The Coaching Staff [2016 Season Review]

Thomson and Girardi. (Presswire)
Thomson and Girardi. (Presswire)

It’s time to do the impossible with our season review series: evaluate coaches. It can’t be done from where we sit. We can try, but ultimately we never do anything more than project player performance onto the coaching staff, and that’s sorta dumb. The offense isn’t clicking? Time to get a new hitting coach. The pitchers stink? New pitching coach. Same old story, year after year, all around the league.

These guys are coaches, not miracle workers. Almost all of their work takes place behind the scenes, and for every little mechanical adjustment that generates headlines, there are dozens that go unreported. Teams have far more insight into what their coaches do or do not do well. As fans, all we can do is speculate. Evaluating coaches from here is basically impossible. That won’t stop us though. Let’s review the year that was with the coaching staff.

Bench Coach: Rob Thomson

Gosh, Thomson has been with the Yankees a long time. He originally joined the organization back in 1990 as a minor league coach. Since then he’s held all sorts of roles, including director of player development and vice president of minor league development before joining the Major League coaching staff. Thomson spent the 2008 season as Joe Girardi‘s bench coach and the 2009-14 seasons as the third base coach before resuming his role as bench coach last year.

As the bench coach, Thomson is Girardi’s right hand man, who from what I understand has a lot of responsibility communicating with players before and after games. I know a lot of folks think the bench coach is supposed to whisper sweet nothings into the manager’s ear and help him make strategic decisions, but that’s only part of the job. I have no real opinion of Thomson as the bench coach. He’s been at it a very long time and I have no doubt he has an awful lot to offer the team. Boring review is boring.

Pitching Coach: Larry Rothschild

Rothschild and Dellin. (Presswire)
Rothschild and Dellin. (Presswire)

This was somehow Rothschild’s sixth season as the Yankees’ pitching coach. Geez, does time fly or what? Rothschild came under more criticism this year than any other season with the Yankees, mostly because Michael Pineda continued to be frustrating as hell and Luis Severino went backwards. “Who has he improved?” was a popular refrain, as if that could ever be answered with some level of certainty.

In 2016, CC Sabathia reinvented himself as a cutter pitcher and had his best season in four years. Masahiro Tanaka transitioned from four-seam fastball pitcher to sinker pitcher (and back to four-seam fastball pitcher) to combat his home run woes. Severino took a massive step back, first with his command and then with the disappearance of his changeup. Chad Green learned a cutter and that was cool. Bryan Mitchell (walks) and Luis Cessa (homers) had good superficial stats but worrisome trends under the hood.

Overall, New York’s pitching staff was ninth in baseball with +18.2 fWAR this year despite being 15th in ERA (4.16) and 27th in innings (1428.1). That’s because their team strikeout and walk rates were, once again, excellent. They were fifth in baseball with a 23.1% strikeout rate and fourth with a 7.4% walk rate. During Rothschild’s six years as pitching coach, the Yankees are third in strikeout rate (21.5%), third in walk rate (7.3%), and third in fWAR (+115.2).

How much of the credit or blame goes to Rothschild? Beats me. All I know he’s highly regarded around baseball — “Larry is a master of psychology with big arm guys. He gets them to believe in their secondary pitches,” said a scout to Andrew Marchand and Wally Matthews last year — and he will be back next season, like it or not. The Yankees gave Rothschild a new one-year contract after the season.

Hitting Coaches: Alan Cockrell & Marcus Thames

For the third straight year, the Yankees had a new hitting coaching coach in 2016. In 2014 it was still Kevin Long. Last year it was Jeff Pentland with Cockrell as his assistant. This year it was Cockrell with Thames as his assistant. It appears the revolving door of hitting coaches will stop with Cockrell and Thames. If one or both was going to be replaced, they’d be gone already.

Cockrell. (Presswire)
Cockrell. (Presswire)

In 2016 the Yankees ranked 22nd in runs (680), 19th in home runs (183), 20th in AVG (.252), 25th in OBP (.314), 21st in SLG (.405), and 21st in wRC+ (92). (wRC+ is park adjusted, so it accounts for hitter friendly Yankee Stadium.) Below-average by any measure. That is partly due to Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez giving the Yankees 681 plate appearances of nothing, which I have a hard time blaming on the hitting coaches. Old players got old. News at 11.

“Good and bad. I’ll leave it at that,” said Cockrell to Brendan Kuty when asked to evaluate his season. “You always reflected on what you did or didn’t do or would do differently. In all honesty, I’ve done some of those things already. I’ve looked at some of those things and when it comes to our three, four, and five hole guys … We’ve been looking for offense in a lot of different ways. It’s a tough league, man. It’s been a grind.”

