Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Patently Offensive

When pinch-hit king Lenny Harris took over as Nationals hitting coach for the ailing Mitchell Page on May 11th, he inherited a terrible hitting team. The Nats were averaging fewer than 3 runs per game, and they were in a stretch of 15 straight games without scoring more than 4 runs.

The next three nights, the Nats offense would "erupt" scoring 6, 7 and 6 runs against the shaky part of the Marlins' pitching staff, causing play-by-player Bob Carpenter to nearly soil himself and strain a muscle patting Harris on the back.

50 or so games later, Harris had had plenty of time to work, and the team he inherited has had time to digest his philosophies. He inherited a team that was tied for last in the league in run scoring and molded them into... a team that's clearly last in the league in run scoring.

Certainly the offense has improved -- they're scoring 4.2 per game since he took over -- but so has every other team, thanks, in part, to the warm weather and pitching attrition. Despite the relative success of the team's offensive output -- which is really mostly thanks to the amazing contributions of Dmitri Young and Cristian Guzman -- there are some warning signs.

If the team has looked overly aggressive to you, you're right. If they seem like they hack at lots of pitches, even ones that are quality strikes, you're likely right. Lenny Harris has helped to mold the team into an impatient, hack first group of sluggers, negating one of the strengths the team had under Mitchell Page. Now, to be fair, it's not necessarily entirely his doing, and it's likely random fluctuation in player's performances -- the ebb and flow of the season -- are playing a factor. But the numbers show that this is a different team:
                   Plate Appearances   Walks  Walk%
2006 with Page 6283 594 9.5
2007 with Page 1321 120 9.1
2007 with Harris 2016 142 7.0

That's a pretty sizable drop. To put that in perspective, if the Nats had walked 7% of the time in 2006's playing time, they'd have walked 154 fewer times, basically one per game.

Now the walk certainly isn't the be-all-end-all, but it's important for the process. The more patience a player has, the more likely it is that he won't swing at a pitcher's pitch. Not all strikes are equal, and unless they've got Vlad Guerrero's wrists, there are some pitches that players can't drive. Walks are indicative of a certain level of patience, and ability to identify and differentiate between good and bad strikes.

Under Harris, they're walking less, and it certainly seems to the untrained eye, that they're hitting more pitcher's pitches, and not maximizing their run-scoring potential, even as the productivity has gone up.

Let's take a look at how that breaks down, with players who played this year and last. Here are the players' walk rates:
              2006    07 w Page   07 with Harris
Schneider 8.3 14.9 9.3
Zimmerman 8.9 7.2 5.6
Church 11.3 16.1 6.5
Logan 6.1 -- 6.3
Kearns* 15.7 7.6 9.3
Lopez* 10.6 6.4 6.9
Fick 7.1 14.6 2.7

* 2006 stats just with Nats

This is less an indictment of Harris than it is an example of a correlation of the importance of BB rate. The players struggling the most -- Zimmerman, Church (recently), Kearns and Lopez are the ones with the largest drops in their walk rates. The nosedive in Church's walk rate since Harris' hiring corresponds with his steep drop in production. (correlation != causation)

Under Page this year, the team showed good patience; they just weren't getting hits as evidenced by their .227 batting average. Some of that was just sucky performance -- Casto, Wilson, Belliard and Young were all poor early in the year -- but a portion of that was also dumb luck. I remember Austin Kearns spraying the ball all over the yard, hitting liner after liner into the gloves of waiting outfielders. Some of that luck was due to even out, and Harris was a lucky beneficiary of that, especially Dmitri's eruption.

Because batting averages can fluctuate wildly with hot and cold streaks, I sometimes like to look at two different measures of offense: isolated patience and power. It's simply OBP and SLG subtracting out batting average. It measures those parts that aren't attributable to those pesky little slap hits that may or may not fall in.

               2006   2007MP   2007LH
Iso Power .156 .100 .129
Iso Patience .076 .079 .056

Much of the Power drop-off from '06 to this year is because of you-know-who. The drop off in Patience is pretty noticeable too. But, as you can see, the drop off in patience has also corresponded with an increase in power. The Isolated OPS (if you will) is basically the same under MP and LH this year.

