On November 26 of last year, the Rockies named Blake Doyle the team’s new hitting coach. The 60 year old Doyle had never coached in the major or minor leagues before, and his nine year playing career never resulted in a major league call-up. The highlight on his resume before the hire was that he runs a baseball academy with his brother Denny. I greeted the news with indifference, and I think that was the consensus among Rockies fans. Perhaps I snarked that the team might as well hire Tom Emanski as a fielding coach, but no more. I quickly forgot about the hire. One of the reasons is that I simply don’t know how much a hitting coach really affects individual performance. The new hitting coach didn’t seem like a pressing issue. Additionally, I figured anybody would have been better than Dante Bichette, the team’s 2013 hitting coach, whose five percent career walk rate didn’t inspire confidence, and whose clubhouse presence seemed to be about nostalgia as much as anything else. If a ghost of the 1990s, why not someone who had a career .624 minor league OPS? Even after the season started, and I saw Doyle in the Rockies dugout, I found myself wondering, “who’s that guy?” I thought that maybe the Rockies re-hired a slimmed down and age-regressive Don Zimmer before I re-remembered the name Blake Doyle.
No more though. One of the most notable stories in all of baseball over the course of the first month of the season has been the Rockies superlative hitting. Charlie Blackmon and Troy Tulowitki have received the bulk of the attention, although most of the team has been hitting well so far this year. Doyle, perhaps expectedly, has garnered relatively little attention, although that is beginning to change. Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs posits that Doyle might be contributing to Blackmon’s incredible April, especially his reduced strikeout rate. Paul Swydan, also at FanGraphs, writes that Doyle might be the reason for Troy Tulowitzki’s reduced infield flies. While I can’t determine precisely whether or not Doyle is responsible for the Rockies resurgent bats, in this article I want to delve into the team’s hitting profile and identify areas that can explain the team’s success so far. At the very least, I want to consider the possible ways in which Doyle might be shaping the course of the Rockies 2014. If I accomplish nothing else in this article, I hope to at least make clear that I now know exactly who Blake Doyle is, and you should too.
Offensive production in baseball comes from a collective, so while individual performance matters greatly, no single player can carry an offense. According to a pre-season profile by MLB.com’s Thomas Harding, Doyle’s philosophy with hitters is to understand each individual’s approach and to respond to the person’s tendencies in a personalized manner. For example, Nolan Arenado tends to think about mechanics, Michael Cuddyer emphasizes “feel” at the plate, and Tulo works toward “check-mating” the pitcher. If you think about these for a just a moment, each one makes an astonishing amount of sense. Doyle seeks to give a great deal of attention to individual parts so as to make the whole more functional. To see how this is playing out, let’s look at the Rockies offensive numbers through 31 games in 2014 compared to the first 31 games in 2013. Despite changes in personnel, we should find some insightful macro-trends.
This year, as last year, the Rockies are either leading or close to leading the league in almost every offensive category. While the Rockies lead the way in OPS, they are doing it differently. The team’s on base percentage is down compared to last year, but their slugging percentage is up. I take this as an upgrade, as extra base hits are more valuable than walks, and the elevated average balances out what might be lost in the lower OBP. In both years, the team’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is high, but not unsustainably so. The Rockies ended the year with a .317 BABIP, while the Boston Red Sox led the league in that category at .329. Both were above the league average, which was .297, but neither of those numbers scream regression.
While the team’s rate numbers are consistent between 2013 and 2014, there are some discrepancies in the overall approach at the plate. We shouldn’t be surprised if the team ends the year with a .330 BABIP, and if they do, I think it will be attributable to skill, not luck. The following table shows why.
|2013||18.9 (11)||8.8 (9)||46.6 (7)||21.9 (16)||40 (16)||26.4 (12)||14.3 (1)|
|2014||17.1 (2)||6.9 (24)||48.8 (4)||22.1 (10)||43 (3)||32.5 (29)||16.7 (1)|
In aggregate, these numbers indicate that the biggest difference between 2013 and 2014 is that the Rockies are putting more balls in play. Walks have been down quite a bit, and strikeouts have declined as well, though not as much. The team is swinging more both on pitches inside and outside of the zone, but, and this is key I think, they are making contact and putting balls in play. In Jeff Sullivan’s brief mention of Doyle, Sullivan wondered if Doyle might be the reason that individual players had cut down their strikeout rate. I don’t have any evidence that Doyle specifically is responsible, but the simultaneous decline in walks and rise in swings suggests that behind Doyle’s personalized touch is a broader philosophy of just getting the ball into play. If the individual attention each player gets is built on playing to each person’s strengths, then this can be a recipe for sustained success.
