Are Swing Heights and Magadan to Blame For Offensive Woes?

Magadan
The Texas Rangers offense has been horrendous in 2014. The author is not exactly breaking news or providing the reader with a jaw dropping revelation, but due primarily to being decimated by a myriad of injuries, the offense has indeed lacked production. To place how dreadful and impotent the offense has been in ’14 into perspective, let us look at the team’s overall offensive production since 2010 using wRC+ and isolated power.
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The overall offensive production was slightly below league average in 2010, but the Rangers took advantage of a weak division by winning the AL West easily with 90 wins. The club won 91 games in 2013, but failed to make the postseason. It happens.

What the reader should notice is there has been quite a precipitous decline since 2011. The wRC+ of 87 this season is the worst in the American League, and better than only three teams in baseball, and those three teams are required to bat pitchers. The .120 ISO is second worst in the American League, ahead of only the Royals, who play their home games in a pitcher’s park. Here are some more disconcerting Ranger offensive numbers pertaining to their production at their home ballpark now known as Globe Life Park in Arlington.

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What was once a significant advantage now seems to be a real disadvantage as the Rangers seem to no longer be able to produce offensively in their own home park. The home wRC+ of 78 is not only the worst in baseball by a considerable margin (Royals second worst at 85), but the current totals are the worst since the ballpark opened in 1994. Injuries, the ballpark playing more neutral than in years past, and the overall decline in offense throughout baseball are all culpable, but the present inability to hit for power in their own park is both disturbing and perplexing.

So who or what is responsible for this offensive nadir the Rangers find themselves in? Hitting coach Dave Magadan was hired following the 2012 season to replace Scott Coolbaugh after Texas played poorly down the stretch in ‘12, eventually losing the division on the final day to the Oakland A’s. The offense, however, has been much worse over a larger sample since Magadan’s arrival. Hitting coaches are usually held responsible for such issues, but hitting coaches are usually just there to give a few pointers and be an ear for hitters to listen to when the hitter has a question or wants to lament about a current slump.

The Kansas City Royals hired Dale Sveum as their fifth hitting coach in the last two seasons in late May. The Royals have had their fair share of offensive ineptitude the past couple of seasons, and Sveum was supposed to remedy the issue. One was not cognizant of the fact teams hold introductory press conferences for hitting coaches, but the Royals did with Sveum, and in this presser Svuem said this piece of intriguing information:

‘The bottom line is we’ve struggled with elevation, and we’ve swung at pitches down in the zone probably way too much,’ he said. ‘From thigh high to the top of the strike zone, we’re not doing enough damage.’

Baseball Prospectus author Robert Arthur has since written this and this in which he details the Royals swing heights before and after Sveum’s arrival. Before Sveum’s hire, the Royals had the propensity to swing at pitches lower in the strike zone (swinging at pitches lower in the zone leads to more ground balls), and thus could have been the root cause for their lack of offensive production. In his first article, Arthur found that some of the Royals swing heights increased after Sveum was brought on, and the team started to yield more offensive production. In his second article, Arthur discovered the swing heights had since resembled the prior levels, but the offense was still better than earlier in the season (It was difficult to be worse).

Arthur’s fascinating research led me to wonder what the Rangers swing heights have been since Dave Magadan’s arrival. The club has hit for much less power and has the highest ground ball percentage in the American League in ’14. My postulation was the Rangers increase in ground balls and decline in potency has been primarily due to lower swing heights from swinging at pitches much lower in the strike zone. Since I had no clue how to find this information, I reached out to Mr. Arthur to inquire as to how I was to find it, and he was extremely helpful. The following chart represents the Rangers swing heights since 2012 (the year before Magadan’s arrival) in inches rounded to the nearest hundredth above home plate.

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Very interesting. Eight of the players listed in the chart saw their swing height decrease in Magadan’s first year with the club. Martin’s stayed the same, while Profar was the only player to have had his swing height increase. Keep in mind, Profar only swung the bat 32 times at the big league level in 2012. Moreland’s swing height increased in ’14, but Beltre, Andrus, and Martin’s continue to drop. I then decided to look at the swing heights of other notable players who were not on the Texas roster in ’12, but have since relied on Magadan’s tutelage during his tenure in Texas.
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Fielder’s swing height started to diminish during his final year in Detroit, and Arencibia’s swing height has dropped significantly during his year with the Rangers. Choo’s swing height has elevated since last year, but is much lower than it was in ’12. We will now look at the most curious case in one Alex Rios.
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The mercurial Rios was traded to the Rangers in August of ‘13, and has immediately experienced a drop in swing height since he became a student of hitting coach Dave Magadan. Rios’s drop in swing height could explain his proclivity for hitting ground balls.