I won't bore you with all the numbers ("too late," sez you!), but that increase in power this year under LH is basically Ryan Zimmerman's doing. He was at half his '06 rate under MP in the first half before taking off on an absolute monster of a tear, and he's up to .239 -- a .239 IsoPower would be among the best in the league.

Most other players have shown slight improvement of a few points here and there, though Austin Kearns, Ryan Church and Robert Fick have dropped off dramatically.

So although the team seems to have offset the lack of patience, a closer look shows that the power gains are isolated to a few players who are carrying the team, while some of the others are doing about what they did under Page, and some others are scuffling.

Even when they're going well, this is an offensively challenged team. Think about where each of our players would be hitting on a good team. Even Ryan Zimmerman would be no better than a 6th-place hitter on a decent team like the Mets.

As the pinch-hit leader, Lenny Harris had to love the ol' fastball. For his career, he swung at 34% of the first pitches he saw, rarely walking, and rarely waiting for that one good pitch. It worked for him in that role. But as we've seen with Brandon Watson and Nook Logan, there's more to the game than the ability to slap out the occasional single.

Is that the approach that Harris is preaching? Get that first strike you see and rip it? We haven't heard much about his approach since the first few days, and the words he uttered were all about aggressiveness. The numbers show that the Nats may have taken that to heart.

There's a fine line between passiveness and aggressiveness, which is why I liked Mitchell Page's philosophy so much. Unfortunately, it seems that the Nats have treaded towards one extreme.

And when Dmitri Young finally stops hitting .400, where is that going to leave the Nats' offense?


  • I'm not sure if there's a way to get the pitches per plate appearance on a monthly basis, but I was looking at last year versus this year:

    Kearns 4.0/3.7
    Schneider 3.6/3.8
    Zimmerman 3.9/3.9
    Church 4.0/3.8
    Flop: 4.2/4.1
    Fick 3.8/4.0

    Logan 3.7/3.7

    Langerhans 4.0/4.1
    Young 3.7/3.4
    Belliard 3.3/3.6

    It probably doesn't tell us much, but I thought I would post them anyways.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/12/2007 12:20 AM  

  • Please tell me you didn't spend your holiday doing this research!

    I prefer the simple approach, that being -
    1) teams need to score runs to win
    2) the hitting coach is meant to help the team score the runs
    3) the team isn't scoring runs
    4) fire the hitting coach and find a better one

    Simplistic I know, but I've read THE PLAN, and it's simplistic.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/12/2007 12:24 AM  

  • Nice analysis. Is the sample size really big enough, though? Might they just be more aggressive because they aren't hitting well? Do hitters in slumps often do that?

    It seems very difficult to evaluate coaches with hard numbers, but your approach does seem to have some merit. Thanks for crunching these numbers.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/12/2007 7:27 AM  

  • cass -- Sample size is likely a problem on the individual level. On the aggregate, we're dealing with 1,300+ PAs, which probably does have some meaning.

    You're right, though, that it's difficult to isolate slumps and variance in performance from coaching.

    The only thing we can say with determination is that the team is hacking at pitches a lot more since LH took over. Is he the reason? Perhaps.

    Anonymous -- You're right... it can be simple. What's interesting though is that the team IS scoring more runs with LH than with Page. I'm just not confident that that's going to hold if the hitting philosophy team-wide HAS changed.

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 7/12/2007 8:29 AM  

  • Chris-
    Great point about where our guys would be on a decent team. Although I think the Mets are a little better than 'decent', I don't see Zimmerman being any higher than a #5 guy. Kearns and Church maybe 6/7. FLop, Langerhans, Schneider #8 without question.
    Scary, and pretty much sums up our offense right there. Your stat analysis is very interesting, maybe JimBo will read it and get us some help!

    By Blogger Rob B, at 7/12/2007 1:36 PM  

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