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Do hitting coaches matter? Like anything else, they do if you believe they do

you're never fully dressed without a smile
Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

When Edgar Martinez was hired as hitting coach in late June of last year to bolster a badly slumping Mariners team, reactions varied from cautious optimism (maybe Edgar can fix it?) to the existentially blase (he certainly can't hurt them any worse) to outright negativity (nothing can fix it!). Some took a cynical view, chalking the move up to a crass PR strategy trading on past nostalgia, Jack Z going up to the attic of the new house and getting down the Christmas ornaments we made as children. And some discounted the position of the hitting coach entirely, even going so far as to suggest the team hire Buhner instead for his fiery personality. The voice that spoke up most loudly in support of Edgar's hiring was that of someone who knows him best: recently promoted defensive coordinator Dan Wilson. "For him to be in that position will be nothing but beneficial," Wilson told KIRO shortly after the move was announced, citing Edgar's intense focus and scientific approach to hitting. Conventional baseball wisdom holds that hitting coaches don't matter much. Luckily, Jerry Dipoto cares not for conventional baseball wisdom.

The arguments against the effectiveness of hitting coaches boil down to this:

  • By the time a hitter gets to the major leagues, they are a finished product, having achieved the magic "10,000 hour rule" popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Supposedly we know who hitters are by the time they reach the high minors, assigning them into classes that resemble the baseball Seven Dwarves: Slappy, Punchy, Pokey, Loopy, Choppy, Ropey, and Jr.
  • Hitting a baseball is maybe the hardest thing to do, from a technical standpoint, and so much goes into it there is no way our brains can consciously make the kind of last-minute adjustments taught by hitting coaches. The argument is hitting a baseball is so unbelievably complicated, the only possible approach is to keep it simple: See ball, hit ball.

There are other aspects to this mindset. In 2004, Seattle PI columnist John Levesque wrote an article tellingly titled "Hitting Coaches Hardly Matter," in which he explained that fans shouldn't take umbrage with then-hitting coach Paul Molitor for the M's anemic offensive performance because "hitting coach" is basically a fake job:

Their jobs exist more as a means of getting ex-players, especially ex-players of color, involved in the coaching/managing ranks. Even if they tried to teach hitting, they'd run into a solid wall of resistance from self-centered, supremely focused athletes who've made it this far on talent and ability and aren't about to change their swings for anyone, even if he's got street cred in Cooperstown.

What a difference twelve years makes! It's hard to imagine a columnist laying down these lines today without being summarily smoked on social media. To lend his position support and definitely not commit the "appeal to authority" logical fallacy, Levesque interviews former player Rob Ellis, who claims to have never met an effective hitting coach.

How, then, to explain the gulf in achievement between the pre-Edgar Mariners hitters and the numbers since he took over?

What's interesting about this chart isn't just the spike in offensive production during the second half, when Edgar had been with the team for a while; it's how closely those second half numbers match what the Mariners are doing so far this year. They're walking slightly more and striking out slightly less, as well as avoiding pitches outside the zone better. Through the first two months of the season, they have already hit about 70% of the home runs it took them until July to hit last year.

The trouble is, it's almost impossible to quantify the difference a hitting coach makes. Russell A. Carleton at Baseball Prospectus has done some excellent work on this topic, but has not found a strong relationship between hitting coaches and improved outcomes. There are simply too many factors at play; a black box we will never be able to open and unpack entirely. What we can do is examine the available data--not only in player performances, but also in what they're saying.

