Horses for Courses

Despite not being something any of us can touch or feel, stress is a real thing. We’ve all felt it and watched it affect someone we know or love. Which is weird – it isn’t tangible but it most certainly exists. Often, when feeling the effects of stress, we are encouraged to focus on that which we can control. All sorts of treacly horseshit gets written on coffee mugs and nana sweaters in search of the serenity to accept only that which we can control.

When Dwayne Murphy, hitting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays, states his lack of interest in advanced stats, it is a matter of control. Murph and his charges can control a precious few things in their pursuit of better baseball outcomes. The changes a hitting coach and a professional baseball player can make are very limited compared to the vast number of possible outcomes when they step into the batters box during a real, live game.

Stats — advanced or otherwise — do not belong on the radar of Dwayne Murphy. Not in the least.

It is at this point that we all need to recognize that, yes, Runs Batted In and Runs Scored are technically stats, too. Counting RBI and runs scored is just a less effective way of evaluating a hitter on his ability to hit than other fancy rates (like wOBA or weighted runs created plus) – they remain stats all the same.

The creation of advanced stats comes from a need to better evaluate baseball players across eras and ballparks, with enough context to understand what the player contributed versus what comes courtesy of his environment. They are evaluative tools, predictive in a mathematical sense. Big picture stuff, thus the unquenchable thirst for sample size.

Dwayne Murphy is not in the position to evaluate players. Let the baseball operations people to worry about that tall task. Unless there is some sort of insurrection planned, Dwayne Murphy doesn’t decide who stays and who goes. He is given some hitters and his job is to ensure they hit.

The ability and frequency of hits is all Murphy can hope for, and hits are the product of good swings and hard hit balls. He isn’t out to teach the tenets of BABIP or coach his players into blooping singles or hitting’em where they aint’; he wants his players to drive the ball with power. Line drives are yard to field, home runs are impossible. Not many baseball players hit home runs without hitting the ball hard, do they?

When Dwayne Murphy and Colby Rasmus worked to correct some problems in Rasmus’ swing and approach, they surely looked at film and, possibly, some visualizations of trends pitchers followed to retire the Blue Jays centerfielder. Dwayne Murphy didn’t look at Rasmus’ wOBA and say “hmm, this is bad. You should hit more doubles, it will really help your numbers increase.” They recognized a pattern (exposed on pitches away, leaving Rasmus vulnerable to backfoot sliders and the like) and addressed it via a taller posture and a move closer to the plate. Viola! Outside corner reclaimed, inside half retaken by force.

Murphy’s job is get his hitters in the best position to succeed at the plate. If they are of sound mind and physically fit, with a feel/expectation of how pitchers might attack them, Dwayne Murphy can feel like he sent his hitters into the world sufficiently armed.

There is an increasing tendancy of some fans and commenters to lump anything outside of the standard Ex-Player-Turned-TV-Analyst Boilerplate Nonsense under some “advanced nerd stats” umbrella. To worry that the game has gone to the geeks, the spreadsheets and esoteric formulas replacing good, old-fashioned knowledge and experience. If only it were so simple…

Charting pitches is as old as the game itself. Today, with the advent of pitch f/x and its innumerable applications, hitters have pitch charts at their finger tips. More accurate and as granular as any hitter could ever want. This type of dynamic analysis can aid a guy like Murphy in seeking the patterns & habits the naked eye might overlook.

Think back to the money quote from the Bluebird Banter interview with the Jays hitting instructor, it all about the choice of words. Stating he cares only about “driving in runners” is banal but not the end of the world. Allow me to make a slight change to Murphy’s quote and see if it goes down a little easier.

I just try to get these guys to hit the ball hard. If you want to score runs, no matter what kind of stat you have, in order to win this game, you gotta hit the ball hard. You can make up whatever stats you want, but if I get these guys to drive the ball, we have opportunities to win ball games.

Swing mechanics and mental approach: what else can a hitting coach do?

As long as a hitter is striking the ball well with regularity, what else can a hitting coach hope for? If the results don’t line up in a results-driven business…that is a decision for the tall foreheads. If Murphy’s guys feel good at the plate and aren’t rolling over/getting embarrassed more often than not, what else can we expect of him?

Don’t kill Murph for not caring about advanced stats. Don’t kill Murph if his feeling on walks seems archaic or lacks nuance. Walks are good, line drives are better. If the approach he preaches demands hacking at pitches no matter their placement or changing a hitter’s approach when RBIs loom, then we can kill Murph.

No need to overcomplicate what is already an incredibly complex process: just get them to hit the damn ball hard, Murph. It’s all anyone could ever ask of you.

