When the Mariners announced that Tigers' hitting coach Lloyd McClendon would be taking over the giant Eric Wedge-sized hole in our hearts on Tuesday, reaction around the M's blogosphere was notably varied. Some were excited to bring the first-base stealing skipper into the Safeco dugout, others were less enthused. But it seemed the prevailing reaction was nonchalance. Perhaps, the same emotion one might encounter upon finding a crumpled up dollar bill in a coat pocket, or forgetting to check the time on your oven pizza and returning to find it perfectly baked, not burnt. We simply don't have any relevant data to inform us of his impact on the future of this franchise. Which is fine, and I'm honestly excited--though I'm a sucker for fancy quotable press conferences in the first place.
But it didn't stop me from perusing fangraphs for a couple of hours to try and see if there was any trend in his arrival as hitting coach in the Tigers' dugout (2007) and plate discipline numbers amongst Tiger hitters. It was an absolutely pointless task, and one which would find me confusing correlation with causation if I tried to draw any actual conclusions from my observations. I realized that.The job of a hitting coach is so abstract anyway, and I'm pretty sure there's no way to quantify the keep-your-waist-turned-this-way 's and the bend-your-knees-that-way's.
But I did it anyway. And what resulted was another trip down a Fangraphs rabbit hole, which is really a great way to kill a few hours, especially when you should be working on grad school applications and going to the store to pick up bagels and cream cheese like your wife asked you to (oops). And what I found was kind of interesting. Not interesting in a Felix-needs-to-change-his-delivery kind of way, though. More of the burnt pizza/dollar bill thing.
Okay. One of these players is on the Seattle Mariners. Another is widely considered to be the best hitter on the planet* and is on the road to his second MVP award in as many years, owns a bunch of t-shirts with "ALCS," "ALDS," and "World Series" on the front, and was up until last month coached by the very same Lloyd McClendon who now dons an M's cap. I've selected a few chosen plate discipline statistics and below, compared the two to one another. Time to play guess who!
*I've been watching too much MLB.tv
1. Swings inside the strike zone, contact
This is easy enough. Player one swings at more strikes, which certainly gives more opportunity for balls to be hit and increase his contact rate. But while Player 2 looks at quite a bit more pitches in the zone, he's actually making better contact than Player 1, if incrementally. Perhaps it's a matter of knowing what he can hit, perhaps it's part of a force-yourself-into-higher-counts philosophy. But clearly Player 2 knows when he sees a ball he can hit, and ignoring whatever the hell happened in 2013, swings at a comparable number of pitches to Player 1.
2. Swings outside the strike zone, contact
Now this is interesting. Here we see that Player 1 swings at way more outside pitches than Player 2. He's making better contact than Player 2, but not at absurd levels. Comparing these numbers to our strike zone section above, it seems that Player 2 has superior traditional plate discipline, for better or worse. Player 1 swings more, and makes good contact, but at a similar percentage increase as his rate of swing increase. Maybe he just knows he can hit them. But it can't be all about plate discipline, can it? If Player 1 "knows" he can make contact, and Player 2 seems more selective, what about when they miss in the zone?
3. Swinging strikes
(Note all other categories are via PITCHf/x, SwStr% is from Baseball Info Solutions)
Well this is interesting. Again, these numbers are quite close. But the numbers speak for themselves. With the exception of 2012, which was nearly the same number, Player 2 misses less pitches in the zone than Player 1 does. When he swings, he's making
better more contact. Alright, how about total contact?
2. Total contact
Again, the same trend. With the exception of 2012, which again was damn close, Player 2 makes more total contact than Player 1. He's putting the bat on the ball more, and without diving into where those batted balls end up--fair or foul, over the wall or into a glove--the fundamentals are there. The difference seems to be in efficiency and philosophy (or tendency) toward pitches outside the zone. Take that for what it's worth.
I'm sure you caught on to this pretty quick. Player 1 is Miguel Cabrera, and Player 2 is Kyle Seager. Now, this is hardly comprehensive analysis. Also it's kind of dumb to compare someone like Miguel Cabrera to Kyle Seager--who both get pitched to differently, have different instructions from hitting coaches based on their lineups, and also, you know, that dinger thing.
Plus, all these quick observations fail to take into account the complexity of plate discipline: Miguel Cabrera swinging at more pitches outside the zone than Seager could be the result of a billion variables. Maybe Leyland just let him swing all the time because he's Miguel Cabrera. Maybe Dave Hansen emphasized discipline, maybe there was a walk mentality in the Mariners' dugout. Perhaps Seager could hit them, perhaps Cabrera is just better at putting the barrel on the ball. I don't know.
But--I find it curious that Seager actually makes better contact (or, at least because their contact rates are so close, similar contact) on all pitches. We knew that Kyle Seager was a very talented baseball player. I guess I didn't quite realize that Kyle Seager was this much of a developed baseball player, at least with pitch discipline tendencies. With all the talk of young players and the future of this roster, it's nice to see that our third baseman isn't just talented. He seems to actually know what he's doing. Now it's up to McClendon to magically turn the results into Miguel Cabrera. Right? That's what managers do, I hear. Easy enough.