Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thoughts On Our New Coaches.

I have to give Dayton Moore credit: he makes the right decisions more often than not – it’s just that sometimes it takes him an interminably long time to do so. I’ve been agitating for Mike Barnett to be fired as hitting coach since back in May, and finally got my wish in October.

As satisfying as it can be as a fan to see heads roll when we want them to roll, I have to respect Moore’s approach. From Day One, Moore has been exceedingly deliberate in making big-picture decisions. He took a year and a half to decide that Buddy Bell was not the right man to manage his team. He took two full drafts to decide that he needed a new scouting director. And even though it was clear his team needed a hitting coach all year, he waited until the season ended to make his move.

A more impatient GM would have made those moves in-season, and would have reaped the gains of their replacements more quickly. But by waiting, Moore got something much more valuable in the long-run: he got the ability to hire the best available replacement, at a time when the pool of replacements was at its deepest.

From 1998 to 2002, the Royals fired their pitching coach mid-season four times. Do you know how hard it is to find a new pitching coach mid-season? You’ve got to arrange interviews with guys working in other organizations; you have to get permission from their parent teams; you have to convince those guys to uproot themselves and move to Kansas City in the middle of the season, when they may already be on the road and living out of a suitcase. So you wind up replacing Bruce Kison with Mark Wiley, or Al Nipper with John Cumberland.

Forget pitching coaches – how about managers? The Royals fired Bob Boone mid-season – the best guy they could find to replace him was Tony Muser. They fired Muser mid-season, interviewed four guys of varying credentials, then somehow decided that Tony Pena was their guy. They fired Pena mid-season, interviewed a bunch of retreads with bad resumes, then locked in with laser-like precision on the guy with the worst of them, Buddy Bell.

Or consider the Blue Jays, who fired Buck Martinez mid-season in 2002 and replaced him with Carlos Tosca; fired Tosca in the middle of the 2006 season and replaced him with John Gibbons; and fired Gibbons this May and replaced him with Cito Gaston. In all three instances, the new manager was hired on an interim basis, and all three times the interim label was removed after the season. Gaston, at least, has a couple world championships on his resume. But neither Tosca nor Gibbons had any prior managerial experience, neither was considered a hot manager prospect when the Blue Jays gave them an ostensibly interim position, and neither did much after getting the full-time position to justify Toronto’s faith in them.

It was clear before Moore was even hired that Bell had to go, and he probably should have been fired after the 2006 season. But once Moore went into the 2007 season with Bell at the helm, firing him mid-season would once again complicated the Royals’ efforts to find the perfect guy to run their team. The jury is still out on Trey Hillman, certainly, but there’s no arguing this: if Hillman was the best candidate for the job, then the Royals would have missed out on the best candidate had they fired Bell mid-season. Letting Bell go at the end of the year gave Moore many luxuries: the luxury of time, the luxury to travel to Japan if need be to find the right manager, the luxury to let his new manager pick his coaching staff without firing even more guys mid-season and causing even more upheaval.

One of the coaches that Hillman retained last season was Luis Silverio, for reasons that were never entirely clear. I mean, when the most prominent thing on your resume is that you’re Angel Berroa’s father-in-law…anyway, Silverio wasn’t a very good third-base coach, and now he’s been given a newly created position as Special Assistant to Player Development in charge of helping Latin American prospects adjust to professional baseball, a role he would seem far more suited for.

Dave Owen moves from bench coach to the third-base coaches’ box, and John Gibbons will be joining Hillman in the dugout. I don’t have the highest opinion of Gibbons’ tenure as the Blue Jays’ manager – though admittedly my opinion may be unduly influenced by the dumbest intentional walk of all time – but he certainly makes for a better bench coach than Owen, if only because he’s a former manager, and one of the most important roles of the bench coach is to serve as a sort of consigliore to his boss. Hillman made a lot of rookie mistakes last season, mistakes that might have been avoided if he had an experienced hand in the dugout to nudge him the right way.

Then again, I’m not sure how valuable Gibbons’ experience is, given that his tenure as manager is most notable for confrontations with his players. I’ll take May 17th in the pool for the day that he and Jose Guillen have it out. (This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, by the way. Someone willing to stand up to Guillen in the clubhouse was one of the Royals’ bigger needs last season.)

