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Hok Talk: What are coaches for?

Players play the game but the coaches have to have SOME purpose, right?

Cal Eldred standing in the dugout Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

The Royals are bad this year. Bad enough that, at this point, it seems inevitable that some of the coaches will be fired before next season starts. So inevitable, in fact, that many sportswriters are already writing as if it’s a done deal and taking the opportunity to remind us all that coaches have minimal impact on the performance of a baseball team. This is a not-unreasonable take; if coaches were more directly responsible for team success, then they’d command the massive salaries and the players would be forced to take less.

However, coaches have to be good for something, don’t they? After all, teams are as cost-conscious as ever; many of them cut front office staff last year due to the pandemic and later announced they intended to keep those staff cuts because they didn’t see a business need for them. If they thought they could cut some coaches and have teams that performed equally well, it seems certain at least some of them would do so.

So if we take those two points together, that leads us to the conclusion that coaches can help a team win, but they do so in the margins. The best hitting coach in the world can’t make Chris Getz a good hitter, but he might help him be slightly less awful. That seems reasonable. Unfortunately, all signs point to the Royals’ coaching staff being something less than the best in the world.

Brad Keller

Brad Keller has struggled all year. The good news is that his last three starts are all in the top five Game Scores he has earned all year, according to FanGraphs. It seems like he’s on the road to being fixed! During a recent broadcast, the team noted that Cal Eldred had finally identified a mechanical flaw in Keller’s delivery which was preventing him from pitching as well as he could. The problem is that the identification took more than half of a season to occur. Even worse, Brad Keller admitted during a post-game interview back on June 14 that neither he nor Cal Eldred had any idea what to do to improve matters. For a player to make that admission during a post-game interview speaks to some extreme frustration and confusion - a.k.a. things a coach should be alleviating, not making worse.

Hunter Dozier

Another year-long bad story that seems to finally be turning is Hunter Dozier. His batting average is currently a dismal .196, but as recently as the end of June, it was at .160. Again, the rebound is cause for celebration, but the length of time between the onset of the problem and the rebound is cause for concern. And, again, player remarks call into question the ability of the coaches.

It apparently took Dozier several months to realize he had unintentionally altered his swing in a detrimental way. It sure seems like one of the many coaches on the team should have been able to pick up on that and point it out to him in less than three months.

Brady Singer

After a promising debut season, Singer has struggled to progress and even seemed to revert to some degree in 2021. His struggles seem primarily due to an inability to consistently command his pitches. When he has good command, his two pitches are enough to see him through. Since he so often has poor command, a third pitch - which he might be able to command even when the others are being troublesome, or which might at least give hitters one more thing to think about instead of just waiting for meaty fastballs - could definitely help. I can’t guarantee it would help, but the TV broadcasters recently mentioned that Mike Matheny thinks it would help and that he would like Singer to try to throw his changeup more often but feels he can’t force it; the pitcher has to believe in it. The pitcher doesn’t believe in it.

With any job, there will be required tasks that you don’t want to do. Unless you are an absolute rock star at everything else or your organization is dysfunctional, not doing them is an excellent way to lose your job. The Royals and Mike Matheny should be able to tell Brady Singer, “I don’t care if you think you need it. You are required to throw your changeup more often.”

The problem here is that it’s hard to say whether the Royals are dysfunctional or if they view Singer as a rock star. Obviously, his performance has been somewhat subpar this season. However, even as poorly as he has pitched, he has clearly been one of the best five starters in the organization. If the team insists on chasing every win regardless of what it means for player development - and if Dayton Moore is to be believed, they do - then the Royals might feel like they can’t exercise any authority over Singer. The obvious repercussion if the Royals demanded he throw more changeups and he refused would be to demote him to AAA Omaha. But that would require the Royals to sacrifice their ability to win at the major league level. Either way, I suppose the end result is that the Royals are dysfunctional; it’s just a question of how that dysfunction manifests itself.

If the Royals had a better coaching staff, would it have helped make them competitive in 2021? Almost certainly not. There’s just too large of a gulf between the actual result and a competitive result for coaching to make up the difference. However, if the Royals are as intent on competing in the near future as they claim to be, it would behoove them to improve the coaching staff as well as the roster. It would be awful for the 2022 Royals to miss the playoffs because the coaches couldn’t offer the best advice to help the team win a couple of extra games.