* Or at least, there is no evidence to suggest that he has been in the past.
Human nature dictates that someone must be to blame when well-made plans go awry. For some reason (convenience?), this scapegoat is always a single person, even when the fault clearly lies with a group, or with an organizational flaw that transcends any one member.
Nowhere is this trend more obvious--or more troubling--than in professional sports. Paradoxically, the lower a person is on a team's hierarchy, the more likely he is to be blamed for the team's ineptitude. Thus, we will often see a manager throw a hitting or pitching coach to the wolves so as to postpone his own demise. From a manager's perspective, this is an eminently logical action, but it is nonetheless unjust in most cases.
Why is it unjust? On the whole, very few hitting coaches have any discernible effect relative to other hitting coaches. There are two reasons for this: 1) most hitting coaches teach more or less the same techniques and have more or less the same observational abilities; and 2) hitting coaches just cannot have a very large effect in the first place (at the major league level anyway). By far the greatest determinants in a player's performance are his abilities and his age. There are a few hitting coaches who seem able to get slightly better results (Rudy Jaramillo, for example) and a few who seem wholly inadequate, but the vast majority have no real impact.
Which brings us to Terry Pendleton. There has been a great deal of hue and cry on TC and other Braves sites, with commenters calling for TP to be axed and offering up scant anecdotal evidence as "proof" of his inadequacies. After the jump, I delve more deeply into the issue. (WARNING: Do not click "Continue Reading" unless you are prepared to base your conclusions on data instead of emotion.)
- Those who came from another team, played for TP for at least a season (or parts of 2+ seasons), and then moved on to a third team. These players, who I'll call "Rentals," allow us to compare a hitter's statistics both pre-TP and post-TP to see if they really played worse while under his tutelage. I left old players (34+ when coming to Atlanta) out of this data set because I did not want aging to skew the data. That left 6 players: Gary Sheffield, Mark Teixeira, J.D. Drew, Edgar Renteria, Robert Fick, and Johnny Estrada.
- Those who came up with the Braves, had TP as a hitting coach for at least three seasons, and then played at least a full season with another team (this rules out KJ and Frenchy until we have a better data set for them). These players, labeled as "Homegrown," can help us get a better sense of what impact TP has had on younger players. I found 5 more players who fit this model: Andruw Jones, Marcus Giles, Rafael Furcal, Mark DeRosa, and Adam LaRoche*.
* For ease of comparison, I did not include any part of LaRoche's 2009 season. He has such an extreme first-half/second-half split that this would make TP look better than he probably deserves to look. Also, I realized too late that Javy Lopez should probably have been in this data set. Looking at his #s, he did a bit better under TP than he did after leaving.
For the Rentals, I limited the study to the last 3 seasons (counting partial seasons) before coming to the Braves and the first 3 seasons after leaving the Braves. For instance, only Gary Sheffield's 1999-2006 seasons are used in the study. For the Homegrown players, I used only the players' last 3 seasons with TP and their first 3 after TP.
Alright, on to the charts and graphs. Here is a graph that shows the Rentals' batting averages before, during, and after their Braves tenure:
The blue bars indicate the players' AVG under Pendleton. Notice a trend? I do, too. All 6 of these players had a higher batting average under TP than they did in the seasons before or after coming to the Braves. Let's not draw any conclusions, though. How about in the "Homegrown" group?
Here, the results are more mixed. Jones and Giles experienced huge dropoffs upon leaving Pendleton, while LaRoche's average went down a tad. Furcal's average increased slightly, and DeRosa's went up quite a bit. Overall in both groups, only DeRosa saw a noteworthy increase in batting average after leaving Pendleton. On the other hand, 6 of the 11 players saw a precipitous drop in their AVG in their post-TP years.
Beginning with the Rentals:
Again, all 6 players saw their OBP drop after leaving Pendleton. Four of the six also had a higher on-base with TP than they had in the years before coming to TP. Here's the same graph for the Homegrown players:
Three of these players did increase their OBPs after leaving Pendleton, though LaRoche's increase is very slight. This is offset, though, by the huge dropoffs experienced by Jones and Giles.
