I’m reviving my old 10-57 series to take a look at the Braves’ new-for-2015 hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer. After scoring the second fewest runs in the MLB during a disappointing 79 win season in 2014, the Braves were looking to shake some things up with their offense. They controversially attributed most of their problems to an inability to make consistent contact, and took steps to significantly cut back on the whiffs for the next season. Most of those steps were directed at acquiring guys like Nick Markakis, but they also brought in Kevin Seitzer from the Blue Jays to be their hitting coach. Seitzer is a guy who’s known for his philosophy of focusing on the center of the field, being selectively aggressive at the plate, and doing whatever is necessary to keep from striking out. Did bringing Seitzer lead to them applying his hitting philosophies? And if so, did that lead to any uptick in performance?
I should start by acknowledging that hitting coaches are almost impossible to analyze well. Player performance varies so much year to year already, and trying to figure out how much is simply development or aging or random or injury or a host of other explanations and how much is a hitting coach is a fool’s game. This isn’t to say that they’re worthless. It’d be silly to think a team would be fine without any hitting coach at all. Rather, it’s just that their effect is minimal and there’s little talent variation between the different coaches, and this makes evaluating it difficult. So with that in mind, let’s go ahead and play this fool’s game and see if we can’t find any reasonable signal in the noise for our own Kevin Seitzer.
For this study (can we even really call this a study?) we’re only going to be looking at the Braves hitters who played both before and after Seitzer arrives. Thanks to all the personnel changes on the field, that leaves us with the following five hitters: Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman, Chris Johnson, Christian Bethancourt, and Phil Gosselin.
The first thing to note is that overall output really didn’t change for these guys. They averaged a .310 wOBA in 2014 and a .309 wOBA in 2015. What did slightly change is how they arrived at that production. In 2015 they traded a little bit of power and a little bit of batted ball luck for a reduction in strikeouts. This is exactly the solution that the Braves were looking for, as they blamed a lot of their 2014 problems on their extreme number of strikeouts. Given that total production didn’t change, though, it’s safe to say it wasn’t so much a solution as just the same shit in a different package.
Looking beyond just the average of the two samples, we find that almost all of the change in K% came from Simmons and Gosselin. In fact, if we remove them from our two sample K% for the group only went from 23.0% to 22.9%. Freddie Freeman and Christian Bethancourt barely changed at all, and Chris Johnson actually went in the opposite direction, proving that after his abysmal 2014 season it can, in fact, get worse. All of the above is only looking at outcomes, though. Let’s start getting a little deeper in the data to see if we can find any changes in approach.
Batted Ball Types:
Batted Ball Direction and Contact Quality:
So some line drives from Freeman and Johnson became fly balls, Bethancourt started pulling the ball, and Johnson started swinging at less junk out of the zone. Besides that, just like with K% above, almost all of the changes in the averages were driven by Simmons. He started hitting a lot more ground balls, he focused more on the middle of the field, and he started swinging at less offerings and making more contact. In short, he did all of the things that Kevin Seitzer preaches for his hitters.
There’s a couple ways to look at this now: On the one hand, Andrelton is a young, developing hitter who is likely to see large swings in performance from one year to the next, so all of this could very easily be coincidence. On the other hand, it is young, developing hitters who would be most impacted by a hitting coach. An older, established hitter like Freeman isn’t going to change who he is at the plate, given that who he is has gotten him that far already. But a younger guy would be more likely to apply the specific hitting philosophy of his coach, and it does appear Simba was making some attempt to do exactly the things Seitzer preaches. So are we willing to say Simba benefited from his new coach, or was this just development?
I’m going to leave this at simply a presentation of evidence, and allow you to draw any conclusions you want.