Strikeouts and the Questionable Hiring of Kevin Seitzer

posted in: Featured, Statistics | 6

At the end of a disastrous 2013 season, it was apparent that changes would be coming for the Blue Jays. Fans and media members alike campaigned for the dismissals of manager John Gibbons, pitching coach Pete Walker, bullpen coach Pat Hentgen, and the training staff at various points. Criticism was heaped on certain players as well, with second baseman Maicer Izturis and catcher J.P. Arencibia being the primary targets. However, it came as a rather large surprise when first-base and secondary hitting coach Dwayne Murphy retired and the Blue Jays dismissed Chad Mottola after only one year in the position of primary hitting coach.

The move came on the heels of a 99 wRC+ (1% below league-average) offense despite Jose Reyes missing 69 games with a sprained ankle and lacking his trademark speed after his return, Jose Bautista missing 44 games and Edwin Encarnacion missing 20. Free-agent signee Melky Cabrera had an abysmal season (87 wRC+, -0.9 fWAR) while missing 74 games with hamstring and other leg issues, although it was discovered in September that he had been playing with a tumour near his spine for a significant portion of the year (perhaps nearly all of it) leading to his leg weakness and poor performance. All of these factors considered, a 99 wRC+ season is actually a solid one and nothing the Blue Jays (and certainly Mottola) should be ashamed of.

Regardless, the decisions were made for whatever reason Gibbons, Anthopoulos and their team saw fit and they left an opening at the hitting coach position. The name of then-Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer (who was with the Royals when Gibbons was the bench coach there) was initially advanced by Bob Elliott as a thought and Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star who indicated he was close to taking the position. Dutton also had the initial report that Seitzer was taking the Toronto job:

Now that Seitzer is aboard, I hope to be able to take a look at whom he is and if he fits the needs of the current team. To do this, I reached out to two prominent Royals fans, dermatologist/Rany on the Royals blogger Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) and former youth pitching coach/current Royals blogger Kevin Scobee (@scobes15). Jayazyerli’s review of Seitzer is a positive one (backed by Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton*), citing the difference in hitter performance after his mid-2013 departure. However, one of Jazayerli’s main qualms with the departure of Seitzer is the loss of doubles. Kauffman Stadium’s 330/387/410/387/330 dimensions (in feet, left-to-right) are more conducive to doubles and less to home runs than Rogers Centre’s 328/375/400/375/328. This is confirmed by park factors using a weighted mean (5/3/1) based on recency over the last three years.

Year Kauffman Stadium Rogers Centre
2011 1.331 1.006
2012 1.025 1.075
2013 1.059 1.476
Weighted average 1.078 1.290

Home Runs
Year Kauffman Stadium Rogers Centre
2011 0.708 1.186
2012 1.030 1.028
2013 0.880 1.289
Weighted average 0.911 1.191

As the tables show Rogers Centre is a better hitters’ park for both these types of events, but the difference in home runs is far more pronounced. Rogers Centre is small and plays small, yielding many home runs. Kauffman does not do this. Seitzer preaches the sacrifice of power for more contact. In Kauffman Stadium with the Royals lineup, this makes sense; with the Blue Jays in Rogers Centre, it does not. The Blue Jays are built for power as their park dictates they should be. Their 826 home runs since the start of 2010 leads Major League Baseball with the Yankees in second at 812 and the Red Sox in third at a distant 757. In that span, the Blue Jays are tied with the Red Sox for first in isolated power (ISO) at .172 (Red Sox third at .168), are second in HR/FB at 12.2% (Yankees first at 13.2%) and possess the third lowest groundball rate in the league at 42.3% (Red Sox 41.7, Athletics 40.0). The Blue Jays hit the ball hard into the air and hit it far. All told, the Jays are seventh in runs scored in this span. This offense has been a slugging machine for the past four seasons. Why change it?

Scobee describes Seitzer thusly:

This philosophy sounds like a strong fit for a team with a strikeout problem. This will lead to an exploration of the Blue Jays and their strikeout rates. To evaluate strikeout rates over multiple seasons, I am manually calculating them as K/PA and will use a crude metric known as K-. If you are familiar with ERA- and its’ DIPS cousins, you will already understand how this metric works. For those uninitiated, K- = Team K%/league K% *100. 100 is average and a lower score is better. I excluded pitchers from my sample due to their much higher than league average strikeout rate. Note that this metric is not adjusted for league or park. Since 2010, the Blue Jays have posted a 103 K-, ranking 19th of 30 clubs. Minimal negative correlation exists between K- and power (ISO, r-squared <0.01), OBP (r-squared = 0.24) and wRC+ (r-squared = 0.17), showing that perhaps the slightly above-average strikeout rate is not a problem.

