We expected changes to start coming fast and furious as soon as the Detroit Tigers’ season ended, and new President of Baseball Ops, Scott Harris, isn’t disappointing. Several members of the Tigers coaching staff were let go on Friday, and a bigger domino fell on Saturday as long-time scouting director Scott Pleis was also released.
None of these decisions are surprising. Pleis has been with the Tigers organization for 15 years. He eventually worked his way up to directing all the Tigers’ amateur scouting. Since 2010, Pleis has been the Tigers amateur scouting director, the main influence on their work in the amateur draft.
Let’s be a little generous and say that the track record in the draft is less than ideal. Pleis took over after the 2010 draft, where the Tigers selected Nick Castellanos. In 12 seasons, Pleis produced not a single major league hitter of note out of the amateur draft, and while Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson seem likely to ultimately succeed, the track record is horrendous either way.
Where Pleis did eventually improve, was in drafting pitchers, which may explain why they continued to emphasize pitching high in the draft in recent years as other teams moved heavily toward taking bats early and expecting to develop pitching talent with later picks. Spencer Turnbull, Tyler Alexander, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Beau Brieske, and Garrett Hill are some of Pleis’ best selections going back to 2014. The fact that the Tigers still have good arms like Jackson Jobe, Wilmer Flores, Ty Madden, and Dylan Smith, among others, under development in the minor leagues after graduating so many pitchers over the past few seasons, is a testament to Pleis’ improvements on that side of the ball.
They just never got it right in terms of hitting talent until far too late in their tenure. Prospects like Colt Keith, Cristian Santana, Izaac Pacheco, Dillon Dingler, and Parker Meadows may eventually provide evidence that Pleis’ work on the hitting side finally improved. The track record over the past decade was just too damning on that side of the equation.
Harris was always going to replace such a crucial position as amateur scouting director with his own team. We’ll look for someone with a much more analytical approach than Pleis used, with an emphasis on improving the organization’s process for projecting amateur hitters in pro ball.
However, one thing Pleis, Chadd, and Al Avila did do that will hopefully continue, was to retain a strong in-person scouting presence while some other teams moved almost completely to analyzing data and video alone. Most of Pleis’ successes beyond the early rounds came from finding arms like Wilmer Flores, Jason Foley, Brieske, and Hill pretty far off the beaten track. If Harris can improve their front office processes, while continuing to cast a wide net with area scouts, they might ultimately have the best of both worlds.
Coolbaugh and Hessman out
The key name among the coaches to be let go is hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh. The long-time hitting coach worked in that role for the Baltimore Orioles and then the Chicago White Sox at the major league level, before joining AJ Hinch’s staff prior to the 2021 season. Assistant hitting coach Mike Hessman along with infield coach Ramon Santiago appear headed to the minor leagues to work in player development. Quality control and catching coach, Josh Paul, has been released.
Coolbaugh’s first year on the job saw veteran hitters like Jonathan Schoop, Jeimer Candelario, and Robbie Grossman produce the best seasons of their careers. Eric Haase emerged from obscurity as a lefty mashing catcher and Akil Baddoo, who had only a year and change in pro ball right out of high school before leaping straight to the major leagues as a Rule 5 pick, managed to hang in there despite overwhelming odds and was a productive hitter throughout the 2021 campaign.
All of that seeming progress reversed badly in 2022.
Whatever the causes beyond just player failure, Coolbaugh and assistant Mike Hessman didn’t have any answers this season as the club spiraled to one of the worst offensive performances in baseball history. Late in the season, first year Triple-A hitting coach Adam Melhuse, a former Dodgers minor league hitting coach, joined the staff as an assistant after working with Spencer Torkelson during his demotion to the Toledo Mud Hens. Melhuse will be interviewed for a position, possibly as an assistant, but one would also assume by Harris’ and Hinch’s comments on the matter that they’re looking to shake things up.
Certainly the Tigers had a ton of misfortune early on. Riley Greene went down with a fractured foot late in spring training. Veterans like Robbie Grossman, Javier Báez, and Austin Meadows all hit the injured list, with Meadows never to return, while Jonathan Schoop and Jeimer Candelario were a complete disaster, completely reversing their recent trends. Báez and Grossman returned to the lineup in May and proceeded to go into the worst monthlong slumps of their careers. Only Báez really got it going late in the season, though Grossman was a bit better with Atlanta. Even more damning was the fact that there was no offensive help available at the Triple-A level, a final indictment on the Tigers’ drafting and player development over the last decade.
So, the task is daunting. Hiring a new hitting coach isn’t remotely going to address it alone. Based on Harris’ comments and the way the San Francisco Giants do things, we can expect a more comprehensive approach to hitting instruction throughout the whole organization. Some of that already got under way at the minor league level, as first year Director of Player Development Ryan Garko brought in some coaches from other orgs, particularly the Dodgers, as well as minor league hitting coordinator Max Gordon, who comes through the Driveline Baseball coaching pipeline. Look for a similar approach from Harris, tapping organizations who teach hitting best for talented coaches.
The Tigers need both coaches who are well versed in biomechanics and video analysis, to help them make swing adjustments more quickly, as well as coaches who are skilled at developing game plans for opposing pitchers and getting their hitters better prepared to adapt to the way pitchers are attacking them. They also need better analysis in the front office to look for things that coaches immersed in the day-to-day grind of the regular season might miss. Putting the whole package together with an open-minded approach will be important to Harris and the Tigers’ success going forward.
Rather than a single hitting coach, look for a team to be developed that may include coaches with particular strengths in one area, as well as a hitting coordinator as the go between the front office and the clubhouse.
Still, the only thing that is going to cure the Tigers’ offense in the near term is a group of better hitters.
Changes seem bound to continue fast and furious over the next two weeks as Harris tries to get the club re-staffed and prepped in time for the offseason to begin. Per Cody Stavenhagen of The Athletic Detroit, the strength and conditioning and medical staffs will be evaluated next, while the search continues for the next general manager under Harris, and the next scouting director.