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Jeff Bagwell Leaves, Sadness Ensues

This is not news to you. It was announced via Twitter on Saturday and a press conference was held recently to feel out Bagwell's reasons. I hope I won't spoil this for you, but his reasons for leaving were the same as they had been all season. Baggy didn't want to be away from his family that much.

Zach Levine has already gone into great detail as to why Bagwell isn't coming back. He also lists some facts about this Astros offense and just how much they need to gain just to get back to .500. It's pretty daunting stuff. After Bagwell was hired, the offense did turn around pretty dramatically. Guys who hadn't been hitting before started knocking home runs. Batting averages inched upwards and the young guys responded to him.

That doesn't mean Jeff Bagwell did anything to fix this offense.

We said it here at the time, but this team wasn't as bad offensively as they showed in the first two months. Guys were bound to bounce back and they did. It wasn't Sean Berry's fault any more than it was Brad Arnsberg's fault that the Astros had an ERA+ below league average. Hitting and pitching coaches have specific duties and Bagwell seemed to tap into something with this group of hitters. At least, that's what all the talk was during the season. Forgive me if I poke a few skeptical holes in that argument.

See, in his press conference announcing his decision, Bagwell freely admits he didn't put the time needed into the job. He didn't like spending all that time watching video to prepare for games and he told his guys to forget that stuff. They were better off not thinking because it can only hurt the ballclub. If Arnsberg were Bill James, Bagwell would have been Murray Chass.

Bagwell's impact came in different ways. He teased players around the cages. He taught guys the little things about how to carry themselves around a clubhouse. He kept things loose in the dugout and basically got some people on the team to stop pressing.

Hello, improvement. Did that make him a good hitting coach? I'm not so sure. But, before we can answer that, a broader question should be asked. What do teams look for in a hitting coach? We've heard about guys like Rudy Jaramillo being a genius at retooling a guy's swing and helping him develop all kinds of new abilities (like x-ray vision). Plus, hitting coaches are seen as somewhat interchangeable. It's no big deal if you fire one, because they're basically a scapegoat anyway. Pitching coaches have actual jobs to do, keeping guys from getting hurt, making game plans for how to approach a team, teaching guys new pitches. When was the last time a guy got hurt swinging a bat?

Hitting coaches should be important and I think they are, but in different ways. Let's break down some of their potential impacts:

1) Understands hitting as a science a.k.a. The Ted Williams Coach

This is not to be confused with "Ted Williams As A Coach." It's more about the Ted Williams/Tony Gwynn approach to hitting. These guys took every advantage they could find when they were going up to bat. The more they could watch a pitcher, the better. They were constantly working on their swing, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of different pitchers.

There are guys that will do this. They'll spend hours with a guy in the cages, working on little aspects of a swing. They'll work on timing devices, changing things up, showing a guy how to anticipate a pitch. They'd watch film after film to see what works for a batter and what doesn't, then try to train his muscles to do just that. In short, they turned hitting into a science.

Jeff Bagwell was not this kind of a coach for two reasons. First, as Alyson Footer pointed out in this blog entry, he couldn't throw to guys like most hitting coaches can. Because of his bum shoulder, he spend less time working with hitters directly. Secondly, he was an amazing, talented hitter in his own right and probably didn't need to analyze things quite as much as Tommy Manzella might. For a player like Bagwell or Lance Berkman, watching film or having  a game plan can't help them. They are going to do their thing. It's hard for superstars to coach players who were less skilled, because they can't always understand that not everyone can do the things they could. I don't think that was the case with Baggy, but it does set him apart from this type of coach.

2) Familiar with young players and their swings a.k.a. The Sean Berry Accords

This is a sub-type of No. 1, with the caveat that this guy is chosen because he knows the hitters very well. He could have been a minor league roving instructor. He could have been a minor league manager or just the hitting coach down at Double-A where they all passed through. However he knows these guys, it's that familiarity which makes him good at his job.

This obviously only works when a team has multiple young guys in its lineup. Hunter Pence felt this way about Berry helping him. The trouble was, Berry didn't have very many other guys that he could mentor in the lineup. When those young guys move on or start to struggle, even through the best efforts of said guru, things turn bad.

Again, this isn't the kind of coach Bagwell was. He did see the young guys in the minors, but probably not extensively enough to help him in the dugout.

3) Able to work with the mental side of hitting a.k.a. The Psychiatrist

I mentioned this role above, but one of the big goals of a hitting coach is to keep guys even-keeled. Don't let them get too excited or start pressing too much. If everyone is doing what they're suppose to be doing, things will eventually work out.

A guy who's primary strength is in this area probably doesn't show up much in the paper or the stats, but may be pointed to as a big reason why a team had a turnaround. These are also the types who get interviews as managerial candidates. It's less about the technical aspect of coaching and more about dealing with a group of people.

Bagwell seemed to do a good job of this. In all the interviews with players, it seemed like his presence helped lighten the mood around the team and really helped guys have fun out there. That's a pretty big component to being a good hitting coach, and he seemed to do it well.

4) Polices the clubhouse and sets a standard for accountability a.k.a The Bagwell

This is everything we read about Bagwell this season. He did it when he was a player and carried over to his coaching stint. It was all about being a leader for these guys and setting a tone. Remember how many articles mentioned the Astros clubhouse environment under Bagwell and Biggio? One of the big reasons why a guy like Jeff Kent could integrate so well is the way Bagwell ran things. 

Very few coaches can have this kind of impact. I think Dave Stewart had a similar effect when he was a pitching coach, but I don't get the impression that Mark McGwire fills a similar role in St. Louis. it's a nice bonus to get from your coach, but not something that's necessary to have. I think the third base coach or bullpen coach could be just as effective.

Of those four main criteria, Bagwell really only fulfilled two of them. Even then, the two he did fit were the last two and, arguably, the least important. With Bagwell not wanting to spend time watching video and not being able to throw to guys, was his psychological role big enough to make him a good coach? Certainly, the offense turned around, but was it because of him, or was it regression? 

I don't want to posit an answer there, but I will say I'd much rather have a new hitting coach to fill that first role more than any of the others. Chip Bailey suggested MIlt Thompson, but I wonder if a guy from Boston like Tim Bogar might be available. I'm sure Mills has a short list of hires and we'll fill that shortly after the World Series ends.