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May 16, 2012

Manufactured Runs

The Angels, Albert Pujols, and the Politician's Fallacy

by Colin Wyers

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It's just the middle of May, and the Los Angeles Angels have fired Mickey Hatcher, their hitting coach.

Why they are doing this is pretty clear—the Angels are already seven games behind the Rangers, and their offense is in such poor shape that they've been outscored by the Mariners. Among American League teams, only the Twins have scored fewer runs per game. Despite having the advantage of the designated hitter, the Angels are outscoring only two NL franchises, and the Padres have the excuse of playing in Petco.

The Angels aren’t really being hurt in the places you might have expected prior to the start of the season. Surprisingly for a post-Napoli Angels team, their catchers are pretty close to league average, putting up a .246 TAv compared to .254 for all catchers so far this season. Vernon Wells—okay, Vernon Wells is freaking terrible, but he’s the sort of terrible that has five home runs.

For the really special terrible in the Angels’ lineup, though, you have to look for Albert Pujols. To put this in some context, Pujols has the second-lowest Batting Runs Above Average on the team, at -9.9. That is, in case you were wondering, NOT adjusted for position. Again, that’s batting runs above the average player, not average first baseman. So, uh, yeah, that’s kinda terrible.

But this is the sort of thing that happens to any hitter, even one as great as Pujols, right? We just don’t notice slumps this bad when they don’t occur right at the start of the season.

Except.

This is the worst slump of Pujols’ career. Through his first 149 PAs, he has a TAv of  .192. That’s sub-Mendoza line production. Before this season, the worst 150 PA stretch of Pujols’ career was from April 22 through May 30 of last season, when he hit .249. So that’s more than 50 points of TAv worse than the next-worst stretch of his career. That might not be predictive, but if you’re the Angels, you just might rather be proactive about it rather than trust to population tendencies.

And it’s not as though the two were getting along well—Pujols took umbrage with his coach through the press recently. Now, this is the sort of stuff that gets made into molehills when one tries to build a mountain—what Hatcher told the press was straight out of the Bull Durham playbook, and exactly the sort of thing you would’ve assumed someone like Pujols said in those sorts of meetings anyway. But failure tends to magnify such trivial disputes.

Esteemed colleague Jay Jaffe summed up the typical response to such things rather nicely on Twitter, calling Hatcher a “scapegoat.” I’m not trying to pick on Jay, and I don’t even think I disagree at root—I think that it’s far more likely that Hatcher is being fired because he’s expendable, not because he’s ineffectual. But if I may, I’d like to present the other, intangible side to the case.

At the root of the scapegoat hypothesis is the idea that there is little differentiation between hitting coaches, or at the very least few ways to determine the abilities of a hitting coach from a month and a half’s worth of games. If not totally true, I think there is at the least a core of truth to this—the hitters a team assembles are far more responsible for the offensive production of that team than their coaching. So from that point of view, it’s “unfair” to blame the coach when the team itself underperforms.

Again, I don’t really disagree with the premise. But if I’m the general manager of a major-league team (and no, I have absolutely no ambitions in that direction—I know full well how unqualified I am to handle the role), I am not really trying to be fair. I am trying to win some baseball games. And if it’s true that firing the hitting coach is unlikely to affect a change for the positive, it seems to follow that it’s also unlikely that it makes the problem worse. So while the expected payoff is very low, the expected downside is also very low. It doesn’t cost you much in the way of money to fire a hitting coach, and you typically have someone serviceable in the organization ready to step in at a moment’s notice.

The Angels, meanwhile, have a massive amount of money tied up in Pujols. I mean, gobs and gobs of money. We’re talking Scrooge McDuck bathing money here. There are huge downsides to Pujols continuing to hit like Neifi Perez’s less defensively useful twin. Yes, the odds of a change in hitting coach affecting Pujols for the better are low (and if Pujols does start hitting better after this, it would be a fallacy to attribute that to a new hitting coach, if for no other reason than he can’t possibly hit worse). But given the wildly disparate costs in firing a hitting coach versus having Pujols continue to hit badly, the chance of a new hitting coach improving his performance at the plate does not have to be especially high to make it a prudent decision for the Angels.

It is easy for people in positions like mine to invoke the Politician’s Fallacy in times like this:

1.      We must do something.

2.      This is something.

3.      Therefore, we must do this.

And of course, it is in fact possible to react rashly, to mistakenly take to action when inaction is the most prudent course. On the other hand, it is much easier to counsel inaction when one has no power to enact any action at all and suffers no consequences from what happens if inaction occurs. In this case, rather than being actively detrimental, in the worst case this seems rather innocuous. That doesn’t mean it’s the right call, necessarily, but it does make it a very understandable sort of decision.

And when I say things like "that doesn't mean it's the right call"—thinking that it's unlikely to have much if any benefit is not the same thing as being certain it has no benefit. It takes nothing away from the serious study of baseball—and in fact adds quite a bit to it, in my estimation—if we can be humble enough to admit that we aren't certain when we shouldn't be certain. In this case, there is still some unresolved doubt, and the Angels probably ought to have the benefit of it.

Colin Wyers is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Colin's other articles. You can contact Colin by clicking here

Related Content:  Angels,  Albert Pujols,  Mickey Hatcher,  Hitting Coach

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