The Yankees followed the standard protocol in baseball when they fired hitting coach, Marcus Thames. Pity the new guy – no one can do this job.
When the Yankees told their hitting coach Marcus Thames he needed to look for another job, who, including Thames, can say they were surprised?
It’s an unwritten rule in baseball that states when things go south as they did for the Yankees this year, fire the coaches because, after all, it’s easier to fire five coaches than the 26 players who failed to deliver.
The purge (thankfully) did not extend to Aaron Boone, who was granted a three-year extension today by the Yankees.
The Fallacy Of Hitting Coaches And Teachers
The irony, however, is that hitting coaches are overrated.
I know this because I spent twenty years in the teaching field and the sum of my experience is that when a student is ready to learn, he will appear before you.
It’s not the other way around, and it’s game over in nearly all instances when a teacher, and essentially that’s what a hitting coach is, receives no response or a negative response from a student – no matter how many times you knock on their door.
The job of a hitting coach is especially egregious and dangerous because, unlike the opportunity presented to a first-grade teacher, the product they receive is almost always a hardened high school senior who believes he has life figured out.
The player has excelled at every level of baseball since little league, travel leagues, college, and through the Yankees or any team’s farm system to get to where he is today – one of 660 who plays major league baseball.
Yankees: A Choreographed View Of Team Failure
We know the Yankees’ team we saw on the field this year up and down the line.
Twenty-two times, a runner was thrown out at home. The Yankees hit into 131 rally-killing double plays, a mark equaled only by the Washington Nationals.
At mid-season, the Yankees’ success rate at scoring runs with runners on third with fewer than two outs was 43.8%, fourth-worst in baseball.
The Yankees were also not a team that hits in the clutch with a .226 BA and runners in scoring position, a critical winning formula that tied for 22nd-best in baseball.
Wait, there’s more. With two strikes on a Yankees’ hitter, the team batted a woeful .178 while managing a .559 OPS, two points below the league average.
There isn’t a hitting coach alive (or dead – Charlie Lau) who can correct all the things the Yankees do not do with their bats.
These are skills that need to be taught and learned at the earliest levels of organized baseball or at the very latest as a player joins the Yankees and comes up through their minor league system.
That’s not to say the Yankees hitting coach should receive a finished product, but he should not at least be expected to teach bunting and situation hitting skills at the major league level.
Nor should a third-base coach need to rely on a player’s ability when he gives a runner the green light (because he’s learned how) to slide into home plate, avoiding a catcher’s tag.
Students (Players) Learn Best On Their Own
Through my years of teaching, I also found that students learn best on their own, and the job of a teacher is to supply them with resources they can use.
In the case of a hitting coach faced with a player who doesn’t want to take 100 swings in the cage while being examined by a critiquing coach, an alternate approach can work.
Instead, the coach can approach the player with a suggestion like, “Tell you what, here are some tapes of your recent at-bats. When you can, study them, and afterward, let’s compare notes on what you see”.
The criticisms are fair, and hitting coach Marcus Thames will tell you because the Yankees have been flunking their situational hitting courses. He explains:
“We talk about it all the time,” Thames said. “I know people think we’re just preaching hit home runs. That’s not what we’re preaching. We’re preaching, ‘If you get a ball in your zone, you hit it hard.'”
“It’s just not happening for us,” Thames added. “That message is being sent, and they know we have to be better at that aspect of the game.”
Yankees: Put The Onus On The Players
So, Thames has walked the plank for the Yankees, and someone new will come in with all the spunk and vigor built around the challenge of changing horses in midstream, or better yet, leading a horse to water and watching as he drinks.
Although Hal Steinbrenner’s motives might have been in question when he spoke about the onus belonging to the players, and not Aaron Boone, his coaches, or Brian Cashman when it comes to accountability for play on the field – he is dead-on right.
And sometimes, a team like the Yankees may be forced to do what I occasionally did when I explained to a student how to work with percents and decimals a dozen times, but to no avail, and the exercise became a source of frustration for both of us.
Meaning, you can’t put a square peg in a round hole, and sometimes it’s best for everyone to quit the experiment, trading the player away to another team and a fresh start.
Of the three, and because he’s only 24, the hardest decision is with Torres. A gifted athlete, there is no reason why Torres should not be able to handle the shortstop position, which forces DJ LeMahieu to move from his natural position at second base.
Ditto Gary Sanchez, who is showing some defensive improvement thanks to the Yankees hiring a dedicated coach just for him, should be showing more improvement after all these years. Or, why he can’t raise his batting average above the Mendoza Line or cut down on his strikeouts.
The Yankees are what they are, and no new hitting coach, except for the one or two players who happen to “click” with the newcomer, will change that.
Yankees: On Building From The Bottom Up
Trying to build at this level from the top down is useless and counterproductive for the Yankees.
Instead, the Yankees need to look long at hard at what their coaches are doing and not doing in their minor league system to teach the skills necessary to promote a complete player to Yankee Stadium when the time comes.
As with the current roster, if a player chooses not to learn these skills or fails after several attempts to teach them, the Yankees need to rid themselves of that player, concentrating solely on those who wish to learn.
Hard-nosed? Yes, but all you need to do is look at the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers and the players they develop in their farm system, versus the Yankees to realize it’s a formula that works.