Mattingly Walks The Plank: Pittsburgh Dumps Hitting Coach

Chris Halenberg, ClearTheDeck.com
Monday, 15 May 2017 – Pittsburgh, PA

The Pirates major league personnel met this afternoon during the flight back to Pittsburgh, after a 3-1 series loss to the team previously propping up the entire National League. The decision was made during that meeting that Don Mattingly wouldn’t be returning to Pittsburgh. We assume he did /physically/ return to Pittsburgh, I don’t think they threw him out of the plane, but he was no longer a Pittsburgh Pirates employee when he got there.

“It’s the kinds of guys that aren’t hitting, that worries me most”, admitted Toms to the media Monday. “You look at the team batting average and it doesn’t look terrible. But then you see guys like Tim Hampton, Miguel Montero, Allan Dykstra and Tink Jones all under .220 and you think ‘something’s wrong here'”.

“If it’s one or two guys, you think ‘maybe our evaluation and expectations were wrong about these guys?’. If it’s still April, you think ‘maybe it’s just a rough spell for them’. When you get half way through May and these guys are all under the Mendoza line, then you’re thinking ‘maybe there’s something bigger going on?'”.

His replacement will be former Altoona hitting coach Aubrey Huff, known for his advocacy of patience at the plate (something Tink Jones dearly needs to learn). Aubrey’s done pretty well with Curve hitters after being promoted from A-ball two years ago and the front office felt he deserved a shot, as none of the free agent options appealed to them. Todd Helton will take over in Altoona, back where he worked in 2015 after stints with the AAA and A-ball affiliates (yes, in that order).

But what went wrong for Don? There are many statistics we can point to at a time like this.

For instance, we could point out that despite a not-terrible-compared-to-St-Louis team batting average of .252, six players are batting under .250 (5 of them under .225) and all have more than 75PA. But even when they are hitting, they’re not scoring runs. With 323, the team actually has more hits than the Mets (281), Atlanta (282) and Philadelphia (307) – the NL Easts’ top three teams. However the Bucs don’t have the pitching needed to win with so few hits, and they’ve scored only 138 runs so far this year (which is still more than the Mets or Braves, though the Pirates have played more games and the runs column is far closer than the hits column is). They have players who, on paper, are capable of scoring those runs. They just need the author to put pen to paper and make it happen. Don Mattingly has proven himself to be barely literate, within the context of this admittedly unsuitable metaphor that I didn’t quite think through before I started writing.

While the Pirates struggle to get on base (at .306 they get on base the third-least of any team in MLB Pro (Houston, Miami)), they have the most stolen bases in the National League, and the fourth most in MLB Pro (Los Angeles, Oakland, Kansas City). Dee Gordon has more stolen bases than the Detroit Tigers and Colorado Rockies (Tim Hampton is only two behind them). But stealing 2nd base is meaningless unless you can be brought home safely. All it does otherwise is make your “AVG w/RISP” column look even worse than it needs to be.

The Pirates are without one (arguably two – say what you will about Andre Ethier but the numbers are there) of their best hitters due to injury, but left field isn’t the problem. In fact, Tyler Kuhn – over a small sample – has been great so far this year: .434/.508/.491 61PA, t-1st in Pirate batters WAR with Yugoro Kouki (who’s played 36 of the Pirates 38 games). It’s likely that, were Bell and Ethier not both injured, one of Hampton or Jones would be at best a 4th outfielder, however there’s a reason neither were sent to AAA before the season started: they should be capable of handling a bat. Jones especially, who isn’t exactly a rookie and has had very good seasons in the past.

Interesting note: Tim Hampton’s defence and ability to draw walks has been so stellar this season in centre field that he’s worth almost half a win, despite his freezing cold bat. That’s good for joint 4th among Pirates hitters in WAR, even with a .196 average.

Tink, despite being a capable fielder himself, can’t say the same. Sir Swingalot has always had problems with his plate discipline, but usually it’s accompanied by decent production when he does put bat to ball. Last year, Tink could at least blame his unfortunate .255 BABIP, but not so this term. His strikeout rate is up to a tick over an embarrassing 30% (which isn’t Brandon Hicks, but is top 3 in the National League), his walk rate is way down, and his home run rate is on par with last season’s disappointing (for a guy like him) 20 projected for the year.

For more signs that the problem was Mattingly, and not half the team instead, we can point to a certain “young up-and-coming star” shortstop who left the team earlier in the year on waivers. While with the Pirates, it would be fair to call CJ Hinojosa “disappointing”. With the exception of his 23-plate-appearance rookie year, CJ never hit above .230 with the Pirates and had a terrible spring this year, it seemed the hype bubble had burst, and CJ was going to be another AAAA glove-first middle infielder. In 31 plate appearances with the Dodgers, he’s slashing .407/.433/.593. “Small sample size!,” I hear you cry. Well, yes. But it looks promising for him over there, doesn’t it? If only he wasn’t blocked by a young superstar shortstop reminding him daily of what he could’ve become had Don Mattingly not gotten hold of him.

Goodbye, Don. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

 

Though if you’ve coached the door, there’s probably not much chance of that.