The Rays come in to this game tonight with the 10th worst team VORP at 55.8 while the team's TAv is 16th at .262. Last season, the team had the fifth-best VOPR at 175.3 and the fifth-bestTAv at .275. The injuries the Rays have had to deal with, most notably playing the last 40 games without superstar Evan Longoria, have certainly been an issue with the offensive struggles but that is only buying the team and hitting coach Derek Shelton in particular much of a break with fans. Earlier this season, the Angels dismissed longtime hitting coach Mickey Hatcher and some look at that move rather than adding Mike Trout as what has helped the Angels turn around their disastrous start to the season. That move was replicated by the Cubs this week as they dismissed the well-respected and well-paid hitting instructor Rudy Jaramillo.
Armchair GM's in the Tampa Bay area have been trying to dismiss Derek Shelton for quite some time while laser-focusing on the low team batting average rather than advanced metrics that show the team's success as an offensive unit. Jaramillo's unemployment status has been something that those same people have taken interest in as a potential cure to what they believe cause the ills of the Rays' offensive struggles. How much a hitting coach influences players within the season is something that can vary from 10 to 90 percent depending on who you ask, but it might be helpful to look at one player on the Rays who has seen at least a full season of instruction under both hitting coaches – Carlos Pena.
Pena spent 2010 with Shelton, 2011 with Jaramillo, and is back under Shelton this season. The table below shows how Pena has performed each of the past three seasons in terms of his swing rates in the zone, his misses within the zone, his pitches per plate appearance, his swing rates, and how often he makes contact (all data from statcorner.com)
Pena did swing more often at pitches in the zone last season in Chicago which matches Jaramillo's aggressive philosophy compared to how Pena has swung at pitches in the zone with the Rays. The larger issue for Pena this season has been his struggles with making contact with those pitches in the strikezone as he is swinging and missing at an alarming rate with pitches in the strikezone despite swinging at less pitches overall (Sw%) this season. In each of the past two seasons, Pena took 23 percent of the pitches he faced for strikes while this season, that rate has jumped up to 25.5 percent. Yet, he is striking out less looking while striking out slightly more often swinging.
As Dan Brooks of BrooksBaseball pointed out to me earlier today, Pena is not fairing much better out of the zone either.
Pena has hit just .126/.298/.244 in the 40 games since Longoria has been out and neither he or Luke Scott have been able to help fill the void left by Longoria in the middle of the lineup. At the time of his injury, Longoria led all of baseball in runs driven in from June 1, 2011 to April 30th, 2012. Pena had his best game in quite some time last evening while not even getting a base hit. He walked four times and scored all four times he reached base. June has historically been a very good month for him but that has not yet materialized for him in 2012. He recognizes the need to improve and was out on the field today with Shelton taking an extra 20 minutues to work on his swing before anyone on the team had taken the field to stretch. The same kind of session in New York helped kickstart Ben Zobrist's resurgence this month so we have the final half of June to see if lightning can strike twice.