attached. It’s not what it was two decades ago.”
This next generation of hitting coaches is here. It includes:
• Haines, 41, who never played professional baseball. A catcher at Eastern Illinois, he coached at Olney Central College, at Middle Tennessee State University, where he obtained a master’s degree, and in independent ball before finally getting into affiliated baseball at age 31 as a rookie league manager in the Marlins system.
• Robert Van Scoyoc, 32, the youngest hitting coach in baseball, hired by the Dodgers to replace Turner Ward, 53, who left to join the Reds. Van Scoyoc also never played professionally. He played at Hart High School in Newhall, Calif., and, according to past interviews, at Cuesta College, though the California Community College Athletic Association lists him as playing just nine games off the bench at Bakersfield College in 2008, with one hit in seven at-bats. From there, Van Scoyoc worked part time with the Valencia High School baseball team (2008), was hitting coach for San Diego Christian College (2010-11), and then reconnected with hitting guru Craig Wallenbrock as instructors at a Santa Clarita facility. Van Scoyoc and Wallenbrock helped re-build the swings of J.D. Martinez and, as consultants with the Dodgers, Chris Taylor. Van Scoyoc worked last year as a hitting strategist with Arizona.
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• Jeff Albert, 38, whose professional career after playing at Butler University consisted of 11 games in independent ball. Albert earned a master’s degree in kinesiology from Louisiana Tech, spent nine years as a minor league instructor with the Cardinals and Astros, reached the majors last year as Houston’s assistant hitting coach and last month was hired as St. Louis’ hitting coach.
Albert was hired by Jeff Luhnow in both St. Louis and Houston, where the Astros’ forward-thinking approach to offensive baseball has become such an industry leader that they keep losing hitting coaches out of their system: Albert to the Cardinals, Dave Hudgens to the Blue Jays and Dillon Lawson to the Yankees this year and Alonzo Powell last year to the Giants.
Ten of the 27 named hitting coaches today never played a day in the big leagues. Another six played 71 games or fewer–making for more than half of the hitting coaches who have little to no major league playing experience. Maybe they are bringing us to that tipping point where strikeouts began to retreat.
“I do think there’s enough damage before two strikes,” Long said. “Now, we can all be better with two strikes. Do you go with the theory that Paul Goldschmidt has? ‘I’m going to look more middle, because the numbers tell me I’m probably not going to hit that pitch on the edges anyway.’ You can lay off stuff ahead in the count, seeing spin, but it’s hard with two strikes. Really, to be good with two strikes you have to be so quiet, like Daniel Murphy or Anthony Rendon. There’s not too many like that.”
To catch up with increased velocity and to generate maximum impact on the baseball, many in this generation of hitters will get started early, introduce a leg kick and create rhythm with the barrel by getting the hands started early–how Van Scoyoc helped Taylor create a foothold and seven-figure value in this game. Pitchers are increasingly exploiting those swings with two strikes.
But maybe the turnover in hitting coaches is a statement as much about what is coming as how we got here. For inspiration, look no further than three of the past four world champions. The 2015 Royals (first), 2017 Astros (first) and 2018 Red Sox (fifth) all ranked among the five toughest teams to strike out.