Reflections on a Fired Hitting Coach

‘Tis the season to fire coaches and managers. Among the coaches fired yesterday was Kansas City hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. The Royals cited underperformance by the hitters. It is hard to argue that the offense did well, relative to expectations. After the team sported a 102 wRC+ last year, it was expected that with young talent like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas entering their second season, the team’s hitting would be on the way up. It did not work out that way, as the Royals finished the season with a 95 wRC+. Hosmer and (oh boy) Jeff Francoeur, in particular, had horrific seasons in 2012, and after a promising start to the year, Mike Moustakas’ bat fell apart in the second half.

Trying to determine how much of this is and is not attributable to Kevin Seitzer’s work and whether the firing is justified is extremely difficult, and I will not really be doing that in this post. Rather, I simply want to offer some general reflections on the Seitzer’s tenure and dismissal that might be illuminate the difficulty in evaluating these sorts of decisions.

For the sake of history, it is worth remembering that Kevin Seitzer himself was once an exciting young Royals hitter. Before Alex Gordon was in school, Seitzer was the Next George Brett. When certain Royals fans raved about Eric Hosmer’s 2011 season being the best by a Royals’ rookie ever (a pretty insane claim in itself), they clearly were not remembering Seitzer’s .323/.399/.470 (133 wRC+) performance in 1987. In the the New Historical Abstract, Bill James ranked Seitzer as the 77th-best third baseman of all-time, writing:

In 1987, when Mark McGwire hit 49 home runs as a rookie, Kevin Seitzer was also a rookie, and also had quite a season, collecting 207 hits (which led the league), scoring 105 runs, drawing 80 walks, and hitting 33 doubles, 8 triples, and 15 homers. I am a Kansas City Royals fan, and, at the time, we all had visions of Seitzer being better than that Brett fellow who used to play third. This didn’t work out; Seitzer was a good player, but his rookie season was his best effort.

Seitzer was a rather small man with narrow shoulders, a right-handed hitter, not a fast runner, not a great arm, and giving no obvious evidence of great strength. All of this was apparent even when he was a rookie, but he overcame it by being a disciplined player who hit the ball squarely. He was a born-again Christian who sometimes irritated his teammates and managers, perhaps for good reason or perhaps just because, when things go wrong, it’s easy to blame the Christian. He never played badly; he never really had a bad year. He never hit lower than .265, but he never could meet the expectations of his rookie season.

As a hitter, Seitzer never had much power (his .147 ISO and 15 home runs in 1987 were both career highs), but he did have tremendous plate discipline throughout his career. In 6062 career plate appearances, Seitzer had more walks (669, 11 percent) than strikeouts (617, 10.2 percent), which is particularly amazing given that Seitzer did not have the sort of power that would encourage pitchers to pitch around the edges. It is not obvious that a coach with success in a particular area as a player can teach other players how to succeed in the same way he did, but it is at least worth noting.

Seitzer and fellow former Royals Mike MacFarlane started Mac-N-Seitz, which focuses on training for baseball and softball, back in 1996. Seitzer got his first shot as a hitting coach in the majors with the Diamondbacks when he was hired prior to the 2007 season. However, Seitzer did not even make it one season, and was fired from that job in July of 2007.

Whatever went down in Arizona, Seitzer got the call in Kansas City prior to the 2009 season. Generally speaking, the Royals offense improved every year Seitzer was on the job prior to 2012.

2008 86 wRC+, 6.4 BB%, 16.4 K%, .269/.329/.397
2009 88 wRC+, 7.5 BB%, 17.9 K%, .259/.318/.415
2010 98 wRC+, 7.6 BB%, 14.6 K%, .274/.331/.399
2011 102 wRC+, 7.1 BB%, 16.1 K%, .275/.328/.415
2012 95 wRC+, 6.6 BB%, 16.8 K%, .265/.317/.400

Now, some might want to take the overall per-2012 improvements to show that Seitzer did a good job, or simply take the drop-off in 2012 to show that Seitzer needed to go. However, either is obviously too simple on its own to to prove anything. The players and playing time distribution changed a fair bit from year-to-year. In addition, some players who were involved in more than one season aged and thus be expected to be improving or declining. Finally, one has to account for random variation (with all the uncertainty that entails), and as difficult as that is for individual players, it simply doesn’t make much sense to do that for collective team performance. There are too many factors outside of Seitzer’s control here to give him major credit or blame based simply on the collective team number given above. Moreover, which year would represent Seitzer’s own true talent as a coach: the success of 2011, or the failure of 2012? How do you separate that from the players with or without Seitzer?

