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Branson Out, Optimism In

In case you haven’t heard, the Pirates fired hitting coach (former hitting coach?) Jeff Branson and assistant hitting coach Jeff Livesy. It was fairly unexpected, at least to me, as both had another year remaining on their contracts.

While it may have been an unexpected move, it was a welcome one. Coaches generally get a lot of the backlash when things go wrong, and little of the glory when things go right. There have been many things that haven’t gone quite so well during The Branson Era, and fans took note.

Before we go crazy about a new hitting coach, we need to be realistic. Those of you familiar with the Pirates probably know that they haven’t had a good offense for about, 26 years. The most success this team has had has come during Branson’s time here in Pittsburgh.

Pitchers were excluded from the leaderboards.


Now here is where it gets tricky. Right when Branson got hired, the team ended 5 out of 6 seasons with a wRC+ greater than 100. Going back from before Branson was hired to 1994, the team had only one season with a wRC+ over 100. This implies that Branson’s time in Pittsburgh has been a huge success, but alas, correlation does not imply causation. If you go look at any Pittsburgh Pirate roster before 2012, there you will find the reason for the team’s lack of hitting success. The coach undoubtedly can make a difference. But the roster is the roster. If your best shot at scoring a run is a pinch-hit home run from Matt Stairs, the problem likely runs deeper than the hitting coach.

I don’t think it’s possible to quantify how good or bad a coach is. Maybe it is possible, but I don’t think anyone has been able to do so up to this point.

But some things don’t need to be quantified. Let’s talk about Mike Matheny and the St. Louis Cardinals. It is my belief that Mike Matheny had been one of the worst major league coaches this game has ever seen. No, I haven’t seen every baseball game that’s ever been played. No, I probably couldn’t even name 100 major league coaches. But I CAN tell you that Mike Matheny was absolutely terrible. Game after game after game, he would mismanage his bullpen or do something absurd with his lineup. I don’t need a number to tell me Mike Matheny was a bad manager.

But despite that, the Cardinals have been one of the top teams in the league since, well, for far too long. They seem to outperform their expectations nearly every year. Despite that, there was a lot of frustration focused on Matheny. This year the front office thought the Cardinals were better off without Matheny and fired him after a 47-46 start to the season. Mike Shildt was quickly named the interim manager. The team responded, supposedly, and went on a 26-12 run. Shildt took the Cardinals from a 24.1% chance of making the playoffs to a 71.9% chance. After just 38 games, the front office was pleased with the results and offered Shildt a contract to be the team’s manager through the 2020 season. After he signed the extension, the Cardinals went 14-16 and missed the playoffs.

Now, Shildt might be an excellent manager. But did the Cardinals really know after 38 games? Probably not. But why not offer him a contract? What did the Cardinals have to lose?

This season the Yankees won 100 games. The Yankees are certainly a good team. But they were banged up all season, and as much as it pains me to say, the Yankees faced their fair share of adversity. Winning 100 games is impressive and is something that doesn’t happen often. Boone should get some credit for that.

He got criticized a lot during the playoff series against Boston, rightfully so. But what is the break even point here? If a coach manages to win 100 games, he must be doing something right, no? Mismanaging the playoff series is not ideal. But did it really cost the Yankees the series? Or did it just make it look slightly worse? If a manager is able to get his team to 100 wins but is still seen as the reason his team ultimately failed, is a career as a coach simply futile?

What I am trying to get at is, I really think people need to take a step back and think about how important the role of a coach really is. I set up a poll to see what people thought of Hurdle’s season. The results:

The results show that 55% of voters think that a different manager would have resulted in either 3 more wins or 3 more losses. First, I’m not so sure that a manager has that large of an impact over an entire season. Second, 46% of voters think the Pirates would be (much) better off without Hurdle. I believe that there are some better managers out there, but I know that there are a lot of worse managers out there. There have been plenty of times where I’ve shaken my head at something Hurdle had done during the course of a game. But I’ve shaken my head at least an equal amount of times at opposing managers. I think it would be best for people to accept that Hurdle has some managerial flaws, but is seemingly a good guy and is good for the community. Don’t take this the wrong way Clint, but I don’t think you matter that much.

