Steve Henderson: The Fall Guy for B.J. Upton?

Early in the week the Rays'  front office and Joe Maddon made the decision to relieve hitting coach Steve Henderson of his duties.  The public seems divided into two camps: Those for it and those against it  Those who favor the dismissal point to a failure to do small ball activities such as hitting the ball to the right side of the field with a runner on second and putting the ball into play with a runner on third. Critics feel that the Rays high strikeout tendency has caused the team to have a disproportionate amount of low scoring games. 

The argument against Henderson's dismissal is the fact that the team set franchise records in runs scored, home runs, walks and on-base percentage this year . The franchise record argument does not mean much as this team has the highest true talent level of any Rays team.   I think the real question we should be asking is how did they hit versus their expectations?

I'm not sure I put the "productive out" thing on Henderson's shoulders.  Studies have shown that: a) strikeouts generally are not as harmful as their perception and b) sacrifice bunting reduces run the expectancy. There is a compelling argument to be made for allowing hitters to maintain their standard approach in productive out situations. However, the importance of productive outs can increase in close late games. Hitting the ball to the right side of the field is a skill that can be worked on.  We don't know if this was supposed to be an area of focus in the past.

Since this is the first time I have heard any member of the Rays publicly acknowledge it.  I'm not willing to put much stock in that being the main reason for Hendo's downfall.

 

So what other arguments can be made for Henderson's departure? I decided to replicate the work previously done on Jim Hickey. For the sake of simplicity, I will only look at wOBA. I am going to look at 2007-2009 and compare three different groups. The first group is players who started with a different team before coming under the direction of Henderson. The second group is players who have gone from the guidance of Henderson to a new hitting coach elsewhere. The third group is the change in player's year over year under Henderson.

For each group we will compare each individual's change in wOBA, look at the mean and median of the changes, look at the number of positive and negative changes, and look at the aggregate change of the group by weighting each player's wOBA by his percentage of the total plate appearances of the group. To qualify, a minimum of 100 plate appearances was needed in each season.

First, players going from Other Hitting Coach ----------à Steve Henderson:

Player

Old team

wOBA

Rays

wOBA

Change

Eric Hinske

2007

0.316

2008

0.347

0.031

Gabe Gross

2007

0.332

2008

0.336

0.004

Cliff Floyd

2007

0.349

2008

0.349

0.000

Jason Bartlett

2007

0.319

2008

0.311

-0.008

Willie Aybar

2007

0.338

2008

0.321

-0.017

Gabe Kapler

2008

0.362

2009

0.334

-0.028

Pat Burrell

2008

0.374

2009

0.304

-0.070

Mean

-0.013

Median

-0.010

Increases

2

Decreases

4

AggChange

-0.018

 

There's nothing extremely telling here. Obviously the 2009 free agent acquisitions underperformed their previous wOBA the worst. That won't sit well with a front office that prides itself on buying low and selling high. Eric Hinske showed the only noticeable improvement of the group. Let's put this small sample of slightly negative data in our pocket and look at the other groups.

 

Players going from Steve Henderson ------à Another Hitting Coach:

Player

Rays

wOBA

New Team

wOBA

Change

Elijah Dukes

2007

0.309

2008

0.382

0.073

Jonny Gomes

2008

0.301

2009

0.373

0.072

Greg Norton

2007

0.317

2008

0.354

0.037

Ty Wigginton

2007

0.34

2008

0.37

0.030

Delmon Young

2007

0.315

2008

0.324

0.009

Eric Hinske

2008

0.347

2009

0.344

-0.003

Brendan Harris

2007

0.341

2008

0.318

-0.023

Mean

0.028

Median

0.029

Increases

5

Decreases

2

AggChange

0.019

 Five hitters improved under their new hitting coach, while 2 declined. The four biggest changers all improved.  Combined with the last group we know that 9 players fared better away from Henderson, while 4 did the opposite. The aggregate change was consistent across both groups at -.0185 with Henderson.

 

Finally, Henderson Yr 1 ---------------à Henderson Year 2:

 

Name

wOBA1

Year1

wOBA2

Year2

Change

Ben Zobrist

0.18

2007

0.364

2008

0.184

Jason Bartlett

0.311

2008

0.389

2009

0.078

Dioner Navarro

0.28

2007

0.33

2008

0.050

Carl Crawford

0.319

2008

0.367

2009

0.048

Ben Zobrist

0.364

2008

0.408

2009

0.044

Akinori Iwamura

0.323

2008

0.338

2009

0.015

Evan Longoria

0.373

2008

0.38

2009

0.007

Willy Aybar

0.321

2008

0.328

2009

0.007

Carlos Pena

0.374

2008

0.374

2009

0.000

Akinori Iwamura

0.338

2007

0.323

2008

-0.015

Gabe Gross

0.336

2008

0.306

2009

-0.030

B.J. Upton

0.387

2007

0.354

2008

-0.033

Jonny Gomes

0.339

2007

0.301

2008

-0.038

B.J. Upton

0.354

2008

0.31

2009

-0.044

Carl Crawford

0.365

2007

0.319

2008

-0.046

Carlos Pena

0.43

2007

0.374

2008

-0.056

Dioner Navarro

0.33

2008

0.258

2009

-0.072

 

Mean

0.006

Median

0.003

Increases

8

Decreases

8

AggChange

-0.006

 

A pretty even split.  What stands out here is the two time year/year decline of B.J. Upton.  Who knows if there were issues between Henderson and Upton? Regardless, if you're the Rays and you have three more years of a cost controlled B.J. Upton (who still has all the potential in the world), why not get a fresh examination of the underacheiving, sky-is-the-limit talent of B.J. Upton? 

On his Twitter account Keith Law may have put it best when he described the firing as " ...Operation Fix BJ Upton".  The stakes with Upton are too high to not try every possible option, including a new hitting coach. While the above tables are not a clear indication of the need to replace Henderson, there is even less-to-no evidence to mandate keeping him.  The patterns are this: Old Rays have fared slightly better with new teams, new Rays have fared slightly worse, and current Rays have stayed nearly static. In the absence of any compelling argument to keep Henderson, two consecutive years of  -.030+ drops in wOBA from B.J. Upton is probably enough to warrant the change.

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