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April 22, 2013

Baseball Therapy

What is a Good Pitching Coach Worth?

by Russell A. Carleton


Leo Mazzone is a genius. Dave Duncan can take a scrap heap veteran and turn him into something useful. Don Cooper is dreamy. Right?

Let's talk about how we might measure, or at least attempt to measure, the contributions of the major-league pitching coach, the guy who walks out to the mound when the pitcher is on the edge of a meltdown and has a quick conversation that fixes everything. In theory, it's his job to make the pitchers with whom he works better. But how can we tell whether he's doing a good job?

It's unfair to base all judgments of a pitching coach on the outcomes that occur while he is sitting in the dugout. He might be working miracles with a ragtag bunch of guys who belong in Triple-A—limited talent will get you only so far. His team might succeed despite the fact that his philosophy is that pitchers should throw with their non-dominant arm. Steve Carlton could have caught so many hitters off-guard if he had come into the game and thrown right-handed! How to separate the accomplishments of the teacher from the talents of the students?

Fortunately, this is one of those questions that transcends baseball. It's also an important question in understanding the education of children. There is a great deal of debate out there over whether we currently have a good system in place for judging which students are doing well (i.e., the debate over standardized tests as measurements). There’s also a debate over how much credit or blame a teacher should get compared to that given to parents or the community more broadly. But what we do have is a good deal of methodology and math used to answer the education question that we can apply to baseball.

A few years ago, I used this methodology to look at what effect managers might have on their pitchers (admittedly, in a clumsy manner). I've also pulled this out when looking at what effect veteran catchers might have on pitchers. Most of the reason that I looked at managers and catchers was that I didn't have a good list of pitching coaches available. Recently, the kind folks at Retrosheet began listing the names of the coaches that teams have employed over the years at the bottom of each team page. I hope they don't mind that I did a little cut-and-pasting. (Note: I am completely serious when I say this. David Smith and the guys from Retrosheet belong in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The campaign starts here.)

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
I took all pitcher seasons from 1993 to 2012 (again, Retrosheet) and found those pitchers who had faced at least 250 hitters within a season, excluding when the opposing hitter was the pitcher. For those pitchers, I calculated the rates of the three "true" pitching outcomes: walks, strikeouts, and home runs (per batter faced) within that season.

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