Should the Rays Fire Derek Shelton? | The Process Report

Should the Rays Fire Derek Shelton?

Derek Shelton is talked about a lot for the wrong reasons. People want him fired. People have wanted him fired almost since he arrived, armed with the cutesy “Get the Man In” mantra. Hitting and pitching coaches are always the first to lose their jobs. They operate within a black box, providing the public with few hints about their quality of work. The on-the-field results are supposed to serve as a proxy, but good luck grading any coach with a reasonable confidence level.

Because of this, I’m skeptical of most performance-related analyses based around attempts to isolate a coach’s affect on players. Earlier today, Sandy Kazmir published a new take on the genre by focusing on a tendency. The Rays, Kazmir found, have less success in going the opposite way than the rest of the league. In essence, they are too pull-happy. I have two obvious quibbles with Kazmir’s work. One, it’s a big assumption to believe Shelton teaches his hitters to pull the ball no matter what. Two, it’s one year of data. Otherwise, the piece is fresh, and as such, interesting.

What I’m about to write will be misconstrued as a defense of Shelton. It should not be. It also should not be taken as a prosecution. I am neither qualified, nor comfortable, in attempting to evaluate Shelton as a hitting coach. I have complete ignorance toward his work, with the exception of the stuff we see show up on the field—i.e. clear physical or tendency shifts. Even then, players make tweaks, too. Here’s what I’ll say: No matter who the Rays hitting coach is, he’s going to face similar problems, and likely similar scrutiny.

In most seasons, the Rays’ highest possible offensive rank is going to be fourth or fifth. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers exist on another plane because of their offensive-friendly stadia and pocket-unfriendly wallets. Those teams can sign the best free-agent hitters. The Rays cannot. At times this can prove beneficial to the Rays. This inability to spend on the best of the best mostly hurts, however. Typically, if a free-agent hitter is available to the Rays, it’s for at least one of these reasons (all four apply in the cases of Luke Scott):

1) He’s old;
2) He’s hurt;
3) His skill set is risky;
4) He’s coming off a down year

A lot of the Rays’ free-agent hitter signings fail because the odds are stacked against them. Tampa Bay’s hitting coach has to help arriving youngsters hit the ground running, and keep veterans on the edge from dropping off. Yet, even with the disadvantages dealt the Rays way, Shelton’s era has seen the club field respectable offenses. The Rays have ranked eighth league-wide, and fifth in the American League using wRC+, which adjusts for the park, since Shelton took over following the 2009 season. That’s right around where you’d expect them to finish, given the realities of the situation.

One of the arguments in favor of firing Shelton is that, while there might be no positive impact, there’s unlikely to be a negative impact. I suppose that’s true, but I couldn’t tell you for sure. The people who are best positioned to judge Shelton’s work are stationed within Tropicana Field. I have no insight into what the Rays will do with Shelton at season’s end. Retaining him wouldn’t surprise me, neither would making him the scapegoat. There are a lot of Shelton-related things, including his performance, that I know nothing about. And that’s why I refuse to pass judgment one way or the other.

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