What’s In A Hitting Coach, Anyway?

For the first few months of the season, the non-Matt Kemp Dodgers were simply atrocious on offense. They couldn’t get on base, they couldn’t drive in the few runners that did get on, and beyond being just bad, they were old, expensive, and boring. With such a subpar attack, it was no surprise that they were 48-59 at the end of July despite a generally solid pitching staff. Since then, they’ve turned it around to become one of the better teams in baseball, going 28-17 since the calendar turned to August.

So what happened? Tony Jackson of ESPN/LA mentions one popular theory while discussing the miraculous turnaround of James Loney:

So what changed July 20?

Well, for one thing, the Dodgers changed hitting coaches that day, firing Jeff Pentland after just half a season as the primary guy and promoting Dave Hansen to that role. Was it a coincidence?

Let’s not single Jackson out here, since the change in hitting coaches as a cause for the offensive turnaround is a theory I’ve seen tossed around several times, often presented as indisputable fact, by both mainstream media members and other bloggers. On the surface, it seems to make sense; since Pentland was dismissed, there’s been a marked uptick in production:

No question about it, since the move was made, the Dodgers have improved in every area on offense. (The pitching, by the way, has an ERA of nearly half a run less since July 20, which both contributes to the winning record and possibly raises the question of what sort of faulty advice Pentland was giving to the pitching staff, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

But while many have looked at the the top-level stats and settled on “new hitting coach -> better offense” as being a direct cause and effect, I’m not so sure it’s as simple as Hansen rolling in with some sort of magic potion or that Pentland, a well-respected coach, was doing a poor job.  Take a look at the Dodgers who had a significant amount of playing time under both hitting coaches:

The effect, Loney aside – and we’ll get to him in a minute – is relatively minimal. Kemp was great with Pentland, and he’s continued to be great with Hansen, just as no one can help Tony Gwynn. Andre Ethier (granted, slowed by his knee, though that had been an issue all season) regressed, as did Aaron Miles and Jamey Carroll. A few guys got better, a few worse, and a few stayed the same, as you’d expect with any coach.

As it always seems to be, the answer lies on the field, because the difference here is largely that the roster of the Dave Hansen Dodgers simply isn’t the same as the roster of the Jeff Pentland Dodgers. Just look at the mess Pentland had to deal with before he was let go:

- 289 of Juan Uribe‘s 295 awful, awful, plate appearances
- 142 lousy PA from the supposed LF duo of Jay Gibbons (.668 OPS) & Marcus Thames (.576 OPS)
- 70% of Casey Blake‘s injured and generally ineffective season
- 79% of Rafael Furcal‘s terrible year
- 79% of Dioner Navarro‘s atrocious performance
- the initial growing pains of rookies Jerry Sands (144 PA) and Dee Gordon (85 PA) who were each rushed to the bigs ahead of schedule and made it clear that the lessons they learned helped them adjust in AAA for their inevitable, and more successful, returns

Meanwhile, Hansen has benefited not only from not having to look at Uribe, Gibbons, Thames, Blake, Furcal, and Navarro, he’s had nearly 200 plate appearances of Juan Rivera‘s 119 OPS+ that Pentland didn’t. He’s had the one hot streak that Rod Barajas runs into every year. He’s had Sands and Gordon return with a better idea of what they need to do. He’s been able to get the injured Ethier out of the lineup. The roster, overall, is simply a better collection of players (both health- and talent-wise) than it was earlier in the season, and that, more than anything, is the reason for the rebound.

The point is not to diminish Hansen, because the team has been hitting very well since he took over, and I can certainly get on board with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school and I’d be fine with him becoming the permanent hitting coach in 2012. (Which I have to think he almost certainly will be.) It’s just that many act as though it’s a cut-and-dry fact that more Hansen = better offense, and the numbers just don’t back that up.

Back to Loney, his turnaround is certainly dramatic (300 points of OPS on the nose) and well-commented on. His turnaround did actually begin earlier in the year, of course; after really bottoming out on April 17, he hit .288/.338/.363 from then until Pentland was gone. That’s not great, but much, much better than he’d been at the start of the year, though nothing like the tear he’s been on since Hansen took over. It’s arguable whether the change in coaching is responsible for Loney’s production, but if there’s even a sliver of truth to it, you can feel free to throw out all the evidence that says Hansen probably didn’t have that much of an effect on the team as a whole and build the man a giant golden statue in the parking lot. Loney, as I mentioned yesterday, has gone from a guaranteed non-tender to more than likely returning in 2012, so let’s all hope that whatever Hansen may or may not have done, he knows how to keep it up.

Dodgers Fire Jeff Pentland

Per the Twitters, the Dodgers have fired hitting coach Jeff Pentland and replaced him on an interim basis with Dave Hansen. Pentland had been the “secondary” hitting instructor behind Don Mattingly since 2008 before ascending to the primary job.

I realize that someone was going to have to pay the price here, and when the team can’t hit, the hitting coach is the first to go. Fine; I don’t have any particular sadness over the loss of Jeff Pentland. Just don’t forget the collection of players we’re talking about. With the possible exception of Juan Uribe, are James Loney, Rod Barajas, Dioner Navarro and the rest really doing much worse than you thought? How about Marcus Thames and Jay Gibbons, who didn’t even make it through July? We always expected them to be bad. They’re bad. No surprise there, and it’s hard to pin the fact that neither Casey Blake nor Rafael Furcal can stay healthy on him either. Besides, that doesn’t even include the fact that Matt Kemp is having the best year of his career, Aaron Miles has been surprisingly good, and even Tony Gwynn has been very good lately.

But yeah, you’re right. It’s totally on Jeff Pentland.