I Want a New Drug Hitting Coach: Channeling Your Inner Huey Lewis

Inspiration can, at times, come from surprising places.

Want to run on the field, but need the onus of (electronic) peer pressure to propel you? Look no further than Twitter.

Yes, when you just need that extra oomph to follow through on something, succumb to peer pressure and the tally of a retweet:

The Washington Nationals did a similar thing (in spirit) recently, by firing long time hitting coach Rick Eckstein. In spite of the cries of his followers to keep him on the field, Mike Rizzo let go of Eckstein in the midst of a disappointing season thus far for the Nats, replacing him with minor league hitting coordinator Rick Schu. Like our aforementioned twitter dare, the decision was made in an effort to shake things up, to make the unpalatable a little more exciting, and hope that the crowd would become a little more adoring.

The Nats have just about reached the three-week mark since Schu took over the hitting helm; has it made a difference to the offense? Are the Nats better offensively now that Eckstein was relieved of duties?

Broadly, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the 20 or so games they have played with Schu as hitting instructor. With Schu, the Nats are 9-10 and averaging 4.2 runs per game. With Eckstein, their record was 48-50 with a 3.7 runs per game average. Judging by the record and the fact that the National League runs per game average is 4.04, and we are only left with that ‘meh’ taste in our mouths as far as the difference Schu has made thus far to the Nats.

Let’s break it down a little further and look at some stats of the Nats starters along with some bench players to see if the changing of the guard has reaped any immediate benefits, or if the aforementioned numbers are as uninspiring as they appear to be.

First a couple of caveats must be discussed. For gathering data, I approached things in a couple of different ways. With Eckstein, I took individual player stats and looked at what they did this season under his tutelage and also in the last 20 or so games before he was fired. I also took player averages under the Schu regime, but throwing out data from the first series that he was hitting coach. I did this just to give the players a clean slate, so to speak, and remove any potential Eckstein biases on their day-to-day activities. Silly? Probably, but I made the assumption that hitters are humans and they too could require a brief adjustment period to their new supervisor. Who knows, maybe Schu was calling Adam LaRoche Andy, putting him in a funk for a few games until he realized he got the wrong LaRoche. Crazier things have happened.

What we are left with are three datasets for each hitter – season total under Eckstein (labeled Eck_tot), two(ish) week total before Eckstein was fired (Eck_2), and two(ish) week total under Schu (Schu). The two(ish) week totals both ended up being around 55 plate appearances (PA), give or take two or three PAs. While I originally included all players that had at least 100 PAs this season, I ended up throwing out data for Kurt Suzuki, Roger Bernadina, and Chad Tracy because they each had less than 15 PAs under Schu, and I didn’t feel comfortable saying anything about a player with that few of PAs.

That leaves us with the following Murderer’s Row – the starting eight along with Steve Lombardozzi. On to some pretty pictures, courtesy of the awesomely rad software Spotfire. The first five charts are stats (BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, BABIP, and RE24) by player, broken down by the three coaching states; I will leave you to peruse, and add some thoughts after your scroll through the data:

Batting Average

On Base Percentage

Slugging

OPS

BABIP

RE24

The biggest surprise looking at the data is the offensive outburst Jayson Werth has enjoyed – he is more than likely the main generator of the increase in runs per game under Schu and that appears to be driven by his ridiculous BABIP the last month or so (as determined by Eck_2 and Schu rates). Ian Desmond overall has had a consistent season and appears to be pulling out of a slump seen in his Eck_2 numbers; could it be a Schu driven intervention? Maybe.

Adam LaRoche seems to be scuffling a little more than his peers with Schu at the helm. He wasn’t having the most stellar of seasons in general, but some offensive hiccups right before Eckstein was fired seem to have been exacerbated by Schu’s arrival. A similar trend is seen with Ryan Zimmerman‘s output, with a negative RE24 seen in his at plate appearances with the new hitting coach. Lombardozzi seems to be hitting his stride with Schu, with both Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper enjoying an overall positive effect of having Schu around. Knowing that this trio were Nats minor leaguers and have had previous exposure to Schu during his time as minor league hitting coordinator helps explain the possible ‘Schu Effect’ on these younger, home-grown guys.

This final chart is RE24 by coach, and is looking at things at the coaching level versus the player level. Overall, it gives us a quick and dirty way to look at the over effect of the coaching change across the season:

RE24 By Coach

While I leave you to make as many or as few inferences as you’d like with this chart, overall, we see a trend – the last two(ish) weeks of Eckstein and the first two(ish) weeks of Schu look about the same. We have roughly the same amount of guys under performing (a negative RE24) as performing, with a slight nod to Schu overall when comparing things to the final few games with Eckstein. Considering the half run increase in average run output under Schu, the data all jives well with one another.

Despite having our collective hands tied by the chains of sample size, what we have here is a mildly encouraging outlook for the rest of the 2013 season for the Nats bats. While Werth’s BABIP is unsustainable, we do see some players that appear to be on the cusp of breaking out a bit and stringing some good at bats together. While this encouraging outlook is too little, too late for Eckstein, can the same be said for the Nats playoff hopes?

RT for Yes, favorite for No.

Wake up and smell the RE24, Huey.

All data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

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