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Pioneers/Executives

Checking Out the Coaches

We’re nearly done electing pioneers/executives to the Hall of Miller and Eric. We’ve previously talked about scouts, noting that they don’t seem to quite rise to the level of contribution we’re looking for. Today, I’ll tell you where we stand on coaches.

Rather than tediously go through coach after coach, we decided to look at four coaches whose reputations represent excellence in the minds of nearly every baseball observer. We examined Johnny Sain, Leo Mazzone, Dave Duncan, and Charley Lau. If any coaches make a big difference to their teams, it’s going to be these guys. Here’s the elevator pitch for each:

  • Johnny Sain: The first modern pitching guru. Coach credited with the turnarounds of numerous hurlers, including Jim Kaat and, most famously, Denny McClain. Celebrated in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four because he believed that pitchers shouldn’t run.
  • Leo Mazzone: The Braves’ longtime master of moundsman. The guy who kept Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, and others chugging along at a high level. Famous for rocking with anxiety on the bench and for having his pitchers throw more between starts than other coaches. An acolyte of Sain’s.
  • Dave Duncan: Probably the most well-known turn-around artist ever. He had an approach. Throw strikes, keep it down, and trust your defense. For 30 years that approach turned dumpster fires, once-wuzzes, never-has-beens, and head cases into important contributors such as The Eck, Smoke Stewart, Daryl Kile, and Lamar Hoyt.
  • Charley Lau: The first celebrity hitting coach, gaining national prominence in the 1970s thanks to star pupil George Brett, and an approach that seemed to include the top hand flying of the bat. And he was in Max Dugan Returns as well as this impressive instructional video that every baseball fan should watch.

With our subjects in hand, we simply tracked the performance of any pitcher 27 or older with 400 or more innings prior to meeting one of these guys in their first three years under the coach, and for the rest of their career. Same for batters, only we used 1,000 plate appearances. Our goal was to see whether these gurus were so effective that they had a dramatic effect on their pupils and how lasting the effect was. If so, we would keep studying coaches. If not, not so much. To determine this, we also tracked 20 of the closest comps we could find to test subjects and compared the subject to the controls.

In plain English, if Joe Schmuckface was a 28 year old lefty pitcher with 800 career innings, we found 20 pitchers who at age 28 had similar career totals, and whose ERA+ was similar to control for talent. We freely admit that this isn’t a perfectly scientific study, and also that this kind of work had been done previously by others (especially J.C. Bradbury). We were looking for reasons to keep coaches in the mix for a HoME plaque.

The Scoop on the Gurus

  • Johnny Sain: Sain’s pitchers’ ERA+ were actually worse than the control subjects by two percentage points. They did improve, however, very slightly over time. For the rest of their careers, they were a percentage above the control group. What Sain mostly appears to have accomplished was lengthening pitchers’ careers. En toto, his pitchers threw 36% more innings in year one than the control group, and 126% more innings over the rest of their careers. His pitchers threw more grounders and struck out more than their control groups, but they also walked more guys.
  • Leo Mazzone: Leo’s pitchers’ ERA+ was 37% higher than the control groups in year one under his tutelage. That big edge eroded over time, but still ended up 15% ahead of the controls for the rest of their careers. Like Sain, Mazzone’s pitchers also dramatically outperformed the control groups in terms of career length, starting 87% more games in year one and 228% more during the rest of their career than the control groups. The difference is more dramatic if we look at innings pitched. Like Sain, however, Mazzone’s pitchers gave up more homers and walked more on a per inning basis than the control groups, but they struck out more and got more grounders.
  • Dave Duncan: Duncan shows a similar pattern to the other pitching coaches. Big spike in durability in year one (+74% versus his comps) and a hefty increase in long-term durability as well (+78%). In year one, his pitchers’ performance was 11% better in ERA+ than the comps, and over the rest of their career, 4% better. A little better than Sain, not as strong as Mazzone.
  • Charley Lau: In their first year encountering Lau, his hitters came to bat 16% more often that the control groups and hit for an OPS+ 3% higher. Over the rest of their careers, these same batters grabbed 75% more PAs than the control group and performed at exactly the same 3% above their comps. We didn’t look at George Brett or Hal McRae, probably his most famous students, because they didn’t meet our age or playing time requirements.

It’s pretty clear to us that Leo Mazzone stands out here. He’s the only one of the four where the differences are dramatic and where they persist to the greatest degree. All of these guys improved their players, especially in terms of innings or PAs, which is, of course, correlated to improving overall performance. But except for Mazzone, the improvement among the other coaches was close enough to the controls’ averages that we felt we couldn’t build a strong case that the effects we saw could be isolated only to the coach’s teaching. We ended this experiment at this point and pushed Leo into our group of final candidates.

Back to the Bench

Well, we’re going to spoil things for you. We had a quick hook on Leo. The evidence in the literature on him is mixed. According to Chris Jaffe’s wonderful Evaluating Baseball Managers, Bobby Cox had a relatively quick hook for much of his career, including his time in Atlanta. Is that Cox pushing the bullpen button or Mazzone? If it’s Cox, that may bias the numbers slightly in Mazzone’s favor by saving his tired pitchers some runs. And we just can’t know. But also, we can’t know precisely how much input Mazzone had on veteran pitchers the Braves acquired. If he had a lot of input, that’s probably helpful to his cause, but Cox and John Schuerholz weren’t exactly slouches either. Those early Braves teams were built around great defense. Pendleton, Lemke, Bream, Nixon, Belliard, all good defenders. Giving pitchers the confidence to use their defense is vital, but much of that confidence comes from Schuerholz and Cox assembling a good defense. And around and around we can go.

Look, Bobby Cox won before Leo Mazzone, with Leo Mazzone, and after Leo Mazzone. John Schuerholz won before, with, and after Leo Mazzone. Leo Mazzone did very little with the Orioles for a couple years after leaving the Braves. Which leaves us with the decision to send Leo to the showers. The state of research on the effect of coaching is not nearly so advanced as the many player-based information streaming out of MLB.com’s statcast and websites devoted to analytics. If someone finally cracks the code on coaching, we’re absolutely willing to pull the trigger on Mazzone or anyone else who is proven excellent. But we’re not there yet.

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