July 2010

Stung

It doesn’t matter that I’m largely pleased by the trades Houston has made this week, even if they mean two of my favorite Astros – Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman – will be finishing their careers elsewhere.  

It doesn’t matter that I think General Manager Ed Wade has this team headed very quickly in the right direction.
It doesn’t matter that I love that owner Drayton McLane seems to finally be ceding the fact that the Astros’ current roster isn’t a piece or two from being competitive, but needs to be blown up and made younger, with strong direction by Wade and scouting director Bobby Heck.
None of that matters tonight, because it still kind of hurts to see this:
OswaltPhillies.jpg
Sometimes you just have to let yourself be a fan.

Jeff Bagwell, Hitting Coach to the Stars

Last year, Houston fans were quick to point to hitting coach Sean Berry and label him as one of the biggest reasons why the Astros weren’t successful.  This year, as the offensive woes intensified, many fans’ wish came true.  Berry was let go this morning and replaced by former superstar first baseman Jeff Bagwell.

The question, then, is this: Are the Houston Astros a better baseball team for having a formerly-more-solid hitter as their batting coach?
To be sure, Sean Berry was never an amazing hitter.  His career .272/.334/.445 hints at a pretty good hitter who was impatient at the plate and was capable of hitting some gaps, but never tore the cover off of the ball.  This year’s edition of the Houston Astros, under his tutelage, are last in the National League in walks (233), OBP (.295), and SLG (.348), and only the Pirates rank below them in Batting Average (.237).
In 2009, also with Berry as the hitting coach, only the Giants had fewer walks (though only the Mets had fewer strikeouts) than the Astros did.  And Houston ranked in the bottom half of the NL in both OBP and in SLG.
For whatever reason, with Berry as the hitting coach, the Astros were not putting together good at-bats.  There is a common rationale that a hitting coach can only do so much; that Major League hitters are pretty much set in their ways.  I’m inclined to agree, but I also wonder, if that were true, why would a professional baseball team spend money on a hitting coach at all?  It seems that, if you’re going to pay somebody, then you might as well pay someone who’s effective.
The top team in the National League this season in OBP is the Atlanta Braves, coached by Terry Pendleton.  The top slugging team in the National League this season is the Cincinnati Reds, coached by Brook Jacoby.  Both were All-Stars in their own playing days, and Pendleton was an MVP.
The casual observer might simply say, “Well, there you go.”  But not me.  Pendleton’s career line is not fantastic at .270/.316/.391.  In fact, it pales in comparison even to Berry’s career line.  Berry – never an All-Star; never a serious awards contender – boasts a career OPS 72 points better than Pendleton, who won the batting title in 1991.  
It seems safe to say, then, that the caliber of player has little to no relation on how they’ll perform as a hitting coach.  Which is too bad, because if it did, Bagwell’s .297/.408/.540 would look awfully good right now.
So, then, what advantage – financial considerations aside – does Bagwell’s promotion give the Houston Astros?  It remains to be seen, to be sure.  All we can do is hope that it translates into better at-bats, whether or not it makes anyone on the Astros a better hitter.  Because this year’s offense is one of the worst I’ve ever seen, especially when adjusted for Minute Maid Park.
The only way to go, it seems, is up.
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