Going forward, the Yankees are going to give Cockrell and Thames much more young talent to work with, players whose best years are still ahead of them (hopefully). There’s Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin and Greg Bird, Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro. Don’t forget about Clint Frazier either. Thames, who has a history with many of these guys from his days as a minor league hitting coach, and Cockrell will be in charge of helping these players become impact big leaguers.

First & Third Base Coaches: Tony Pena & Joe Espada

The Yankees had a 77% success rate stealing bases this season, fifth highest in baseball, which I guess means Pena did his job as first base coach? He’s out there with the stopwatch timing the pitcher’s delivery and the catcher’s pop time, determining whether his runners can steal second. There’s more to it, of course, and besides, Pena’s primary focus is working with the catchers. He’s going to put Sanchez through a full year of catching boot camp in 2017.

Espada is … well … not very popular as third base coach. Are any third base coaches popular? I don’t think so. At best, they’re overlooked because they’re not making mistakes. The Yankees had only 12 runners thrown out at the plate this year, tied for the second fewest in baseball, but gosh, more than a few of those 12 were egregious. Remember this?

Lordy. Rob Refsnyder tells you everything you need to know there. He slowed up rounding third because he did not expect to be sent home on a hard-hit single to Kevin Kiermaier, but Espada sent him, and Refsnyder had to pick up the pace. We’ve seen a few of those “why did he send him, geez?” sends the last two seasons.

Espada is generally conservative when it comes to sending runners home — he waved 55% of runners home from second on a single and first from a double, below the 68% league average — which is out of necessity more than anything. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are the only above-average runners on the roster. Espada’s not going to send guys like Sanchez and Bird home too often. They’re just not fast. Even with the conservative approach, there are still too many obviously bad sends for my liking. It’s bad. Bad bad bad.

Bullpen Coach: Mike Harkey

Harkey rejoined the Yankees this season after the team parted ways with Gary Tuck, who reportedly had some run-ins with the front office about their use of analytics. Harvey was New York’s bullpen coach from 2008-13 before leaving to join the Diamondbacks as their pitching coach. Arizona let him go after last season, so back to the Yankees he came.

The bullpen coach is effectively a second pitching coach, though during games, he stands out in the bullpen and answers the phone. The most memorable part of Harkey’s season came on September 26th, when Girardi and Rothschild were ejected following Severino’s hit-by-pitch war with the Blue Jays. Harkey had to go to the dugout to take over as pitching coach.

With no coach in the bullpen, Tyler Clippard took over as the bullpen coach for the remainder of the game because he is the team’s most veteran reliever. It was Clippard’s job to answer the phone and wave his hat at the dugout to let them know the reliever was ready:

tyler-clippard-bullpen-coach

Out of all the GIFs I’ve made for this stupid site, that might be my favorite. How ridiculous. This has been, rather easily, the most exciting bullpen coach season review in RAB history.

The Coaching Staff [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Once again, the Yankees made some changes to their coaching staff this past offseason. Not huge changes, but changes nonetheless. Two years ago Gary Tuck replaced Mike Harkey as bullpen coach. Last year the duo of Jeff Pentland and Alan Cockrell replaced Kevin Long at hitting coach, and Joe Espada took over as third base coach with Rob Thomson moving to bench coach and Tony Pena moving to first base coach.

This past offseason the Yankees replaced Tuck with Harkey — Tuck was reportedly let go due to a disagreement with the front office about the use of analytics — and promoted Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Marcus Thames to replace Pentland. Well, technically Cockrell was promoted to replace Pentland as the main hitting coach, with Thames replacing Cockrell as the assistant. Got all that?

It’s tough to preview or review the coaching staff because so much of what they do happens behind the scenes. Sometimes we can see the results of their work — Thames helped Ben Gamel add a leg kick last year, for example — but oftentimes we’re talking about adjustments the untrained eye won’t see. So rather than provide a rigorous analysis of the coaching staff, here is a more casual preview of the upcoming season.

The Manager

Can you believe this will be Joe Girardi‘s ninth season as manager? The Yankees have had two managers over the last two decades. They had eleven managers in the two decades before that, not counting the guys who were hired multiple times. I was still very young when George Steinbrenner was in his hiring and firing heyday, so I can’t really appreciate the continuity the Yankees have had the last 20 years.

Anyway, I have long believed the manager’s most important work takes place is in the clubhouse, where he has to manage 25 personalities (way more than that, really) day in and day out for eight months a year. That can’t be easy. The Yankees seem to have a very cohesive clubhouse — Alex Rodriguez referred to the veteran players as the “Board of Trustees” because of the way they oversee things — and that surely helps Girardi. Over the last few seasons the team has been largely distraction free and that’s a good thing. Girardi keeps the chaos to a minimum.