Anyway, it’s hard to know what, if any, impact the auxiliary coaches make. The big news – well, the first piece of big news – is that Barnett is no longer the hitting coach. If there was one dark lining to the silver cloud that was September, it was the worry that the team’s strong finish might predispose Moore towards keeping Barnett on as hitting coach. That he didn’t means that Moore had made up his mind to fire Barnett well before September. Deliberate, yes; not demented.

The second piece of big news is that, with plenty of options to choose from, and plenty of time to sort through them, Moore offered the job to Kevin Seitzer. I’m surprised, and a little excited. I have three reactions to his hiring, in chronological order:

1) As a fan, I’m excited, because Seitzer was one of my favorite players during my awakening as a Royals fan in the late 80s and early 90s, and I never got over the way the Royals just tossed him aside. After the game on July 6th, 1991, John Wathan decided that the Royals needed to upgrade the defense on the left side of the infield, and immediately benched Seitzer and Kurt Stillwell in favor of Bill Pecota and David Howard.

Pecota, who was and is one of my favorite Royals, played well in Seitzer’s stead. Howard did not play well in Stillwell’s place, but he did play…and play…and play. Howard batted at least 100 times in six of the next seven seasons, and never had an OPS+ over 66 in any of them. (On the bright side, I owe my writing career to Howard more than any other person, other than perhaps Herk Robinson. The latter’s confounding decisions, frequently involving the former, compelled me to write extensively about the Royals on in the Usenet years.)

One of Herk’s aforementioned decisions was to summarily release Seitzer the following spring, just prior to Kevin’s 30th birthday. Seitzer would latch on with the Brewers, and over the next five years he would improve his OBP and SLG almost every season, culminating in a terrific season with the Indians in 1996, when at age 34 he hit .326/.416/.466. He would retire just one year later, and has been running his Mac-N-Seitz Academy with Mike Macfarlane ever since.

Even though Seitzer went to two postseasons with the Indians and had most of his best years with Milwaukee, I’ve never stopped thinking of him as a Royal. Almost seventeen years later, I’m tickled to learn that he never stopped thinking of himself as a Royal either.

2) As a critic, I’m worried, because pretty much the worst reason to hire someone as a coach or manager is because you liked them as a player. I remember during my freshman year of college as our RA fairly bounded out of his room with excitement on the news that the Red Sox had just hired Butch Hobson as their new manager. “He was my favorite player growing up!” he told me. That’s all well and good, but the traits that made Hobson the favorite of a lot of eight-year-olds in New England in the late 1970s – his willingness to go all-out on every play, his refusal to come out of the lineup – were traits that active sabotaged the team’s chances to win.

Hobson played almost the entire 1978 season with bone chips in his throwing elbow that he would re-adjust after every throw. (Seriously.) He gutted it out enough to play 147 games despite missing the first three weeks of July, and never mind that he committed 43 errors (the most by any player, at any position, in the last 30 years) and became the first player since 1916 to finish with a fielding percentage under .900, or that he hit just .245/.298/.342 after returning from injury on July 19th. At least his poor play didn’t cost the Red Sox a postseason berth or anything. (Yes, manager Don Zimmer deserves far more of the blame for that than Hobson.)

I elected against arguing with my RA that Hobson seemed to have the requisite passion for the job but not the requisite wisdom, in part because my RA had about five years and 100 pounds on me. But when it came to the imaginary argument in my head, I totally pwned him. Hobson was a complete disaster as a manager.

This isn’t to say that Seitzer’s tenure as a hitting coach will be equally unsuccessful, or that Seitzer is going to be arrested with a little blow in his pocket in a few years. But the mere fact that Seitzer was a good hitter and a fan favorite doesn’t mean that he’s going to make a great hitting coach. Seitzer is something of a legend around Kansas City for his ability to teach hitting, but instructing a high school kid on the finer points of hitting is not quite the same as unlocking the mystery that is Alex Gordon. And let’s not forget that Seitzer has already served as a major league hitting coach, with the Diamondbacks in 2007 – and was canned at the All-Star Break.

3) As an analyst, I’m intrigued. No, Seitzer didn’t work out in Arizona, but he also got a bit of a raw deal; half a season isn’t long enough to evaluate anybody in that role. Raul Ibanez, possessor of one of the ten most remarkable mid-career breakouts by a hitter in the last generation, credits Seitzer for his turnaround. That’s a hell of an endorsement right there.

