Perspectives: A Look Back - The Hitting Coach
A Look Back - The Hitting Coach
by Paul Semendinger
October 29, 2023
I was thinking the other day about who should be the new Yankees' hitting coach... and then I remembered the Yankees had a great one not too long ago.
I wanted to figure out why the coach I was thinking of is no longer with the club and found an article from the New York Post that I will take some quotes from because I believe the quotes illustrate the way the Yankees make decisions and how the organization is run - and have been for quite some time.
The article follows... passages from the article are in italics and indented. My comments which come after some passages are not italicized and also not indented.
By Dan Martin Published Oct. 10, 2014
The Yankees worst offensive season in years cost hitting coach Kevin Long his job.
General manager Brian Cashman made some significant changes to the coaching staff after missing the postseason for a second straight season. Both Long, who had been the hitting coach since 2007, and first base coach Mick Kelleher were fired on Friday.
The Long move was not a complete shock following a dreadful season by the offense and Cashman made it clear he thought a new voice was needed.
“The 2014 season, as we all know, we struggled from start to finish producing consistent runs,” Cashman said on a conference call after his three-year contract extension was announced. “Kevin spoke to it at the end of the season. He tried everything. I don’t think anyone works harder.”
My reaction: I understand firing a coach after a bad season. I also understand an organization needing a fresh voice after following one approach for a long time. Kevin Long had been the Yankees' hitting coach for 8 years. And in 2014, the Yankees didn't hit much.
2014 was one of those years, a preview of sorts to the Yankees of today when Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner seem to seek ways to save money and cut corners by not building a well rounded team. This has been a problem with the Yankees for a long time.
The 2014 Yankees didn't hit much. One might ask why.
The best hitter, by far, on the 2013 Yankees, the season before, was their second baseman, Robinson Cano. He batted .314/27/107. Cano's OPS+ was 147. In 2013, the Yankees had only one other player with an OPS+ over 100. That player was Brett Gardner with an OPS+ of 110.
The primary second baseman on the 2014 Yankees was Brian Roberts who batted .237/5/21 with a .300 on base percentage in 91 games while Robinson Cano, who the Yankees let get away, batted .314/14/82 (with an OPS+ of 142) in 157 games for the Seattle Mariners. To be fair, the Seattle Mariners gave Cano a huge offer. The Yankees were unwilling to match the offer from Seattle.
But, after letting Cano go, the Yankees' brain trust didn't have a fallback position. They had, in fact, nothing. Second base became a revolving door. The approach the Yankees took to solve the second base problem of 2014 looks very similar to how the Yankees tried to fix the the left fielder problem of 2023. In both cases, the Yankees tried a collection of washed-up players and career minor leaguers. This was one of the first times that Brian Cashman tried this approach and it didn't work. As Cano was hitting a ton on the west coast, Brian Roberts, Stephen Drew, Martin Prado, Brendan Ryan, Yangervis Solarte, Jose Pirela, Dean Anna, and Kelly Johnson were manning second base for the Yankees. This approach did not work in 2014 at second base. In 2023, it didn't work in left field.
Moving on from second base, the 2014 Yankees were not a deep or well-rounded team. This was the year they brought in the 37-year-old, and past his prime, Carlos Beltran. Beltran would play in only 109 games and bat .233/15/49 with an OPS+ of 98 in 2014. Years earlier, Beltran had indicated that he wanted to play for the Yankees. He was 28-years-old and would have been a perfect fit, but the Yankees passed on him. I never understood why. A few years later, in a similar situation to Beltran's first as a free agent, the Yankees passed on Bryce Harper when he was a free agent even though he was also a perfect fit and wanted to be a Yankee. The GM for both decisions was Brian Cashman.
2014 was also the first year of the Jacoby Ellsbury Era - a player who projected to be... just like Brett Gardner who was already on the team. They both played centerfield. I have never understood why the Yankees signed Ellsbury when they already had Gardner. The players were so similar. Ellsbury wasn't the type of hitter who would replace Robinson Cano's production. And, as noted, the Yankees already had a centerfielder in Brett Gardner. They signed the exact player they most certainly did not need. When people talk about the mistakes of the Brian Cashman era, they often cite the more modern trades, signings, and non-signings, but the poor decisions were also present long ago.
If one thinks about Ellsbury's profile - a centerfielder with a good glove, speed, a sometimes good bat, and a long injury history, he might be reminded of Harrison Bader. Neither worked out well as Yankees...
The 2014 Yankees were not designed well. They had Derek Jeter, at 40-years-old, at shortstop. In fact, the only starting player under 30-years-old was their third baseman, Yangervis Solarte, a player who was certainly not a big prospect or a former star. He would be traded in July for Chase Headley who was a former star, a few years past his prime to play third. (During the 2014 season, seven different players played third for the 2014 Yankees.) After batting .262 as a Yankee (but just .243 for the season) and with little power, the Yankees re-signed Headley to a four year deal worth $52 million. The Yanks doubled down on a former all-star third baseman hoping that he just might be as good as he used to be. That deal didn't work out. In recent years, the Yankees tried a similar approach with Josh Donaldson - a former MVP owed big dollars to man third base.
As the Yankees of today continually talk about their great process, when one looks back, it's not hard to see that what they're doing today seems a lot like what they were doing back then. It is the same flawed process.
It seems that the reason the Yankees didn't hit in 2014 was because the general manager didn't not build a very good baseball team. It wasn't the hitting coach, that seems clear.
Back to the NY Post article:
“Despite turning the roster over, we still struggled on the offensive end,” Cashman said. “The one issue we couldn’t fix was the offense. … Kevin is an exceptional hitting coach. He did a tremendous job. The players trust him.”
