The ineptitude of the Royals offense has reached alarming and franchise record-breaking levels. The team is dead last in all of baseball in runs scored, and is near the bottom of the league in nearly every relevant offensive category. While the lineup was not expected to score a ton of runs, it has been littered with several underachievers including Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Brandon Moss, and Alcides Escobar, not to mention black holes in the lineup like Paulo Orlando and Raul Mondesi who have already been shipped out.
The systematic underperformance has caused many fans to being pointing fingers and calling for a change. And the man with the target now on his back is hitting coach Dale Sveum.
Wonder if Royals will be looking for a hitting coach soon. Firing one usually feels pointless, but this lineup looks lost.— Jeff Rosen (@jeff_rosen88) April 25, 2017
Sveum, who had been serving as third base coach, took over the Royals hitting coach job at the end of May in 2014, to replace Pedro Grifol, who was re-assigned as a "catching instructor." The Royals did improve offensively following Sveum, going from 3.79 runs-per-game under Grifol that year to 4.13 runs-per game in the 110 games with Sveum as hitting coach. The team, of course, also took off in the standings, winning 59% of their games after the coaching shakeup, and reaching the World Series that fall.
The Royals made much less significant strides offensely the previous season in 2013, after re-assigning hitting coaches Andre David and Jack Maloof and replacing them with Hall of Famer George Brett. Under David and Maloof (who infamously said there was no sense trying to hit home runs in Kauffman Stadium), the Royals averaged just 3.98 runs-per-game, increasing that slightly under Brett at 4.01 runs-per-game. But again, the team took off in the second half, winning 58% of their games and nearly taking a Wild Card spot.
Does changing hitting coaches make much of a difference? Hitting coaches are basically hired to be fired. Even the great Charley Lau - who is credited with molding George Brett’s career - was dismissed by the Royals. Their impact is rather difficult to quantify. Most of the players they are dealing with are established players who don’t need much advice, or won’t heed it anyhow. In the very short-term, as a mid-season replacement, their impact is probably even further mitigated.
But does the mere firing of the hitting coach mid-season sound a wake-up call to the hitters to start making adjustments? I looked at all the mid-season hitting coach changes in the last ten years to see if there was any kind of short-term impact. The following chart looks at the runs scored per-game under the old coach and the new coach, with the last column reflecting the increase or decrease in runs scored following the change.
|Date||Team||Old Coach||R/G||Win%||New Coach||R/G||Win%||Diff|
|6/14/2007||LAD||Eddie Murray||4.36||.576||Bill Mueller||4.66||.458||6.7%|
|7/13/2007||ARI||Kevin Seitzer||4.12||.522||Rick Schu||4.74||.597||14.9%|
|7/12/2007||NYM||Rick Down||4.53||.552||Howard Johnson||5.47||.533||20.7%|
|8/1/2007||SDP||Merv Rettenmund||4.23||.533||Wally Joyner||5.12||.569||21.1%|
|6/9/2008||SEA||Jeff Pentland||4.02||.349||Lee Elia||4.22||.394||5.1%|
|6/20/2008||TOR||Gary Denbo*||4.01||.473||Gene Tenace||4.74||.580||18.1%|
|7/13/2008||LAD||Mike Easler||4.05||.479||Don Mattingly||4.69||.574||15.7%|
|5/8/2009||ARI||Rick Schu||3.62||.414||Jack Howell||4.62||.436||27.7%|
|6/14/2009||CHC||Gerald Perry||4.24||.492||Von Joshua||4.48||.529||5.7%|
|7/31/2009||SDP||Jim Lefebvre||3.69||.398||Randy Ready||4.37||.576||18.5%|
|5/9/2010||SEA||Alan Cockrell||3.13||.367||Alonzo Powell||3.17||.379||1.3%|
|6/23/2010||FLA||Jim Presley||4.77||.486||John Mallee||4.18||.522||-12.3%|
|7/11/2010||HOU||Sean Berry||3.47||.409||Jeff Bagwell||4.14||.432||19.3%|
|7/23/2010||PHI||Milt Thompson||4.60||.516||Greg Gross||5.00||.716||8.7%|
|6/9/2011||TEX||Thad Bosley||4.73||.556||Scott Coolbaugh||5.63||.616||18.9%|
|6/9/2011||FLA||John Mallee||4.02||.517||Eduardo Perez||3.76||.402||-6.3%|
|6/19/2011||CLE||Jon Nunnally||4.41||.537||Bruce Fields||4.25||.433||-3.6%|