Ibanez is just one data point, of course. What really appeals to me about Seitzer is simply his philosophy as a hitting coach, which is best appreciated by looking at his record as a hitter. The man understands the value of plate discipline, not simply as lip service or a talking point, but in terms of tangible outcomes. Kevin Seitzer is the most patient hitter the Royals have had since 1980.

In 1989 Seitzer drew 102 walks – no Royal has drawn even 90 in a season since. Since 1980, the only other 90-walk season by a Royal was George Brett’s 103 in 1985. Brett was intentionally walked 31 times, and given his 30 homers and .585 slugging average, was semi-intentionally walked equally often. Seitzer, on the other hand, hit four homers and slugged .337 in 1989, and still managed to coax over 100 walks from opposing pitchers.

There are essentially four ingredients to an offense: hitting for average, extra-base power, steals/baserunning speed, and walks. We can evaluate how important a player’s plate discipline is to his overall approach by weighing his walk rate with his performance in the other three categories. Granted that this is an incredibly simplistic formula, we can estimate a player’s propensity to walk with what I call the “Blankenship Number”, after the legendary Lance Blankenship, a man of whom Gary Huckabay wrote after his 1993 season, “he’s an asset to his team if he hits .200. Oops.”

The Blankenship Number is (Walks)/(Total Bases + Steals). Since 1980, 49 Royals players have batted at least 1000 times. Seitzer’s Blankenship Number leaves everyone else in the dust:

Kevin Seitzer: .325

Matt Stairs: .296

Jeff King: .281

Wally Joyner: .280

Jose Offerman: .274

The difference between Seitzer and 3rd-place Jeff King is greater than the difference between 3rd place and 15th place. (Mark Quinn ranks dead last, in case you were wondering.)

Over the last five years the Royals have talked a good game about plate discipline. Allard Baird talked about it non-stop, and even made a few moves (like hiring Jeff Pentland as hitting coach) to back up the talk. But Baird, for whatever reason, was never able to impart his zeal for plate discipline on the rest of the organization. Moore appears much more able to impose his will, but until recently his commitment to plate discipline appeared shaky at best. The Braves do many things well, but teaching the strike zone to their hitters is not one of them. (Just ask Jeff Francoeur.)

But maybe 2008 helped Moore see the light. Maybe seeing his team draw just 392 walks, the fewest in history for a team that already ranked dead-last in the majors in walks drawn over the last 25 years, had an effect. But whatever the reason, this one action by Moore – hiring Seitzer – says more than any number of words possibly could. Even though he lives in Kansas City, Seitzer wasn’t considered a favorite for the job; it’s not like Moore has shown a preference for ex-Royals before. Moore didn’t hire him for reasons of sentimentality; he hired him because he thought Seitzer was the best man for the job.

Among other complaints about Mike Barnett, I never knew what his philosophy as a hitting coach was. There’s no doubt what Seitzer’s philosophy is.

“We don’t have enough time to go through all the things I want to try to emphasize with these guys,” he said. “It really comes down to having a consistent approach. Have a purpose up there rather than just a ‘see-ball-hit-ball’ approach.

“You have to have that purpose up there if you’re going to improve your on-base percentage. And that’s the key to offense. Getting guys on and moving them around and driving them in. That’s what wins ballgames.”

Music to my ears.

It’s easy to over-estimate the impact of hitting coaches, because unlike pitching coaches, precious few of them seem to really have a sustained impact on their charges. It’s not that a good hitting coach can’t make a difference, it’s just that they’re as likely to screw up a hitter as they are to make a breakthrough with him. A laissez-faire coach can be just as effective as a chronic tinkerer. Hitters are politically diverse; some thrive in a libertarian environment, while others require constant government intervention.

When it comes to hitting, Seitzer definitely leans to the left. One of the biggest criticisms that did surface in Arizona was that he was trying to do too much – he was trying to completely revamp his hitters’ approaches, and he was trying to make one size fit all. It’s not a surprise that Ibanez is his greatest success story – Ibanez is by all accounts a great guy, and he was at a desperate point in his career. Seitzer may have been the perfect teacher for him, because he was working with the perfect student. Not every hitter on the Royals is going to be a perfect student, and Seitzer’s ability to adjust to that, and to serve different strokes to different folks, is going to determine whether he’s successful in his new job.

As an analyst, having a guy like Seitzer around is going to be fun, because good or bad, he’s going to be interesting. And I’m thinking he won’t just be an interesting hitting coach, he just might be a damn good one as well.