Comments (41)

  1. Smack a tater!

  2. Good read, thank you.

  3. french fried taterz

  4. Ahhh finally and thank you. I guess I’ve been waiting on a piece like this for the last couple of years. especially every time the Jays hitters have a bit of a slump and people start calling for Murphy’s head. I’ve long argued a hitting coach can only do so much.

    • Plus for several years now the Jays have been near the top in runs scored – which is the product of all those other stats. And we have done it mostly without just signing the Pujols, Arods, Fielders, etc.

      Well written article.

  5. This piece is buttery goodness. Tastes ever better after reading that bitter shit sandwich from Hale.

  6. I taught Covelli Crisp to hit same way I was taught, with your eyes and hands. I’ve spoken with Murph many times about hitting approach and technique, the guy simply knows baseball. There’s no stat you can muster up that measures a mans knowledge of the game.

  7. this should be the last guy anyone wants to find fault with. other teams would probably kill to have whatever it is that murph has that allows him to get results out of guys who came onboard producing much less than they do now (bautista) or had mucked up mechanics (rasmus).

    i only hope murphy is still with the jays whenever they might contend again. would love to see his name go down as a part of history with the club a la gaston.

    • Sadly he’s been the whipping boy for the last 3 years when it comes to Jays coaches. Kind of silly when you look at the results compared to say the pitching in relation to league averages and also in relation to the downward trends in offense in general.
      Looking at last year’s numbers the Jays had a huge number of rookie AB’s compared to most of the prior years and were also dealing with a reduction in payroll. With all that scoring still stayed competitive.

      I wish I had saved a post I did over at the MLB boards showing the numbers for the Jays offense vs the league since Murphy took over.

  8. Who criticized Murphy for his stance on advanced stats?

  9. LOL! Can you imagine:

    Murphy: “Hey Arencibia your wOBA is too low”

    JP: “Huh?”

    Murphy: “You need to get on base more, plus hitting a few more doubles wouldn’t hurt”

    JP: “Huh?”

    Murphy: “Instead of striking out, why don’t you get a double or take a walk”

    JP: “No problem, seems like sound advice”

    I think some times people do forget that teaching the right approach leads to a better wOBA, and you don’t have to know what the hell wOBA is to be good at teaching hitting.

  10. Almost once per game I shake my head and say “really?” at some extremely odd statistic that is being kept. Like “Colby Rasmus hits the ball harder and more solid off Daniel Bard during day games with a 2-2 count and men on 1st and 3rd with his sunglasses on” or some realistic version of that.

    I agree with Murphy, hit the fucking ball, score fucking runs.

  11. There’s no such thing as advanced stats. Nobody actually uses them other than egghead bloggers who think they are smarter than everyone else.

  12. Refreshing stance Drew.
    I’ve been arguing with Stoeten for years and years about the game being viewed differently by different people. Stats being one tool of many.Stats are one part of the evaluation neccessary for players.
    Is new school more accepting old school and vice-versa?
    I may be getting younger as we speak.

    • You still have to put the stats into context. From Murphy’s viewpoint they are largely irrelevant but that might not be the case for a Manager or GM. Let’s face it, batters might have a little more control on where they put the ball once they make contact compared to pitchers but it’s not much greater. As Murphy says, all a batter can do is hit it hard.

      It’s one of the reasons why I loathe FIP especially when writers or bloggers use FIP as a measurement for what a player has done. FIP takes the defense out of it and gives all the credit to the hitter by saying the pitcher has no control of what happens once it’s put in play. While that’s true to a certain extent, it’s also true on the other side of the equation with the hitters. Quite frankly it’s ridiculous to ignore one side of the equation.

      Since FIP has become so prevalent among sabre junkies it gets used in the wrong context more often than not imo. The most recent example of that was Wendy Thrum’s FanGraphs article about the Angels bullpen. She quoted FIP rather than ERA, WHIP or strand rates, to show how well they’ve done. Sure ERA has it’s issues as well but it doesn’t ignore defense. If you want to use FIP, use it as was intended, as an estimator or predictor. Don’t use it to describe what’s taken place. If she were to use FIP to say that things look good for the future then ok, I can live with that.

      For relievers with only 30 innings or so of data it’s still not the best stat to use. Based on research done by BP XFIP and SIERA do much better jobs with the smaller data sets.

      Oh wow I just went on another FIP rant.

      • I have Henderson Alvarez on the phone. He thinks xFIP is awesome – I mean, everyone has the same HR/FB ratio anyway right? I love how these advanced stats claim to be so nuanced but xFIP is basically just a weighted version of a player’s K/BB ratio. But it looks so much like an ERA!

  13. Drew, I think this post in addition to the interview with Murphy over at Bluebird Banter has changed my opinion of Murphy.