|7/20/2011||LAD||Jeff Pentland||3.63||.433||Dave Hansen||4.56||.625||25.7%|
|5/16/2012||LAA||Mickey Hatcher||3.62||.432||Jim Eppard||5.06||.584||39.8%|
|6/12/2012||CHC||Rudy Jamarillo||3.70||.333||James Rowson||3.83||.402||3.6%|
|8/19/2012||HOU||Mike Barnett||3.76||.322||Ty Van Burkleo||3.12||.390||-17.0%|
|5/30/2013||KCR||Andre David||3.98||.420||George Brett||4.01||.580||0.7%|
|7/22/2013||WAS||Rick Eckstein||3.69||.490||Rick Schu||4.59||.594||24.4%|
|7/29/2013||FLA||Tino Martinez||3.18||.388||John Pierson||3.14||.373||-1.5%|
|5/27/2014||NYM||Dave Hudgens||3.90||.440||Lamar Johnson||3.88||.509||-0.6%|
|5/30/2014||KCR||Pedro Grifol||3.79||.462||Dale Sveum||4.13||.591||8.9%|
|6/20/2015||SEA||Howard Johnson||3.42||.464||Edgar Martinez||4.52||.473||32.0%|
|9/16/2016||TBR||Derek Shelton||4.26||.429||Chad Mottola||3.07||.333||-28.0%|
The dated listed is the date the new hitting coach took over. The 2008 Blue Jays firing of Gary Denbo was made in concert with a managerial change. The 2008 Mariners hiring of Lee Elia lasted just a few weeks until Jose Castro replaced him full-time, but I counted from June 9 since that is when the coaching shake up occurred. I did not count the 2007 resignation of Nationals hitting coach Mitchell Page due to health reasons.
You will first notice that no one fires their hitting coach in April, so relax Dale Sveum, you have at least until May to turn things around. It is a sample of just 28 cases, but I did find that yes, on average, teams that fired their hitting coach mid-season improved their runs-per-game production by 9.3%. Interestingly, teams also improved their winning percentage, going from a .458 winning percentage to a .543 winning percentage following the firing.
Now, a major part of that improvement is almost certainly regression to the mean. Hitting coaches get fired because hitters are underperforming. When a hitter with an established track record is underperforming, typically that hitter turns it around, or at least improves somewhat from a terrible start.
Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus did a much more detailed analysis on the impact of firing hitting coaches mid-season, taking a look at individual hitting performances for semi-regulars. He found that firing a hitting coach added about 25 points of OPS to a hitters numbers. However, he arrives at the same conclusion, that much of that is likely regression to the mean.
At the very least, firing a hitting coach doesn't seem to hurt most clubs. Only four of the teams actually got worse after the coaching shake up. Four of the teams made the playoffs, including the 2014 Royals, and a fifth (the 2007 Padres) reached a one-game playoff.
I am skeptical Sveum is to blame and that a new hitting coach would make much actual impact. When Royals hitters were still getting their feet wet, they reportedly shunned the advice of George Brett. What would make them more likely to accept advice now that they are All-Stars and World Champions? Does this sound like a hitter open to suggestion?
"I know I’ve been through it long enough now to realize you’ve just got to stick with your approach and it will change."
It was actually under Sveum that Mike Moustakas turned his career around and enjoyed his best offensive season. It was under Sveum that Eric Hosmer reached a career-high in home runs last year. It was under Sveum that Salvador Perez enjoyed his best power seasons. Maybe they would have done those things had Sveum not been there. But if we're going to blame Sveum for the ineptitude now, he should get some credit for some of the hitting accomplishments the Royals have achieved.
The Royals have had an overly aggressive hitting philosophy for decades. Plate discipline and pitch recognition has repeatedly taken a backseat to other tools. It seems unlikely that players in their late 20s and 30s can suddenly change their approach and get drastically different results. Ultimately that is why the Royals offense will continue to be near the bottom of the league once again. Yes, they will almost certainly improve, whether they fire their hitting coach or not. But the offense will remain a concern that this club may not be able to overcome.