Edgar's philosophy as a coach, based on what I've strung together from interviews, seems to boil down to this:

  • Keep it simple: From a Fangraphs interview Edgar did last year: "We sometimes make (hitting) complicated, but the simpler it is – the simpler the mechanics – the better your chances are of hitting a fastball." Mike Zunino has talked about how crowded his mind got while he was trying to take in the magical bit of information that would release him from the offensive black hole he toiled in all of last year. It would be irresponsible to credit Zunino's offensive improvement this year solely to Edgar; Zunino is punishing AAA pitching, because AAA pitching is generally punishable, and it might or might not have anything to do with the hitting summit Edgar held in Arizona this winter. But it's not impossible to think that Edgar helped strip away the layers of quick-fix patches spackled onto Zunino's bat over the years to help Mike focus on a simpler approach that works for him.
  • Break old habits by building new ones: Hitters might be seasoned pros by the time they get to the Show, but that doesn't mean they're immune to developing bad habits. As opposed to approaching this from a deficit perspective ("don't choke up on the bat"), Edgar focuses on cultivating the desired behavior ("drop your hands here") through drills. This may seem like a semantic difference, but consider it in the context of nutritional habits: focusing on foods you can't eat on a diet isn't as productive as focusing on the exciting options you can eat (caramelized Brussels sprouts are a revelation, I promise). Hitters may not change, but in Edgar's belief, habits can, and will.
  • Be positive: Edgar only likes his hitters to watch their successes on-tape, not relive their struggles. This might sound relentlessly Pollyanna-ish coming from someone who is regarded as one of the best hitters of his era, except for the fact that he wasn't, always. He wasn't even the best player in his junior high or high school in Puerto Rico. The White Sox passed over him when he was 17, signing his cousin Carmelo instead. When the Mariners finally picked him up at age 19, he hit a dismal .173 in Bellingham. He toiled in the minor leagues for seven years before getting a chance to play full-time. Edgar knows struggle, and he knows success, and he knows the bridge from one to the other isn't built out of negativity and longing over what could be. It's made from understanding who you are and being the best version of that you can be.
  • Work hard: Edgar's work ethic is famous among those who know him. The joke was you could set your watch by what time he walked into the batting cages each day. Former Mariner Stan Javier sums it up well:

I’ve never seen anybody—maybe Don Mattingly—work as hard as Edgar Martinez. I'm talking about eyes, hands, feet. He spends hours and hours in the batting cage. He probably does more stuff for his eyes than for his swing.

In a way, Edgar's work as a player presaged his role as coach. Even while he was active, players used to come to his house in the off-season for help from "El Papa," the role model for hard work as the great equalizer.

How effective is Edgar's philosophy at transforming hitters? The numbers suggest one thing; the players themselves back it up. Adam Lind, who's been struggling but uncorked a monster night on Wednesday, says Edgar has been teaching him to "enjoy the process." Leonys Martin has given Edgar credit for helping to fix his swing, as has Mark Trumbo, who says the notes he took on Edgar's teachings are helping him now with the Orioles. Last year, Logan Morrison began a turnaround late in the season that he sheepishly admitted was thanks to him finally listening to Edgar: "He’s been trying to get me to do this for like a month now. I guess I should have listened to him. He’s a future Hall of Famer hopefully, I don’t know what I was thinking." Even a star like Robinson Cano finds Edgar's expertise valuable, being deliberately vague in an ESPN interview about specific techniques because he doesn't want to give away any "secrets." Feedback from players, being anecdotal in nature, resists quantification, but the chorus of voices rising to celebrate Edgar--players going out of their way to praise him in interviews--is difficult to ignore.

I have been collecting Edgar memorabilia since I was a child. Cards, baseballs from the gas station with his face on them, pins; he has always been my favorite. One of the things I have that I like best is a slim yellow book called "Patience Pays," written by Edgar Martinez (as told to Greg Brown). I can't remember where I got it, but I think it was the grocery store. It was published by "Positively For Kids," which the back cover tells me is/was based in Bothell. The words are simple; the pictures are big and grainy, oversaturated like someone took an Instagram filter to them. There's still an index card in the back where I copied all the biographical information the book gave me: Edgar's favorite food, favorite music ("Latin"--which I thought meant church music), his hobbies. There's a sentence that sticks out, where Edgar is talking about his four- error game in 1990, and how his teammates gave him encouragement:

"Everyone needs someone to tell them they are good. You have to tell yourself, too."

Do hitting coaches matter? Maybe not. But everyone does need someone to tell them they are good. That matters. And so far, it seems to be making a difference.