    I used to think it was asinine for a hitting coach to dismiss walks and on base percentage, but there’s a reason why Murphy is the hitting coach and not an “on base coach”.

  14. Grip it and fucking rip it.

  15. I have a lot of respect for Dwayne Murphy and I generally think he’s pretty damn good at his job. However, I think some stats could be useful for a hitting coach to use to evaluate his own performance and to see if the approach he is trying to instill in his hitters is having the desired effect. I suppose that a lot of times a hitting coach might be shitcanned before they get enough data to reliably evaluate team performance though, so I get the “why worry” attitude from that standpoint.

    • Surely stats that are capable of evaluating Murph’s approach and performance should be more in the domain of AA and his many assistants.

      • I’m not talking from a player evaluation standpoint, because generally speaking that isn’t his job–he can only work with the talent at hand. But just because he doesn’t use advanced metrics in his day-to-day (and probably shouldn’t) doesn’t mean that he needs to be willfully ignorant of them. I don’t see how it would be a bad thing to be able to more objectively evaluate the performances of his hitters, and by proxy his own performance as hitting coach. I’m not really sure if it would have any difference on the outcomes, because, as I alluded to in my previous post, most coaches don’t get enough time to really critically evaluate their own performances before they’re sent packing.

        It’s not a ‘one or the other’ thing in my eyes. A hitting coach can be an excellent technical instructor and instill confidence and a good approach in his players and still understand advanced metrics. And from a personal standpoint, wouldn’t it be nice to understand the outcomes that form at least part of the front office evaluation of how well you’re doing your job?

        • The point is that what most advanced stats measure are results, and Murphy is more concerned with what the player does–how he swings at the ball–than what happens to the ball afterward.

          If anything, using advanced metrics, which would treat all singles equally, would be less helpful. He needs to be discriminating in a different way.

          • I’m arguing that knowing results is important to his job, even if he’s not using them as an instructional tool. I’ll use an extreme example; most people who know baseball can identify a well-hit ball with the naked eye. If as a hitting coach you have a hitter who seems to be making good contact but not getting much in the way of results, you can look at things like BABIP to confirm that. I’ll assure you that even if Murphy doesn’t pay attention to batting average or offensive counting stats, a lot of his players do–I can’t see how being able to contextualize performance would be a bad thing for any coach.

  16. I think stats such as LD% IFF% FB% and GB% are things that are probably batting coach related. Theres nothing wrong with traditional stats or advanced stats. its when people place labels and make sweeping statements based on individual stats or making incorrect correlations based on any stat. Some one decided to make the statement that RBI’s are important and tell you a laundry list of achievements. Even going so far to state that a young catcher hitting .223 or something may be cause of concern, but coupling that avg with 87 RBI’s might make you change your opinion. Id say not. id say if a guy that had .287 avg in those same ABs may have given you 115 RBI’s which would be better. I also dont understand how people just forget everything that goes into an RBI. Unless you hit a HR, someone gotta be on base. No control by the hitter. Its easier (theoretically) to drive in someone on third with less than 2 outs than it is to drive in a runner on first. RBI doesnt tell us where the baserunner was so we dont know how well or even if there was a hit. Getting a bases loaded walk is an RBI. Fuck you dont even have to swing your bat to get an RBI. So why would anyone put some much time into a stat like RBI when theres just better stats that actually tell you what you want to know, standard or advanced..and people that disagree are traditionalists, they’re just stubborn. A calendar tells you how many days pasted or what day it is, but does not tell you how productive or how good your day was, much like the RBI. We still keep track of it.

  17. Wow can’t believe you posted on this. But ya, the talent evaluators should be responsible for knowing and analyzing stats and advanced stats. The coaches have to worry about honing the abilities of the players. I have never played professional baseball, but I will guarantee you that in beer league you only worry about hitting the ball square and hard as you can, and hope no one gets in front of it. That’s the nature of the game. And bubble gum.

  18. nice article when it was easier (and lacking nuance) to shit on him

  19. “There is an increasing tendancy of some fans and commenters to lump anything outside of the standard Ex-Player-Turned-TV-Analyst Boilerplate Nonsense under some “advanced nerd stats” umbrella. To worry that the game has gone to the geeks, the spreadsheets and esoteric formulas replacing good, old-fashioned knowledge and experience. If only it were so simple…”

    Unfortunately there is also an increasing tendency to classify any statistic or source of baseball knowledge created before Bill James as a steaming pile of horseshit.

    I only read Moneyball in the past year or so, and besides the stuff on undervalued statistics, the other main thing I got from it was the arrogant belittling of everything and everybody in baseball before Billy Beane.

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