In 2013, under Mottola, the Blue Jays strikeout numbers got even better. The Blue Jays posed an 18.2% strikeout rate (against league 19.3%, 94 K-) that ranked eighth-best in the league. Their 18.5%% whiff rate (swinging strikes per swing) also ranked eighth. The strikeout rate included a combined 955 plate appearances of 29.6% from J.P. Arencibia and Colby Rasmus. Removing those two players, the Jays struck out 16.1% of the time, which would have ranked best in MLB. The Blue Jays improved strikeout rate also came alongside a fifth-ranked ISO of .160. The Blue Jays trimmed strikeouts and did not lose power.
Perhaps Mottola was part of this, as he also made mid-season changes to Brett Lawrie’s mechanics earlier discussed by Chris Sherwin, or perhaps not. Of the regulars, only Arencibia, Rasmus and Lind posted worse-than average strikeout rates. Lind’s rate was also inflated by atrocity against lefties he should not have seen, as his rate against right-handers was a solid 17.1%. Only one of these numbers truly is a problem.

That problem is J.P. Arencibia, the hitter that Seitzer may be here to fix. He fits Scobee’s profile of where Seitzer works best as a veteran who needs a complete turnaround after a historically bad season in OBP (3rd-worst qualifier since 1900)**. However, the year (and his approach – -h/t Bluebird Banter) were so atrocious, in combination with below-average defense, that the best place to work these issues out is Triple-A, if the Blue Jays have sights on 2014 contention.
This leaves Seitzer as an appropriate hitting coach for…nobody. Only two players on the team have contact problems and one is a strong producer in spite of them. The other may (and possibly should) not make the team. All Seitzer’s “simple and safe” (Scobee) philosophies will do is serve to short-circuit a strong offense.

Remind me then, why is he here?

*Carleton’s study is behind a paywall at Baseball Prospectus and features heavy (university level) math.
**Arencibia fell five plate appearances shy of qualification. Crediting him with reaching base in those five did not affect his ranking.

Picture courtesy of gorbould via Flickr.

  • Bakatron

    This exactly what I felt but I couldnt quite pinpoint it at the time. I really don’t feel that this is a meritorious decision in anyway but the Jays constantly hiring people they are comfortable with rather than getting the best man for the job.

    I would love to be proved wrong however.

  • Pingback: Toronto Blue Jays Morning Brew: MLB Free Agency Begins - Jays Journal - A Toronto Blue Jays Fan Site - News, Blogs, Opinion and More()

  • Brad McLean

    The biggest problem with this entire discussion is the assumption that Seitzer’s approach is a general philosophy and wasn’t a plan designed for the specific team and stadium he had in KC. What other teams did he coach that he employed the same philosophy? Completely possible he designs a game plan catered to the players he is given to work with.

    • Alex Hume

      Certainly a valid point, that may temper this somewhat. However, Anthopoulous has made several comments about the Blue Jays needing to put the ball in play more and execute the “little things” (such as bunting and moving runners) better. The fact that Gibbons already knew Seitzer probably helped to seal the deal, but he also very much subscribes to Anthopoulos’ philosophy. Much of my point is that these apparent issues are largely overblown. My concern is that the Blue Jays will focus so much on these things that they will erode some of the advantages of their lineup and park. Will Seitzer actually improve the offense, or just simply change its’ shape?

      As for the question as to Seitzer’s other roles, he had one year with the Diamondbacks (2006). During that time, the Diamondbacks had the 9th-lowest strikeout rate and the 18th-best ISO in MLB. Chase Field was the best hitters’ park for runs, home runs and hits in 2006. This led to the Diamondbacks having the fourth-worst offense in MLB (87 wRC+).

  • JefQ27BlueJayz

    If he can keep the status quo and get Colby to hit more and strkeout less, there is value in that. Further, maybe Gibby gets along better with the man. I am a big fan of John Gibbons and a very dedicated fan. A lot of these folks in Toronto like to whine a lot about anyone who they find is an easy mark. It has been going on in this City for years, and last season John was the target. Personally, I think there may have been a clash in there somehow, and Gibbons was given input. I think that JPA may very well be a lame duck right now in the Blue Jay organisation, you could see it in his demeanour following the media battles and his poor hitting performances. A shame really because he is a quality guy. Too much has been made of last season in my eyes. Injuries, Josh Johnson, to say the least. I think this is good for the Team to have a man in that spot to offer a different viewpoint, and solidify the Boss’s role in the overall scheme of things.

  • Doug Bennion

    Ks have zero impact on run production. They should be ignored as a positive factor for pitchers, and as a negative factore for hitters. They just don’t matter. On the surface they seem a bad thing for a hitter to do .. runners don’t get advanced on ground outs and fly outs. But there is something worse than striking out. A hitter who strikes out does NOT hit into a double play, and that good aspect to striking out, precisely cancels the bad aspects. Do a league correlation runs scored to strikouts … zero. So why bother anguishing over some slugger striking out 150 times a year (check his low GIDP), or gushing over some pitcher striking out 9 per game (check his high GIDP).