The Pirates have decided to part ways with Branson, and honestly, I think that’s great. Life is about risk/reward. What is the risk associated with getting rid of Branson? Nothing? What is the reward for getting rid of Branson? Maybe something. My math says that the risk is worth the potential reward here. After all, when your hitting coach says this:

?I don’t get into all the launch-angle stuff, ? Branson said. ?Yes, OPS does come in the air. But, if you start telling guys to hit the ball in the air, there are too many things that can go wrong, too many things that can get out of whack. So, our mind set is low and hard. The ball will take care of itself. ?

How, then, to explain rising home-run totals in baseball’s post-PED era?

?Obviously, there is something to the launch angles, ? Branson said. ?I’m not smart enough to figure that out. I don’t know how to teach it, to be honest. I wouldn’t know where to start, so I don’t go there. We’re going to teach and talk about things we’re familiar with, things that we know work. Other people can do what they want. ?

Source: TribLive

Is there really anything to lose?

Jake is a Pirates contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He is currently attending Saint Vincent College and is pursuing a degree in Finance. You might know him as @CannonballCrner on Twitter. Jake used to write for his own site, but now does all his writing at the Point of Pittsburgh. He is a big fan of the slider and wishes Chad Kuhl a speedy recovery.

4 Comments on Branson Out, Optimism In

  1. I think that last quote explains it all–if your offense is 10th in runs and 13th in dingers, that is a very generous definition of “things that we know work.”

  2. I agree that the risk is not great, however I question the potential reward. As the article points out the players are the players. The Pirates have been drafting players who are line drive (singles/doubles) hitters and teaching “keep the line moving throughout the minors. Can a new hitting coach really change guys into becoming successful fly ball hitters without resulting in many more strikeouts and weak pop fly balls? I don’t know the answer and would be interested in seeing any data from other clubs where a significant portion of the roster was able to make such a change once they got a new hitting coach.

  3. I think it would be best for people to accept that Hurdle has some managerial flaws, but is seemingly a good guy and is good for the community.

    And it’s statements like this that bring out the “sheep” comments aimed at Pirate fans.

  4. A few things to point out here:

    1. 2013 was not a Branson year. Jay Bell was hitting coach that year.

    2. A lot of success hinges on the players. Take a look at 2003. That was the year we brought in Kenny Lofton, Matt Stairs, and Reggie Sanders. We still had Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez for part of the year too, plus Jason Kendall had a big year (and was on his fourth ML hitting coach). 2004 brought us Chris Stynes and Bobby Hill. The hitting coach didn’t change though and having a few guys have big years (Craig and Jack Wilson, Jason Bay, Kendall) didn’t help, mostly because everyone else was bad. In fact, that was true of most of these pre-Branson teams and a big reason the Pirates lost as much as they did–you’d have as many as five good hitters and the rest would be terrible.

    (I remember my dad saying that a pitcher’s dream was the 7-8-9 of a Pirates lineup back in 1998…)

    3. What is more important though is that some guys are not living up to potential here. Josh Bell should at least hit .300 if he’s not hitting for power. Let his minor league numbers speak for themselves in this case.

    4. Let’s not forget that a coach needs to find and correct problems with hitters who are scuffling. Adam Frazier and Sean Rodriguez both had to go to the minors to figure things out. Josh Harrison regressed mightily this year. Who did actually take a step forward this year under Branson other than Gregory Polanco?

    This wasn’t just limited to Branson. The guys in the past couldn’t get Jay Bell to hit for power (which he could). They couldn’t help Tony Womack draw more walks. They couldn’t help Chad Hermansen or Craig Wilson learn to hit breaking balls, making the former a bust of a prospect. There was Chris Duffy–need I say more there? Point is, we need a consistent hitting coach.

    Where have you gone, Milt May?

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