Does that sound description sound like a coach who should be fired? We were told that the guy was exceptional and that the players trusted him. He had a track record of great success.
“The Carlos Beltran injury was a severe blow,” Cashman said. “Ultimately, we struggled to consistently squeeze runs together with an upgraded roster.
Again, think of the roster design. Cashman stated that Beltran's injury was a severe blow. In other words, the Yankees were pinning a lot of their hopes on a 37-year-old designated hitter. Was that a good plan? Wasn't that also like the Yankees counting on a 37-year-old Josh Donaldson in 2023?
And they were unable to produce against the shift, as Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira in particular failed to hit to the opposite field with any consistency.
This, we learned years later, was not just a Yankees problem, it was a problem across the sport leading to baseball making a new rule to eliminate the shift. I have to wonder if there were any hitting coaches adept at getting players to hit against the shift in 2014 - or ever. This seems like a grand example of excuse making. Most pull-hitters struggled with the shift. That is why it was used so much. That is why the new rule was put into place.
“It’s a game of change,” Cashman said. “I need a guy who will use every tool in the toolbox working against the shift, adjusting to the shift is something today’s player has got to be open-minded to. … No one wants to be giving away outs consistently.”
And there it is! "I need a guy who will use every tool in the toolbox..."
I believe Mr. Cashman here is saying the following, "I think I know some things that Mr. Long does not. I know better. I have some statistics and charts and numbers and things that will lead to the Yankees hitting better. It's not about the science of actual hitting, which is what Kevin Long teaches, it's using statistics to make players better hitters. Trust me, I know."
Whatever those tools were, they didn't work. The Yankees replaced Kevin Long with Jeff Pentland who lasted just one season with the club. They had a new voice, and a new toolbox, but it didn't work out. Alan Cockrell followed as the batting coach. He lasted two years.
The Yankees, today, are still looking for the right people to be their batting coaches. They still haven't figured it out.
Cashman added he had replacements in mind and some potential candidates include the Yankees’ minor league hitting instructor, James Rowson, and perhaps Tampa Bay’s Derek Shelton or Oakland’s Chili Davis — though they both are still under contract.
Imagine that. The Yankees made a move, but, again, they didn't have a plan to follow that move. They got rid of a coach, but didn't have a solid plan of who would replace him.
Even today, we see the Yankees making decisions, and then figuring out what to do after the decision, rather than having a plan ahead of time. This process has been the Yankees way for a long time now. We see it twice in this one article - they didn't have a plan to replace Robinson Cano and they didn't have a coach lined up to replace Kevin Long.
I would think that a well-run organization would have all these things (and so much more) planned in advance. In organizational meetings, they should be planning for any numbers of scenarios. "If Cano signs with another team, who will play second base? What's the plan?"
It doesn't seem like the Yankees operate that way. Things happen, then they seek solutions. They seem to be reactive rather than proactive. It's the exact wrong way to run an organization. Is it a surprise that the Yankees still haven't been to a World Series?
A Mets official said Long’s name would likely “be brought up” as they look for a new hitting coach.
Cashman didn’t have a clear answer for why Kelleher, who also worked with the infielders, wasn’t being brought back. Like Long, Kelleher had a year remaining on his contract.
“Mick Kelleher was not responsible for the deficiencies on the defense,” said Cashman, adding that he wanted to “change the dynamic of the staff.”
Kelleher said the call “came out of the blue. I didn’t expect it.”
“I don’t make changes lightly,” Cashman said. “It takes a lot for me to make adjustments. It’s gonna be tough. Kevin is very good but we’ll have someone with a different voice, a different message, a different approach.”
Brian Cashman gave no reason for firing Kelleher. The employee had no idea that he was being terminated. It seems he had done good work.
I noted this in an article last week that there seemed to be some problems with the way Brian Cashman handled some of his star players over the years. Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Aaron Judge have all expressed dissatisfaction with the way their salary negotiations were handled by Brian Cashman. I stated that players and agents notice these things and it can make the Yankees a less attractive place to play.
This situation with Mick Kelleher seems similar, but rather than being a player, it was a coach This seems to be an instance of a person doing a good job being fired, out of the blue. I'll ask a simple question - would you want to work for an organization that treats its employees like this? Is this the best way to bring the best talent to an organization? Might other would-be coaches be less willing to come to New York after seeing the way that these coaches handled?
Brian Cashman said that he doesn't take changes lightly, but since that 2014 season, he changed the manager, the bench coach has been changed three times, as has the first base coach, and the third base coach. The Yankees have also had a host of hitting coaches.
I'll go way out on a limb here, way out, and wonder if one reason that the Yankees don't have long time Major League baseball people on their coaching staff is because of things like this. I am just speculating, but it seems possible. If you were a good coach well respected in the game, and with numerous offers, would the Yankees be the destination you choose?
I was fascinated as I read this article. It seemed to say so much, not just about the Yankees and Brian Cashman's approach in 2014, but there are many parallels to today.
It's very interesting to look back and see things in a new light. Except, it really seems like the same old light. This article shares an approach the Yankees were trying in 2014. It didn't work. In many ways it seems that they're still operating in the same manner today.
Postscript: Even though the 2014 Yankees didn't hit much, with that very flawed and shallow roster, Joe Girardi led that Yankees team to a second place finish. A few years later, after guiding the Yankees to Game Seven of the American League Championship Series in 2017 he was not brought back to manage the team. The Yankees have still not reached a World Series.
As for Kevin Long, he went on to be the batting coach of the Mets in 2015. The Mets finished... in first place. Long next became the batting coach of the Washington Nationals in 2018. In 2019, the Nationals won the World Series. Long became the Phillies hitting coach in 2022. The Phillies went to the World Series that year.