The caveat, of course is that the Rockies in 2013 did not sustain success, despite having very similar offensive numbers to this year through the same amount of games. In fact, the cumulative statistics for the Rockies 2013 season shows a propensity for the team to swing away and avoid walks at a similar clip to what they have been doing so far in 2014. Again, the key difference is putting balls into play. If they can do that, which would help keep up their outstanding home run to fly ball ratio, then the team might be able to continue scoring between four and four and a half runs a game. It might be trite to say, but it’s true that a key to the Rockies success in 2014 is to have more than one above average month on offense throughout the season. It’s worth saying because they didn’t do that in 2013. Below you’ll find the Rockies wRC+ by month. Remember that 100 is league average, and that this statistic is park adjusted, so the Coors effect is neutralized (via FanGraphs):
In April of last year, the Rockies offense was ten percent above league average. Their next highest mark for a single month came in June, when it was squarely mediocre. The low point was July, when the team’s offense was 37 percent worse than the league. Of course, demarcating performance by month is arbitrary. Player’s aren’t all of the sudden reinvented on the first of each month. But the trend in 2013 from April on is clear, and it is downward. Although the Rockies have played half the month without Michael Cuddyer and an underperforming Carlos Gonzalez, as of May 4, the Rockies wRC+ is second in the league at 115, just behind the Angels 116.
The aggregate picture is telling, but it subsumes individual performance. Charlie Blackmon and Troy Tulowitzki are getting a lot of attention here and elsewhere, so let’s take a look at three other players: one that hasn’t really changed last year to this year, one who has improved, and who is struggling.
In terms of rate states, D.J. LeMahieu is pretty much the exact same hitter this year as he was last year. He’s walking a bit more so far while striking out at the same rate he did in 2013. One of the reasons he appears to be walking more is that he is swinging less, especially at balls outside of the zone. LeMahieu is also, blissfully, hitting eight more frequently this year. Ninety five of his 107 plate appearances have come batting before the pitcher’s spot, which might account for his increased walk rate. Still, his current walk rate of 9.7 is two percentage points higher than Rockies eight-hole hitters last year, who walked 7.6 percent of the time. These numbers suggest that Doyle’s approach with hitters might not just be personalized, but also situational. LeMahieu’s batting performance so far is perfectly acceptable, if not necessarily desirable, from a second basemen who brings solid defense. He has also been responsible for an odd heat map. The trick to solving LeMahieu at the plate, it appears, is to avoid throw balls outside.
Arenado, on the other hand, is taking off offensively. His slash line has improved in every respect, as has his wOBA and wRC+. Additionally, his walk and strikeout rates are down, which suggests that, like the team as a whole, he’s swinging more and is making contact. This approach is evident in his .321 BABIP. In Arenado’s two full seasons at High A and AA in 2011 and 2012, his BABIP was in line with his .296 mark during his rookie season. His .321 BABIP so far in 2014 is high, but it’s not unreasonable for him to sustain it if he continues putting bat to ball. Arenado’s success might be attributed to putting more balls into play and chasing fewer balls outside of the strike zone. Finally, Carlos Gonzalez has been mired in a slump. Even while struggling at the plate, he’s produced an almost respectable .330 wOBA. His poor slash line so far can be attributed to a few things. First, his .259 BABIP is well below his career .346 mark. These marks are somewhat strange given that Gonzalez is swinging more and missing less. Part of his slow start is due to BABIP driven bad luck, but it’s also because he’s about 55 percent of his balls in play have been on the ground. We already know that Carlos Gonzalez 2.0 has traded more strikeouts for more power, especially in 2013. It’s especially notable that so far in 2014 his walk and strikeout rates are both down. He’s making more contact, but it hasn’t been paying off.
In the Denver Post’s pre-season profile of Blake Doyle, Patrick Saunders referenced the “raised eyebrows” and skepticism the hire generated among the Rockies “frustrated fanbase.” Such sentiments may have been present—likely in the grim depths of sundry comment sections around the web—but I missed that conversation. In fact, Jeff Aberle at Purple Row welcomed the hire, when he praised “the idea of hiring an innovator with some potential to surprise.” The Rockies offense has indeed surprised this year, and I think Blake Doyle deserves some of the credit. As a whole, the team is making more contact, which, on the one hand, has reduced walks, but on the other hand it has also cut down strikeouts. And as great as the offense has been, not everyone is mashing. If we can attribute Doyle’s personalized touch to maintaining LeMahieu’s good-enough approach and helping Arenado progress, then we should trust, wait, and see how he handles Gonzalez and his (we all hope) inevitable resurgence. Finally, as 2013 teaches us, the team’s excellent offense in April will end up nothing more than a fond memory if the team doesn’t come close to replicating those results for the rest of the season. The extent to which we can praise Blake Doyle for the offense—or, alternatively, blame him if it goes downhill—is unclear. But so far this year, something is different, that something is working so far. We should recognize Blake Doyle’s part in it.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info and FanGraphs