Are Swing Heights and Magadan to Blame For Offensive Woes?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.