I could be wrong, but I believe that left-hander C.J. Nitkowski was the first big-time baseball player to take the Internet seriously, so many of us have long been fond of him. And it was exciting to discover that he's written a guest piece for Baseball Prospectus on the value of good coaching.
In all honesty, though, I found the piece disappointing. First, there's this:
I have read more times than I care to recount how little impact a manager can have on wins and losses, but that’s another topic for another day. What really befuddles me, though, is when a sabermetric scribe plays down the value coaches can have at the big-league level, with doubt about their usefulness dripping from every sarcastic word.
What I find most puzzling is that not only is it not true, but it comes from a source that could never understand what makes a good coach in professional baseball without guessing. Those opinions on MLB coaches are about as valid as mine on ballet instructors.
So just as players would be wise to stop, listen, and learn a little about advanced statistical analysis before dismissing it so ignorantly, so would sabermetricians be wise to take the time to understand the value of good coaches in MLB.
I'm not saying that no "sabermetric scribe" has ever expressed doubt about the usefulness of coaches. I know I've done exactly that. But you know, expressing doubt is sort of our job. You start with the doubt, and then you hope to find some truth along the way. For my part, I've actually been on record for a number of years now, arguing that pitching coaches like Johnny Sain and Dave Duncan deserve serious consideration for the Hall of Fame.
Why? Because to the degree that we're able to measure their value, it's pretty impressive. And I'm not alone in this. But are coaches paid huge amounts of money? No. Has anyone associated with the Hall of Fame -- which is to say, the Baseball Establishment, including players, executives, and veteran writers -- seriously considered opening the doors of the Hall to coaches? No, they have not.
Which is to suggest that this sabermetric scribe -- and again, I'm hardly alone -- is actually more impressed with the value of good coaches than almost anyone else. Which isn't to suggest that every sabermetric scribe believes that Johnny Sain belongs in the Hall of Fame. But when Nitkowski throws around accusations like this without actually citing specific writers or writings, the word that comes to mind is "straw man". Idiots on message boards don't count; to build a whole piece on the ignorance of sabermetric scribes, it's best to actually name an offender or three.
Okay, so I got that off my chest. My other problem with the piece is that while Nitkowski is perfectly positioned, after 19 years as a professional pitcher, to make his case for the value of coaching, he doesn't actually make that case. The first half of the piece is about how sabermetricians are nerdy and shouldn't talk about coaches because they don't know anything about coaches. And the second half of the piece is about ... Well, it's sort of about what makes a good coach. But that's not the piece I was promised in the first half. In the first half, I was implicitly promised an argument for the value of good coaching. But that's not in the second half. This, near the end, is really as close as it gets:
A great coach does not take a career .220 hitter and turn him into a batting champion in a season. It’s the little things that matter, the small adjustments he helps with throughout the season that keep major leaguers on track. It is the commitment to being there for his players every day and the conversations that keep those players mentally strong. The coach’s impact may seem small, but his value is not.
The name of this game is consistency. Once you get to the big leagues, the bulk of your game—your talent and your abilities—are already in place. From there, success is a matter of staying consistent and making adjustments. Good coaches help with that, doing their best to keep a player’s lows from being too low and lasting for too long. The good ones do everything they can to play their part in helping players bring their best to the field every game.
Maybe Nitkowski's right about sabermetric scribes. Maybe we'll never get it. Or maybe it's just me who won't ever get it.
What I want is information, though, and Nitkowski's presumably got plenty of information knocking around in his head. Over the course of nearly 20 years, he's been exposed to dozens of pitching coaches, all of whom who were tasked with helping him become a better pitcher. And yet, in this long piece about the value of coaching, how many stories does he offer about being helped by a coach?
I guess we'll just have to wait for the follow-up. Because I really would like to understand. It'll help, the next time I write about Dave Duncan belonging in the Hall of Fame.