The Astros hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, needs a new job.
Before we get out the pitchforks and place the blame solely on any shoulders, however, let’s take a look at what a hitting coach realistically does, and how this job affects the team. Typically, the hitting coach’s involvement is analyzing player at-bats in the game versus batting practice. He sees the technique used, and works with the player if there are huge discrepancies between practice and games. He also works with players to tweak performance, in the event that a player’s hitting technique declines over time. This position certainly cannot be blamed for the season – the season play was indeed a team and staff effort – but there are some numbers that I find pretty discouraging, as far as how a hitting coach can and can affect a game or player, and with Hudgens’ own track record as a hitting coach. Let’s take a look.
Dave Hudgens was hired in the 2014-2015 offseason, after being fired from the Mets organization toward the beginning of the 2014 season; his 4th year as hitting coach for the Mets. One could say his firing was a simply casualty in the organizational shake-up for the Mets that continued into last year. Many people do. However, there exists some decent evidence that the Hudgens hitting philosophy and approach (as quoted in a now-defunct chron.com article as being rather relaxed, with the simple goal to get on base no matter what) did not cut it for the Mets organization. Here’s 3 years of batting stats for the Mets (collectively) with Hudgens as hitting coach:
2011 – .264 (Ranked 2nd)
2012 – .249 (Ranked 10th)
2013 – .237 (Ranked 14th)
2011 – .335 (Ranked 2nd)
2012 – .316 (Ranked 11th)
2013 – .306 (Ranked 14th)
2011 – 1,085 (Ranked 13th)
2012 – 1,250 (Ranked 7th)
2013 – 1,384 (Ranked 1st)
Not great. In fact, there’s a steady decline in offense performance by the total team. Does this reflect as a negative pattern for Hudgens, or is it simply the outcome of a Mets organization that didn’t expand their purse strings in order to pick up quality players? Obviously, a hitting coach can only do so much as far as improving a team’s at-bat. Once a player gets up to the MLB, they are pretty set in player style and ability. So, we can’t expect miracles. However, as discussed above, the main goal of the hitting coach is to keep that consistency the player has shown, whether it be analyzing swinging technique, or offering tweaks when necessary.
In Hudgen’s final year as a hiting coach with the Mets, one stat was fairly noticeable – a much lower production in at-bats at home versus away. Hudgens took this split difference to the team about a week before he was fired, the stat was simply washed away as a player problem – with the home field stadium getting to the heads of the players. A mental block when playing at home. This makes some sense – there’s extra pressure to perform at home versus away, when the team is directly and primarily playing for their fan base. This could also be a fluky situation that bears no responsibility from the hitting coach. Unless there’s a pattern that begins to emerge. Let’s look at some team stats for the Astros with Hudgens as hitting coach:
2015 – .249 (Ranked 23rd)
2016 – .246 (Ranked 24th)
2015 – ..315 (Ranked 16th)
2016 – .319 (Ranked 19th)
2015 – 1,406 (Ranked 2nd)
2016 – 1,438 (Ranked 4th)
I’m adding one more stat, to make sense of some of these numbers
2015 – 3.02 per game (Ranked 11th)
2016 – 3.42 per game (Ranked 7th)
Of course these 2016 stats will change slighty, given there are 2 more games left in the season, but not much. What we can see is, overall, a dip in batting average, a slight rise in on-base percentage (walks being added to show one reason for that slight rise), and higher strike-out rate from Hudgens year 1 vs year 2 with the Astros. That’s only 2 years worth of stats, but it does show a similar pattern to the decline at-bat for the Mets. Also somewhat alarming to what could be a pattern developing is the Astros dip in performance at home for 2016 versus away. In 2015, the Astros had a BA/OBP of .247/.310 away vs .253/.321 at home. For 2016, the split was .255/.327 away vs .238/.311 at home. So, either the Astros have developed the same mental block of playing at home as the Mets did during Hudgens’ tenure, or Hudgens isn’t a great fit for the young, growing team.
I tend to think it is the latter, and we’ll take a look at 2 players that went into a serious decline with the Astros in 2016 to break this down. I think we all know at least one of the players we will be discussing here, and nobody really wants to bring it up – but, this player’s performance is key to uncovering what may be a big issue with Hudgens as hitting coach. The other is a player who has seen a steep decline at bat during Hudgens’ tenure as the Astros hitting coach, as well. Both are stars in the centerfield, and have struggled at bat with the Astros. So, without further adeiu, let’s take a look at the yearly stats of Carlos Gomez and Jake Marisnick, prior to working with Hudgens, during his tenure with the team and, for Gomez, after being picked up by another team.