On the field, I think Girardi has two key responsibilities this year. One, don’t screw up the laughably great bullpen he’s been given. And he won’t. Girardi’s very good with his relievers. Yes, he makes moves that sometime backfire. That makes him like every other manager. We now have eight years worth of data telling us Girardi is good at a) turning marginal relievers into assets by putting them in good positions to succeed, and b) keeping his bullpeners fresh.

Managing this bullpen with the lead will be easy. Are the Yankees up in the late innings? Bring in Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, or Aroldis Chapman. Any of three will do. That’s the easy part of managing this bullpen. The tough part is all the other innings, when you’re trailing or deep into extra innings and the three big guys have been used. The Yankees are going to shuttle relievers in and out all year again, and it’ll be up to Girardi to get the most out of them.

The second key on-field responsibility this season is resting the regulars. Girardi and the Yankees seem to be all-in on this. They’ve been talking about it since the end of last season. They want to rest the veterans and try to avoid another second half offensive collapse. The versatile Aaron Hicks will make resting the outfielders easy. He can play any outfield position and he’s a switch-hitter. Hooray for that. The infield? Eh, things are a little up in the air there. Either way, keeping players fresh and productive will be very important in 2016.

Beyond all that, I’d like to see Girardi try a few more Hail Mary instant replay challenges this summer, which I discussed a few months ago. The team’s replay success rate may dip, but who cares? They don’t give out a prize for that. Girardi has to navigate this weird transition period as the “get younger and trim payroll but remain competitive” thing continues. I don’t think his job will be (or should be) in jeopardy if they miss the postseason, but who knows. After eight years, it’s pretty clear Girardi is an asset and one of the game’s better managers.

Cockrell and Thames (and Reggie). (Presswire)
Cockrell and Thames (and Reggie). (Presswire)

The Hitting Coaches

The Yankees are on their third hitting coach(es) in three years. They scored the second most runs in baseball last season, and outside of Chase Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury, pretty much everyone in the lineup met or exceeded expectations. That seems to be the criteria by which fans judge hitting coaches. Did the team score a lot of runs? Did the players meet expectations? If the answers are yes, the hitting coach is doing a good job.

This summer the Cockrell/Thames tandem will be tasked not so much with keeping the veterans productive, though that’s obviously important. Given the team’s direction, the more important goal is helping the young players, specifically guys like Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro. We could also lump Hicks and Gary Sanchez in there as well. The Yankee have put aside the present for the future, that couldn’t be any more clear, which is why the young guys are the priority. That’s … pretty much all I have to say about the hitting coaches. Go team.

The Pitching Coach

This year the Yankees did not give Larry Rothschild a project. Last season they dropped a shiny new Nathan Eovaldi into his lap and told Rothschild to turn him into a better pitcher. And he did! Rothschild taught Eovaldi a splitter and he was way more effective with that pitch. Based on that, the project was successful in the short-term. We’ll see what happens in the long-term.

In 2016, Rothschild’s pet project will be Luis Severino and perhaps Bryan Mitchell, assuming he’s in the Opening Day bullpen. Severino is very refined for a kid his age, but the Yankees do need to monitor his workload, and Rothschild is in charge of mapping that out. Mitchell has to improve his control and command and gosh, that’s a tough one. Rothschild can only do so much there. Baseball history is full of live arms who washed out because they couldn’t locate.

Rothschild is about to begin his sixth season as pitching coach — how the hell did that happen? didn’t they just hire him? — and in those five years the Yankees have had plenty of pitchers exceed expectations, and I’m talking about both veterans (Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda) and young pitchers (Betances, Adam Warren, even Ivan Nova). Most of their pitching failures have been injury related. How much credit does Rothschild deserve? We can’t say, exactly. After five years, I feel pretty good with him running the show.

The Other Coaches

Harkey left the Yankees two years ago to take over as the Diamondbacks pitching coach. Arizona canned him at the end of last season, which was inevitable. He was a holdover from the previous regime and it was only a matter of time until GM Dave Stewart and head baseball operations hocho Tony La Russa brought in their own guy. They gave Harkey a year, then moved on, so now he’s back with the Yankees as bullpen coach. It’s like he never left.

Thompson returns as bench coach and I have no opinion about that whatsoever. Pena returns as first base coach — his is Pena’s 11th season on the coaching staff, by the way — and I also have no opinion about that. Both guys have been around forever and they wouldn’t continue to be around if they weren’t quality baseball minds. All bench and first base coaches are cool with me because I’m don’t really know what they do or how much influence they have. Pena works with the catchers. I know that much.