So, the evidence is conclusive. Dave Magadan must be fired and is to blame for the Rangers offensive woes because he is allowing the hitters to swing far too often at pitches lower in the strike zone. Well, not exactly. Before we reach such a conclusion, let us look at the swing heights of the Boston Red Sox hitters in Magadan’s last year as hitting coach, and in Greg Colbrunn’s first year in ’13.

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In case one does not recall, the Red Sox faired pretty well last year with the offense generating quite a bit of production despite the decrease in swing heights from several key contributors. The only increase in swing height was from Will Middlebrooks, and he spent part of ’13 in the minors. A decrease in swing height seemed to work quite well for Big Papi.

So, even with different Pitchf/x calibrations in ballparks, we cannot say for certain Magadan is to blame for the decrease in Ranger swing heights. My theory was that with the prevalence of shrewd infield shifting in today’s game and with hitters having difficulty beating the shift, pitchers have begun to attack the lower part of the zone with more frequency to induce more ground balls for the shift to swallow up. I then presented my evidence and hypothesis to Mr. Arthur, and he suggested I search for the pitch height for all pitches the Rangers had not swung at for further evidence. Indignant that I had not thought of that myself, I then performed the following research measuring pitches not swung at in inches rounded to the nearest hundredth above home plate.

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Just as the author suspected. The pitch heights all decreased in ‘13, and with a few exceptions, continued to reduce in ‘14. The reduction in pitch height leads one to believe the pitchers are in a concerted effort to besiege the Rangers in the lower part of the strike zone to trigger more ground balls. Let us now proceed with the newer members of the Rangers organization.
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Fielder’s pitch height on balls he did not swing at has reduced significantly since ‘12, while Arencibia and Choo’s heights have increased in ’14 primarily due to not being concerned about contact in one player’s case and injuries in the others. Finally, let us investigate the enigmatic outfielder known as Alex Rios.
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Rios’s pitch height began to decrease before he was traded to Texas, but the drop was rather drastic after he was acquired by the Rangers. The height has risen in ’14 based on what I would believe to be lack of fear from pitchers due to injuries Rios has been hampered with. Pitchers and scouts are usually the first to know when a player is either hurt or declining.

To summarize, we have learned the Rangers swing heights have decreased since Magadan’s arrival, but most likely due to the fact pitchers are attacking the lower part of the zone purposely to induce more ground balls for their shifts to feast on and not because Magadan sucks as a hitting coach. Sometimes, lower swing heights will be beneficial, but Beltre has been the only Ranger largely unaffected by this method of attack. So, how exactly does the team combat the problem as solving this quandary is not exactly simple (The Royals have not exactly paid much heed to Sveum)?

Obviously, returning to health and keeping players on the field will contribute, but the club might want to also search for hitters who have the proclivity to hit the ball in the air as Oakland has recently because the best way to combat ground ball pitchers is to utilize fly ball hitters. Another solution could be to find hitters who put the ball in play more often. In this era of high strikeouts, the high contact types such asDaniel Robertson can be extremely valuable.

One is certain both the Rangers and Magadan are aware of this issue, but if Magadan has informed the players of this, they have not seemed to not pay much attention to him. Again, injuries, their home park playing more neutral, and the pitchers becoming more dominant in today’s game  are partially to blame, but for the Rangers to be as awful offensively (especially at home) as they currently are is very troublesome. As Mr. Arthur stated in his piece, with hitting coaches largely being ornamental and sacrificial, even if Magadan is back next season, if the offense continues to struggle in a similar manner, Mags will not be around much longer.

Special thanks to Baseball Prospectus author Robert Arthur for his contributions to this article, and if you are not reading his work, please go do so.

Dustin Dietz
Dustin graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in Radio/TV/Film, and a minor in history. He will often write about pitching mechanics and analytical baseball stuff. You will more than likely disagree with the majority of what he writes or says. In his spare time, Dustin time travels and plays at a replacement level in slow pitch softball leagues.

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