Calling for firings is one of the great unifying forces of fandom. Whether you follow baseball, hockey, football or water polo, there will almost always be an annual demand for members of your team’s staff to be let go. As Yankee fans, there’s the popular #FireCashman refrain, but recently there have been rumblings that hitting coaches Alan Cockrell and Marcus Thames should be given their pink slips.
To address this call, let’s break down what hitting coaches actually do. The best way to describe it would be as an advisor or critic, less than a teacher or mentor. Hitting coaches curate a player’s swing, review video, compile scouting reports, throw batting practice, and that’s about it. Most of the work on a player’s hitting, especially mechanics, is done by the player themselves or a private hitting coach retained by the player.
The main trouble with being a hitting coach is, once a player reaches the majors, they’ve been hitting a certain way with an incredible degree of success for years. As Ryan Zimmerman put it in this 2013 Washington Post article:
Hitters, especially great hitters like a Bryce Harper, are pretty finely-tuned machines. It’s something you pick up when you’re among the most skilled 0.01% of people, and there’s really not a lot a hitting coach can do to dramatically change that.
This brings us to the Yankees’ case specifically. There are two main lines of complaint against the Yankee hitting staff. The first is the relative inconsistency of the lineup, and the second is the regression of younger players. I’ll address each in turn.
The Yankee lineup is inconsistent. There’s some truth to the “streakiness” of the team’s offense. The Yankees average 5.23 runs per game, but the variance of their run distribution is quite high on it’s own. The variance is NOT so high when compared within the division, however:
Here, the Yankees do experience the highest variance in runs per game, but are pretty well in line with two other teams within their division, while scoring half a run more per game than any other team in the AL East. That half a run is important, because a higher average, even if more volatile, will see more runs scored OVER THE LONG RUN than a more consistent, but small average, like the Blue Jays see.
This variance becomes even more pronounced when factoring in two likely playoff teams, the Houston Astros and Cleveland:
Houston and Cleveland actually have MORE inconsistent offenses than the Yankees do, and yet nobody is questioning the playoff-readiness nor job security of their coaching staffs!
Most great offenses are inconsistent to a degree, because at the end of the day the pitcher almost always has the advantage in a given at-bat. A good offensive team is always susceptible to being shut down by a good pitching performance. For a simple example of this, just look at those illustrious Astros, who have arguably the best offense in the history of the game. From July 31 until August 9, the Astros played 9 games and put up the following runs per game: 14 (W), 4 (L), 0 (L), 3 (L), 16 (W), 3 (L), 7 (W), 5 (L), 1 (L). Every offense is inconsistent.
The hitting coaches haven’t helped prevent regression. If it were possible to prevent regression, the coach who discovered it would be given the keys to a franchise and told to do whatever he wanted with it. Players regress, simply because it’s really hard to maintain a Ruthian pace over an entire season. While we all loved what Aaron Judge was in the first half, we all knew that he wasn’t going to be a 200 wRC+ player every season, and the same could be said for Gary Sanchez. The amount of information available on a player’s weak spots, the depth of relief pitching and the sheer dumb luck of hitting a ball right at a fielder, or a home run that gets brought back into the park by Jackie Bradley Jr., are going to bring 99% of players back down to Earth eventually.
The other issue is that the regression really hasn’t been that bad. The second-half slump that Judge is going through has netted him an 80 wRC+. Last season, looking lost at the plate, he logged a 63 wRC+. Judge’s actually been able to make the adjustments necessary to raise his performance floor, even while slumping at a rate causing some fans to panic.
Gary Sanchez’s regression fits into the same mold, as he’s managed a 122 wRC+ in his first full season in the bigs. Again, that’s not the Bonds-like performance we saw him manage in the earliest stage of his career, but over a full season, every single fan will take a 122 wRC+ from a catcher.
I’m not claiming that the hitting staff of the Yankees has had an effect one way or the other on the seasons Judge and Sanchez are having. I’m not privy to their practice routines, nor do I get access to the scouting reports other teams use against the Yankees. I’m simply saying that neither Cockrell or Thames will be let go because the team is “inconsistent” (so is everyone), or because the key hitters in the lineup are simply terrific, rather than video-game like.