One of the more polarizing names among Rays fans is hitting coach Derek Shelton, he of the recently inked contract extension. Mentioning Shelton’s name can cause erratic behavior in even the most sane Rays fan. What’s particularly interesting about the Shelton bashing, is that it comes from both the casual fan, as well as the knowledgeable fan.
There is a common misperception that the hitting coach at the Major League level has a major impact on the mechanics and production of a hitter. It’s almost as if, in our football crazed society, the hitting coach is synonymous with the offensive coordinator. An offensive coordinator has a direct impact on the calls, schemes, and performance of a football team, but, in reality, it’s almost the polar opposite for a hitting coach. I’ve always been noncommittal with regard to Derek Shelton, because it is very difficult to evaluate his performance for the Rays. A recent article from ESPN.com explains why:
It’s practically an unwritten law in baseball that the majors are not the place to make big mechanical changes. The rare times coaches push for them, it’s in the minors. “When you’re interviewing pitching coaches,” says former Reds and Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who’s now with ESPN, “if they’re mechanically oriented, you hire them for rookie ball or Low-A ball, where they can make tweaks before pitchers succeed.”
But the more success pitchers have, the less incentive anybody has to correct their approach. “Once they reach the majors, they’re pretty set into their deliveries,” says the Reds’ Riggins. “With big leaguers, I don’t talk much about changing mechanics.” If a coach risks changing a pitcher’s mechanics and he gets hit or hurt, it’s the coach’s fault; if he leaves a pitcher alone and he gets hurt, it’s because the pitcher already had a bad arm. If a team can win in the interim, like the Giants have done with Tim Lincecum and his radically tilted delivery — which critics view as a time bomb — it’s managed to get its money’s worth. “That’s exactly the theory,” concedes Astros pitching coach Doug Brocail. “It works until it doesn’t.”
This article focuses on pitchers, but the same philosophy holds true for MLB hitters. During the baseball season, a player will rarely overhaul their swing. Like a golf swing, it is complex, and based heavily on repetition and “feel”. Because of this, hitting coaches usually don’t make wholesale changes to a hitters mechanics, instead, occasionally recommending small adjustments.
Derek Shelton’s main responsibility is to discuss hitting philosophy and approach. Most baseball players that have made it to MLB are comfortable in their ways, and are leery of trying something new that could be detrimental to their career. The impact of a hitting coach is difficult to quantify, but it’s important to understand their true role. It’s more of a “guidance counselor” approach, that can help a player find their own way, or introduce new concepts to them.
Many people mention Derek Shelton’s name because it’s a crutch. It is simple, and tough to judge, therefore a pundit, fan, or analyst can get away with saying something they likely know very little about without getting called on it. Those same people forget, that while the Rays struggled last season to score runs (mainly due to a ridiculous .224 batting average with runners in scoring position), they were 3rd in all of MLB in 2010 in runs scored. Considering the only two clubs that beat them out played at offensive ballparks in Boston and New York, that’s quite impressive. So while the Rays can be offensively challenged at times, it may be wise to dig deeper, and instead of blaming the mystery man known as Derek Shelton, the fault probably lies with the player.