While 3 of the players increased their OBPs after leaving the Braves, 7 of the players lost a large amount of OBP. Overall, the size of these changes is very consistent with the batting average graphs; there is no evidence that TP affected these players' walk rates much in either direction.
Let's start with the Rentals:
This tells more or less the same story as the other graphs. Though Tex's SLG numbers went up a bit and Estrada's only went down 1 point, the other 4 players experienced a dropoff of at least 40 points. What about the Homegrown players?
Again, DeRosa is an outlier. The other 4 players all experienced a loss of SLG after leaving TP. Overall, only 2 of the 11 players increased their slugging after leaving the Braves. The other 9 all decreased, and 6 of them lost at least 40 points of SLG.
The last category I'll examine is Swing Percentage, which is simply a measure of the percentage of all pitches that a player swings at. I include this statistic because one of the more frequent criticisms of TP is that he preaches an overly aggressive approach. If that is the case, we would expect to see players swing at a larger percentage of pitches while with TP than before or after. Here's the graph for the Rentals (there is insufficient data for Sheffield and Estrada before coming to TP):
Of the 4 players for whom we have data before they came to the Braves, all 4 swung at fewer pitches while under Pendelton's sway. Teixeira and Drew maintained this added patience even after leaving Atlanta. Of the four other players, three swung at more pitches after leaving the Braves. Only Robert Fick had increased patience in his post-TP years, though as we saw above, it did not pay off for him at all.
(By the way, Johnny Estrada really skews that graph, doesn't he? Does any current player swing that often?)
Now, here's the same graph for the Homegrown players:
This is the only graph so far that could be interpreted as an indictment of Pendleton. Four of the five homegrown players became much more patient after leaving the Braves (Furcal was about the same). Of course, this added patience had decidedly mixed results, as the earlier graphs show.
Of the 11 total players, 5 became more patient after leaving Atlanta, 3 became less patient, and 3 were about the same. That's hardly damning, but just in case you are thinking of using this as ammunition against TP, consider that he is not the first hitting instructor that these players have had. If the Braves organization instilled in them a tendency to swing more, that would have started years before Pendleton got his hands on any of these players. Insofar as a high swing rate is detrimental, you should blame the entire Braves organization rather than just TP.
Okay. Now that we've looked at each player individually, let's sum up by looking at the averages. Let's start with the difference between the players' stats before and during their times with the Braves:
With Pendleton, hitters increased their batting average by 18 points on average. As a result, they reached base more often and had higher slugging percentages (their walk rates and isolated power were about the same). They also swung at 1.5% fewer pitches.
Now let's compare the players' stats from their tenures with TP and their years after leaving Atlanta:
After leaving TP, players lost an average of 20 points off their batting average and on-base percentage. Their slugging went down even more. On the average, there was no difference in the players' swing rates with TP and after TP.
Based on this data, I can only draw one conclusion about Pendleton's effects on hitters: most players hit for a higher average (around 18-20 points higher) with TP than they do either before or after being with him. Beyond that, there is no real evidence one way or the other.
Of course, those higher batting averages do not mean that TP is a good hitting coach, either. They can be explained by lots of other factors, such as comfort with Atlanta and Bobby Cox, lineup effects, potential steroid use, and luck (though I looked at BABIP too and did not see any clear trends). Also, this study does not have a huge data set, so sample size issues are in play as well.
The real point of this exercise is that if you look at all the data (rather than just cherrypicking a few fluky examples to support your case), there is no evidence that Terry Pendleton has been a bad hitting coach for the Braves. He may not have been a particularly good one, either--there are certainly lots of other ways you could look at his performance, and some may show his flaws more clearly.
Another possibility is that TP was a good hitting coach for a while, but that he has lost his way with this particular group of players. That could certainly be the case, but there is no way that anyone could know that without being in the clubhouse.
Regardless, if the Braves' poor hitting keeps up, we will probably see Pendleton be fired or reassigned to another position in the organization. Such a change may even be advantageous; change for its own sake often results in a short-term boost to a team's prospects, even if there is no qualitative difference. I just hope that if that happens, we can all suppress our instincts and say "good job, TP", rather than "good riddance."