The end of a baseball season inevitably signals a reckoning for coaches who were unable to meet the expectations of their ownership and front office. The 2019 regular season has been in the history books for mere days and there have already been major changes made.
Joe Maddon will be looking for a new gig after he was let go by the Chicago Cubs on Monday. Some speculation is already tying him to Los Angeles, where Brad Ausmus was fired by the Los Angeles Angels after one year on the job. The Pirates fired Clint Hurdle, while the San Diego Padres fired Andy Green before the final week of the regular season.
Such turnover is par for the course in the high stakes world of professional sports. And while managers tend to catch the heat, they’re often just fall guys for failures that are organizational in scope. But here in Detroit? Home of the league’s worst baseball team?
The Tigers have already announced their major league coaching staff for 2020, and you won’t be surprised to learn there are few substantive changes.
Ron Gardenhire will return as manager for his third year. Rick Anderson will helm the pitching staff for his second full season. Jeff Pico remains the bullpen coach. Dave Clark and Ramon Santiago will be back for outfield and infield defensive instruction, respect. They will switch places on the diamond however, with Clark moving to first base coach, while Santiago tests his feel for sending runners home from third base.
The few other changes come as a result of bench coach Steve Liddle’s retirement. Long-time hitting coach Lloyd McClendon will take over from Liddle as bench coach. Quality control coach Joe Vavra will move into McClendon’s former role as the team’s lead hitting instructor. Vavra was the Minnesota Twins’ hitting coach under Gardenhire from 2006 through the 2012 season. Phil Clark will also return in his role as assistant hitting coach.
According to Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press, it is still unclear whether or not the Tigers will hire someone to fill the quality control coach position. In that role, Vavra functioned as a coordinator of information and ideas between the team and the front office, particularly the analytics department. While teams have different names for such positions, they have become something of a standard in the industry at this point, and so we can assume that someone will be tapped to take over in that capacity.
Overall, it’s a bit striking to see major changes from teams that actually have something to lose, contrasted against the Tigers’ minor shuffling of pieces. It isn’t a surprise to see the Tigers stick with Gardenhire and his staff, but it still feels like a consequence-free opportunity for the Tigers to try a different direction is instead going to waste.
On the one hand, the Tigers’ front office is tacitly acknowledging their failings this year by retaining Gardenhire and his coaching staff. It’s difficult to fault the coaching when Niko Goodrum’s 1.9 fWAR made him the club’s most valuable position player during the season. There wasn’t much to work with on the offensive side of the ball. But the Tigers’ coaching staff also laid out some specific goals this season, and by and large, the team failed to meet them even relative to its talent level.
Whether you believe the Tigers’ main offensive flaw lies in their strikeout numbers or their lack of power, Gardenhire has consistently harped on the need for better two-strike approaches and trimmed strikeout rates for two seasons now. Yet, once again, he and his coaching staff were helpless to stop the bleeding this season as the club set baseball’s all-time record for strikeouts. They also finished second-to-last in home runs.
There were some small individual improvements from players like JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes over the course of the season, so there are still a few embers of hope. But overall the coaching just didn’t seem to have much impact one way or the other. The team didn’t play with the strong fundamentals Gardenhire and his staff espouse, and they certainly didn’t hit. Even taking the overall talent level of the 2019 Tigers into consideration, it’s hard to argue that the coaching staff got the best out of them.
The Tigers know they need help throughout the organization to improve their development process for hitters. That recognition is a welcome sight, but it’s also a long time in coming. It’s hard to say whether Vavra will have a much different approach than McClendon did as hitting coach, or whether much at all will change as a result of the switch. Vavra does have more of an analytics background and, one hopes, some new ideas to improve the hitters in his charge.
Things were a little better on the pitching side. Daniel Norris and Spencer Turnbull combined with Matt Boyd to give the Tigers a decent core for their rotation. Shane Greene was having the best year of his career as a reliever before he was traded, and Buck Farmer put together a pretty strong season as well. But the Tigers coaches didn’t have any answers as the home run bug bit Boyd and reliever Joe Jimenez in the summer months, and there was little improvement elsewhere on the pitching staff. Even Boyd’s improvements in pitch quality were self-directed over the past two offseasons and can’t really be attributed to Anderson or former pitching coach Chris Bosio.
The coaching staff is going to have more young talent to work with at the major league level in 2020. Christin Stewart, Willi Castro and Jake Rogers will all have their first full seasons. Prospects Isaac Paredes and Daz Cameron could make an impact at some point. And many of the Tigers stockpile of strong pitching prospects will be right down I-75 in Toledo and looking to get in the mix.
The coaching staff has largely drawn a pass over the last two seasons as the Tigers rebuild bottomed out. But the fact remains that there is little of a tangible nature to back their case for another chance. The organization is staying the course for reasons that seem to amount to pure inertia, and there’s nothing to do but hope things start to turn around in 2020.