In the case of a coach, people will want to look at specific players, which makes more sense. No one really is going to blame Seitzer for not during Mike Jacobs into Barry Bonds in 2009. Without going through every player, two of the specific cases probably used most against Seitzer (there are others, but I’m going for relative brevity) from this year are the horrible years a) Eric Hosmer’s collapse and b) Jeff Francoeur’s dreadful return to being, well, Jeff Francoeur. Hosmer is obviously a very important part of the Royals’ future, so if his problems with BABIP this season are caused by problem with his mechanics (as Keith Law recently suggested), that is a clear (if not necessarily decisive) strike against Seitzer

As for Francoeur, if one is going to blame Seitzer for Francoeur’s return to Francoeur-ness this season, why wouldn’t Seitzer get credit for miraculously getting a good season out of Francoeur last year? If one argues that last year was simply “luck” (and it may well have been), then it is hard to see how, given Francoeur’s 2008-2010 performances, Seitzer could have been expected to make Francoeur a good hitter generally.

[If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, I recommend checking out this audio interview with Seitzer from yesterday after the firing was announced. The whole thing is pretty interesting and informative, no matter what one thinks of Seitzer. For Francoeur specifically, jump to about the 11-minute mark when they start discussing Francoeur. Seitzer says that once Francoeur started hitting behind Billy Butler, he got frustrated because he knew that Butler couldn’t take the extra base or whatever, so he started swinging harder to try and drive him in. That threw Francoeur’s swing off or something and just made the slump worse. I am not making this up. There is more good stuff, like something about Seitzer saying he asked Francoeur if it would help if he hit Frenchy in the head with a bat or something. I guess, deep down, Seitzer is just like every other 2012 Royals fan.]

On the other hand, however, some hitters improved quite dramatically during Seitzer’s tenure. Billy Butler’s first big season happened in 2009 and in 2012 he finally had the power surge that had been long expected. Alcides Escobar showed a big improvement this year. Alex Gordon’s last two seasons probably make the best individual case for Seitzer’s value as a hitting coach, although apparently there are some who feel that Gordon’s drop-off in home run power this year should count against Seitzer (this is also mentioned in the audio interview).

From an outside perspective, it is tough to know how to weigh these things against each other. It is a sabermetric cliche at this point to say that coaching has value, but is difficult to measure, but it is true. Let me finish these fragmented reflections with two notes, one quasi-statistical, and one broader, organizational point.

The quasi-statistical note comes out of a conversation I had about Seitzer earlier this season. My interlocutor was arguing that Seitzer had done a great job. I was not so much interested in arguing that Seitzer had done a bad job, but rather in pointing out that if one wants to give him credit for the 2011 success, one has to give him blame for the failures of 2012, and it is difficult to know if any such thing is possible either way from the outside. My interlocutor pointed out that once one clears away the scraps (e.g., Jacobs, Jose Guillen, etc), that there are a number of players the Royals have had that have had their best (or nearly best) offensive season under Seitzer’s watch. Among the players that might fit that description are Francoeur and Gordon in 2011, Wilson Betemit in 2010, Alberto Callaspo in 2009, and Melky Cabrera in 2011 (well, this year turned out to be better before, well, you know, but 2011 was his best up to that point). Yuniesky Betacourt’s power-surge to 16 home runs in 2010 was also mentioned.

Let’s leave aside the issue of whether or not this sort of approach is a good way to evaluate a hitting coach’s skill. Here is what struck me about the list: the average age (using the convention of the player’s age prior to July 1 of the season) of those players in those seasons is 27: two 26-year-olds, two 27-year-olds, and two 28-year-olds. Just about every study of general hitter aging of which I am aware shows hitters on average peaking between 26 and 28. Does this necessarily mean Seitzer just got the right hitters at the right time to make him look like a genius? No, not necessarily, but the it does again point out just how difficult it is to isolate a particular hitting coach’s specific contribution.

The larger organizational point relates to something one mentioned by both manager Ned Yost and Seitzer. Seitzer’s approach generally emphasizes hitter trying to go up the middle. Yost, on the other hand, favors an approach that emphasizes pulling the ball more often. To be fair, Seitzer notes that once Yost communicated that to him this year, that he changed his methods to reflect Yost’s wishes. However, if that is not really how Seitzer generally teaches (and I will elide the separate issue regarding whether or not he utilizes is a “one size fits all approach” to hitters as opposed to playing each individual hitter’s strengths), then it is probably better to get someone whose personal hitting philosophy fits in with the manager’s (assuming you want to keep Ned Yost as the manager, another issue). Moreover, Seitzer was in place before Yost became manager in 2010, and it might make sense, organizationally, for Yost to have his own guy who agrees with his preferences from the beginning. Whether that sort of organizational uniformity and unity should and will have an impact is another nebulous issue, but I can see how it makes sense, apart from the question of what the right approach for the team’s hitters as a whole or individually might be.

I guess this is just another long-winded post consisting of “on one hand… but on the other hand… yeah, no, I don’t know.” I really have no opinion about whether Kevin Seitzer is a good hitting coach for the Royals or any other team. I do, however, believe that the process of articulating some of the difficulties of analysis in these sorts of situations is helpful.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can’t get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Honest post.