Marisnick is finishing up his 3rd year with the Astros, and 4th year in the MLB. He’s a great asset in centerfield, with his speed and depth, but has stalled out at bat. His at-bat performance in 2015 was a primary reason, actually, for bringing in Golden Glove CF and slugger Carlos Gomez. We know how that turned out, though. But let’s specifically examine Marisnick’s at-bat stats over the 3 years he’s been with the club:
Batting Average (career: .223)
2014 – .272
2015 – .236
2016 – .204
On-Base Percentage (career: .267)
2014 – .299
2015 – .281
2016 – .253
2014 – 48 (out of 51 games, .94 per game)
2015 – 105 (out of 133 games, .78 per game)
2016 – 81 (out of 116 games, .69 per game)
Marisnick’s BA and OBP both declined steadily since 2014, but hey – fewer strikeouts! Fewer strikeouts is a good thing, as it means he’s taking pitches and waiting for more pitches in the zone. However, this isn’t improving his performance at bat – at all. Here are a few more numbers to show just how much he’s declined since his 1st year with the Astros:
2014 – 47 (out of 51 games, .92 per game)
2015 – 80 (out of 133 games, .60 per game)
2016 – 57 (out of 116 games, .49 per game)
Runs Batted In (RBI)
2014 – 19 (out of 51 games, .37 per game)
2015 – 36 (out of 133 games, .27 per game)
2016 – 20 (out of 116 games, .17 per game)
Pretty terrible decline overall, especially considering Marisnick only in his 4th year in the MLB. One could argue that he’s an on-the-fence player who may not belong in the major league (if you take out his OF performance, that is), and that he had a breakout year when he came on with the Astros. This is a possibility. Or, perhaps he needs some more hands-on coaching.
Now, let’s look at Carlos Gomez. This, perhaps, is the most damning evidence that there’s some deficiency in Hudgens’ philosophy of – well, the trend seems to be get on base no matter what, especially if that means taking pitches and being walked. There has been a pretty distinct overall surge in walks for the team, and I’m not sure this is the best philosophy for a young growing team. But, I digress. Gomez stats (we’ll look at the same 3 year average, with direct splits between teams played for):
Batting Average (career: .257)
2014 – .284
2015 MIL – .262
2015 HOU – .242
2016 HOU – .210
2016 TEX – .289
On-Base Percentage (career: .312)
2014 – .356
2015 MIL – .328
2015 HOU – .288
2016 HOU – .272
2016 TEX – .367
2014 – 141 (out of 148 games, .95 per game)
2015 MIL – 70 (out of 74 games, .95 per game)
2015 HOU – 31 (out of 41 games, .76 per game)
2016 HOU – 100 (out of 85 games, 1.18 per game)
2016 TEX – 35 (out of 32 games, 1.09 per game)
2014 – 163 (out of 148 games, 1.10 per game)
2015 MIL – 75 (out of 74 games), 1.01 per game)
2015 HOU – 36 (out of 41 games, .88 per game)
2016 HOU – 62 (out of 85 games, .73 per game)
2016 TEX – 33 (out of 32 games, 1.03 per game)
Runs Batted In (RBI)
2014 – 73 (out of 148 games, .49 per game)
2015 MIL – 43 (out of 74 games, .58 per game)
2015 HOU – 13 (out of 41 games, .32 per game)
2016 HOU – 29 (out of 85 games, .34 per game)
2016 TEX – 16 (out of 32 games, .50 per game)
Aaaaaaannnnndd 31 HRs for MIL in 2014-2015 (.14 per game), 9 HRs for HOU in 2015-2016 (.07 per game), and 8 HRs for TEX in 2016 (.23 per game). Gomez virtually falling off the radar during his short stint on the Astros roster is pretty telling. We can bring up that he had some injury issues during this time (he did – with a stint on the DL for a knee injury in 2015, as well as a stint on the DL for something (although it seemed like more of a timeout) in 2016. But, the sharp jump in performance since finding a new team in 2016 can’t be ignored.
While 2 players can’t tell the whole story (since perhaps Marisnick had his peak, and Gomez simply struggled with injury), we can also look at Chris Carter’s stats – which made a measurable dip in 2015 before being sent off to MIL to resume his high strike out/high HR performance. Feel free to take a look at his 2014-2016 stats here to see for yourself. It’s rather telling. And honestly, if you have taken a look at Gomez as a Ranger, his AB presence is night and day (and you can check out his full AB history, and the dynamics and tweaks made to boost his overall slugging performance here).
Perhaps we can still say that coaching staff doesn’t make or break the team, but there seems to be no denial that the hitting coach (specifically) can either help boost or stall a team. For the Astros, the stats point to him simply not being the right fit for the young, growing team (and his history as a hitting coach and slight patterns emerging point to the possibility that he’s not right for the MLB, period). What if we did have someone who took the time to work on Gomez and his swing this year, and he ended up hitting for the Astros like he now is hitting for the Rangers (killing it, by the way)? Would that make a 4-5 game difference and put the team into the playoffs? Probably. Would that have made a difference in a few of the 27 games lost by 1 run or extra innings? You betcha.
With the Astros 2016 season winding down with no playoff spot, and a slightly worse record than 2015 (even if they win the last 2 games, they’ll still be a game under last season’s record), it’s quite possible that there will be some changes to the coaching staff, along with the necessary changes on the roster. All the coaching positions (as well as management) need to be scrutinized at this point, and Hudgens seems like the weakest link on the coaching staff. There may be more (and we’ll get into that in the next week), but the team’s overall offensive decline cannot be ignored – especially the stalled out veteran player whose hitting technique suddenly improved with a 258 mile northern migration. What also cannot be ignored is the emerging pattern in Hudgens as a hitting coach with 2 different teams, with both teams suffering a decline AB during his tenure.