It’s Week One of the NFL season, so let’s borrow some football terminology. “Getting outcoached” is gridiron speak for when the opposing team’s playcalling and play design is superior to one’s own, usually resulting in a loss. Baseball doesn’t really have play calls to the extent that football does, and coaches don’t have nearly as large of a direct effect on the game as they do in football. It’s harder to recognize coaching deficiencies as they happen, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There’s no greater coaching disparity in MLB right now than the Yankees and the San Francisco Giants.
A few weeks ago, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote about the Giants’ coaching staff spurring their incredible success this year. Before the season started, no one predicted them to compete with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, but in mid-September, they possess the best record in MLB.
The Giants, after producing three straight losing records under three-time World Series champion Bruce Bochy, showed signs of progress during the shortened 2020 season, finishing 29-31. This season, they have been by far the sport’s biggest surprise, producing an 84-47 record, the best in the majors. Their veterans are enjoying resurgences. Their journeymen are making breakthroughs. Their pitchers are excelling in ways they had not before.
No less an authority than Bochy, who now serves the Giants as a special advisor, says, “You have to applaud what the staff has done. They’ve got a great vibe there. They’ve done an incredible job.” That staff, now 14 strong, featuring three hitting coaches and three pitching coaches, is the largest in the majors, and one of the most admired. The White Sox hired Ethan Katz, an assistant pitching coach on Kapler’s initial staff, as their pitching coach this season.
“Their players are legitimately getting better at the major-league level,” one National League executive says. “They’re getting more out of their players with their coaching staff than any team in baseball.”
Several Giants veterans have achieved resurgence, especially in their starting lineup. Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria, Buster Posey, and Darin Ruf are all enjoying some of the best seasons of their careers, even though none of them is younger than 33.
If older players posting stellar seasons are the force behind the Giants’ success, the Yankees are their antithesis. Despite being projected to have the best record in the AL, they may miss the playoffs altogether. Many of the younger sluggers around whom they built their lineup have fallen flat, such as Miguel Andújar, Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, and Gio Urshela.
Each player has their own narrative, but there are some concerning team trends that point directly to coaching. Yankees hitters have a 28.5 percent CSW rate (called plus swinging strikes). This isn’t the absolute worst in MLB, but most of the teams behind them are way out of the playoff race. No one wants to keep statistical company with the Diamondbacks, Marlins, Rangers, and Cubs. Here’s how they compare to the Giants in plate discipline metrics:
Yankees: 75.0% contact rate, 11.1% swinging strikes, 17.4% called strikes
Giants: 76.5% contact rate, 10.7% swinging strikes, 17.2% called strikes
San Francisco makes more contact when they swing, whiffs less, and watches fewer called strikes. These are not the only reasons why they’ve scored 84 more runs than the Yankees despite playing with no DH, but they clearly have a better approach at the plate. Some of this comes down to general pitch recognition; some relates to pitcher scouting reports. In both cases, it’s the coaching that failed to put the Yankees in the best position to make solid contact.
Hits and Misses
While the Giants coaching staff gets the best out of most of their players, there are still a few who haven’t thrived. Donovan Solano and Tommy La Stella both regressed. Mike Tauchman failed to regain his 2019 form. Nevertheless, they’re judged more by their hits than their misses (not to mention their win-loss record).
Who have been the Yankees’ hits this year? Lots of players have performed below expectations. A few are about as good as advertised, such as Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. The only Yankee hitter substantially overperforming relative to his career numbers is Tyler Wade, whose 92 OPS+ is a big improvement over his career mark of 66… but he still isn’t very good.
Pitching is a different story. Matt Blake deserves to be excepted from his generally underwhelming peers. Nestor Cortes, Jr. has been a revelation. Corey Kluber resurrected his career and threw a no-hitter. Jameson Taillon was the AL Pitcher of the Month in July. Their 3.75 team ERA is second-best in the AL going into Sunday’s action. If there’s one coach the Yankees should retain, it’s Blake. It’s no coincidence that he best fits the profile of the type of coaches San Francisco employs: no major league experience, young, previously unknown, and incredibly knowledgable about baseball research and analysis.
It’s the coaches’ job to get the very best out of their players. Yankee coaches don’t have a Brandon Crawford or Buster Posey on the offensive side of their ledger. Unlike in football, the insufficiency of the coaching staff didn’t become apparent until it was too late. This offseason, it’s time to clean house and start over with a coaching model similar to the Giants’.