I want you to imagine something.
Imagine you’re a carpenter. Good, hard-working job, making stuff with your hands, a skill that takes a long time and a lot of dedication to your draft — you wouldn’t trust just anyone to build a house for you. If you get to a point in your skill and career where you can be trusted to do such a thing, you’d probably be pretty damn proud of it.
Now, imagine not just building houses. You’re building mansions. People with massive amounts of money gained through highly unethical means are asking you to design their apocalypse compounds. The Taj Mahal needs a bit of work done, and you’re on the consultation call. That’s just how good you are.
Now imagine you’ve got some co-workers — in spite of your talent, you’re not an independent contractor, for the purposes of this thought exercise — who are good with computers. They run the numbers and say that even though you’re doing pretty well, you could actually be doing a lot better.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m trying to paint a picture of what it might be like to try telling Aaron Judge that he’s wrong about hitting. In case you missed it, Judge — who true to his word upon signing his megadeal last offseason, has become more vocal about the directions he believes the Yankees should take — indirectly set the commentariat alight this past week. Further clarification came to light regarding his end-of-season comments on what he perceived to be the team’s misguided focuses on offense, as reported in The Athletic.
“[Brian] Cashman said Tuesday that he [had] spoken to Judge. ‘I asked him about that. And he talked about RBIs and batting average,’ Cashman said.”
We don’t need to get into the reasons why this statement distressed a lot of people, because I’d like to believe we left those debates in a time when Miguel Cabrera was still an up-and-comer. There are a lot of things about the Yankees that need to be fixed, but a return to the evaluation methods of 2005 isn’t the method that’s going to do it. That shouldn’t be a particularly controversial take.
On the surface, it’s confusing that a team that’s typically seen as being on the cutting edge of analytics-based player development is reduced to debating their best player about batting average. But it’s also a perfect illustration of why making those adjustments — and fixing what was clearly a flawed approach in 2023 — is not nearly as simple as we’d like it to be, and why the Yankees will be entering next season with their fourth MLB hitting coach in as as many seasons.
To an extent, it’s easy to coordinate approach and strategy in the minor leagues. With a few exceptions, the minors are jam-packed with players desperate for nothing more than to make the major leagues. As a player, if you refuse to buy in to what the coaches in the organization are telling you, they’re not going to like you very much. And if your org doesn’t like you very much, unless your production is simply undeniable, you’re probably not going to make the majors. Hard to get promoted if you act like you know better than your boss, right?
The major leagues are a different animal. You can point at data until the cows come home, but how does one tell Aaron Judge that the instincts that helped make him literally the best hitter in the world are actually incorrect? Perhaps more importantly, ask yourself: Why would Aaron Judge listen to you?
Judge might be the best, but it doesn’t just go for him. It applies to damn near any MLB player who’s good enough to get themselves a free agent contract. The point here is that perhaps the most important skill one when it comes to coaching major leaguers is simply the ability to communicate. Like it or not, much of what baseball data analysis shows runs counter to what’s now a full century of developed conventional wisdom, and if humans were actually inclined to reconsider their priors when presented with new information, a lot of wars would have gone unfought.
That being the case, one of the more common complaints about proponents of the data-based strategies that explicitly condemn opinions like Judge’s is that they don’t understand the flaws in their analysis because they don’t or didn’t play the game at a high level, and therefore don’t really know what they’re saying.
This may be a hot take, but most of the time, I don’t necessarily think that’s the wrong conclusion. Often, playing experience is a genuine difference-maker. But it’s not because one can’t draw the correct conclusions without seeing baseball at the field level — it’s because without that experience, it can be very difficult to explain those conclusions in terms that baseball players can understand. Read between the lines of Judge’s own take on coaching — one can only assume he’s referring to former hitting coach Dillon Lawson — and you can get a sense of what I mean.
Thought this was an interesting and somewhat pointed quote from Judge on coaching: “It's not all about numbers. It's not all about what happens on a computer screen. It's about watching the game, reading the game, having fun with the game. “— Andy Martino (@martinonyc) September 8, 2023
Lawson might have had all of the right ideas — ones that the minor leaguers who thrived under him eventually understood — but it became clear as the season went on that it simply was not registering with the major leaguers. If MLB players don’t think they’re seeing the same game as you, they’re not going to listen to you, point blank. Which is perfectly understandable! And on the other side of the coin, as interim Sean Casey demonstrated, the ability to communicate still doesn’t mean anything if you’re not communicating the right ideas.
It’s an incredibly difficult needle to thread, which is a large part of why hitting coaches have roughly the same job span expectancy as an NFL running back. The Yankees are still searching for someone who can do it. The issue isn’t that Aaron Judge thinks batting average is important — the issue lies in the fact that coaching communication at the major league level has evidently been poor enough that it’s not clear why simply aiming for a better batting average isn’t the solution to the team’s offensive woes. Baseball players aren’t dumb.
For players who have been successful their whole lives, “this isn’t working at the moment” isn’t always enough motivation to spur adjustments, even when they’re necessary. It’s clear that a number of Yankees hitters are in need of adjustments if they want to rebound in 2024. Whether the team can find somebody skilled enough at relaying new concepts to those hitters remains to be seen.