Third base coaches generally get a bad rap. They’re either hated or unnoticed. Espada was conservative sending runners last year and at least part of that was out of necessity. The Yankees are not a fast team aside from Ellsbury and Brett Gardner. Also, the Yankees scored a lot of runs last year, and when you can hit for power like they did, it makes sense to hold a runner if you think there may be a play at the plate. Teams that struggle to score runs have to really push it. The Yankees aren’t one of those teams.

That said, Espada did appear to be overly conservative at times, perhaps due to poor reads or not knowing the scouting reports on the outfielder’s arm. (Guessing it was the former, not the latter.) That’s something that has to be cleaned up. Espada’s not a rookie third base coach — he was the Marlins third base coach from 2010-13 — so he has experience. Hopefully his second year in New York goes a bit more smoothly now that he’s seen the league and is more familiar with his personnel.

Yankees finalize coaching staff, Mike Harkey returns as bullpen coach

(NY Times)
(NY Times)

The new bullpen coach is the old bullpen coach. The Yankees announced Monday evening that Mike Harkey has rejoined the team as the bullpen coach, replacing the departed Gary Tuck. Also, first base coach Tony Pena replaces Tuck as the team’s catching coordinator.

Harkey, 49, spent the last two seasons as the Diamondbacks pitching coach. He was let go a few weeks ago. Harkey, who is very close with Joe Girardi, was the Yankees bullpen coach from 2008-13 before leaving for the job in Arizona. Harkey pitched eight years in MLB before getting into coaching.

The coaching staff is now set. Alan Cockrell replaced Jeff Pentland as the main hitting coach and Marcus Thames was promoted from Triple-A to take over as assistant hitting coach a few weeks ago. Pena, bench coach Rob Thomson, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and third base Joe Espada remain.

Magruder: Diamondbacks to name Mike Harkey pitching coach

Via Jack Magruder: The Diamondbacks are set to name Mike Harkey their new pitching coach on Monday. Good for him. Harkey, 47, has been the Yankees’ bullpen coach since 2008 and he is one of Joe Girardi‘s closest friends and confidants. Obviously the team will need to dig up a replacement now. Triple-A pitching Scott Aldred, who also interviewed for the D’Backs pitching coach gig, could be a candidate for the job.

Update: D’Backs interested in Harkey and Aldred for pitching coach job

9:00pm: Joel Sherman reports the D’Backs also have interest in Triple-A Scranton pitching coach Scott Aldred for their pitching coach job. He’s been the pitching coach at various levels of New York’s farm system since 2007. Sherman says Arizona will ask for permission to interview both Harkey and Aldred, and the Yankees will grant it because they’re seeking promotions.

5:35pm: Via Ken Rosenthal: The Diamondbacks are interested in Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey for their vacant pitching coach position. It’s unclear if he’s interviewed yet. Arizona GM Kevin Towers is surely familiar with him after spending the 2010 season with New York. Harkey, who is one of Joe Girardi‘s closest friends and confidants, signed a new contract with the team last week along with the rest of the coaching staff. I assume the club wouldn’t block him from making an upward move if the opportunity comes along, however.

Yankees bring entire coaching staff back for 2014

The Yankees have re-signed their entire coaching staff for 2014, the team announced. That includes Tony Pena (bench coach), Larry Rothschild (pitching coach), Kevin Long (hitting coach), Mick Kelleher (first base coach), Rob Thomson (third base coach), and Mike Harkey (bullpen coach). All of their contracts had expired on October 31st. Not surprising news.

Staff Notes: Harkey, Long, Cavalea, Wakamatsu

Cavalea won't be back next year. Maybe not A-Rod either. (AP)
Cavalea won’t be back next year. Maybe not A-Rod either. (AP)

Some updates on the coaching staff and whatnot, courtesy of Mark Feinsand, Joel Sherman, and Jeff Wilson:

  • Brian Cashman reached out to the coaching staff last week to discuss new contracts. Their deals all expire on October 31st. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild has reportedly agreed to a new contract and bullpen coach Mike HarkeyJoe Girardi‘s closest confidant — is expected to return as well.
  • There’s a chance hitting coach Kevin Long will leave the team to join Don Mattingly, either with the Dodgers if he gets a contract extension or with a new team if he is let go and winds up elsewhere. The two grew close in 2007, when they were both on New York’s coaching staff.
  • Strength and conditioning coach Dana Cavalea will not be brought back when his contract expires next week. He had been with the team since 2007. The Yankees told Cavalea they plan to go “in a different direction with the position.”
  • Pro scout Don Wakamatsu recently interviewed for the Rangers’ bench coach job. They hired Tim Bogar away from the Angels instead. The Yankees brought Wakamatsu on board last winter and I assume he’s still with the team.