Does Derek Shelton’s advice to players like Joyce do any good? (Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
It’s a new season, so it is time to play everyone’s favorite game: should the Tampa Bay Rays fire hitting coach Derek Shelton? Granted, the timing of this article is pretty bad–the Rays scored a combined 27 runs on Friday and Saturday–but especially after they scored just one run on Sunday, I am confident talk will resurface in short order. Right or wrong, Shelton has become the whipping boy any time the Rays’ offense struggles. Three things are guaranteed every summer: the weather gets warm, clothes become skimpier, and Derek Shelton’s job security comes into question. The funny thing is, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb have both been on the disabled list two years in a row, yet there are no calls for Jim Hickey‘s job. Matt Moore and occasionally Chris Archer sometimes need the strike zone lit up in neon lights to find it. Shouldn’t Hickey be run out of town?
Of course not, but you see where I am coming from? The stigma that dogs Shelton is that Tampa Bay doesn’t have a hitter capable of putting up league leading numbers. Ben Zobrist will bat anywhere from .260 to .280. Evan Longoria‘s ceiling may only be 35 home runs. Matt Joyce is not yet aware that the baseball season doesn’t end in May. James Loney has been a revelation, but he still doesn’t hit for much power. Desmond Jennings continually underachieves and Wil Myers‘ numbers will come in time. Of course, if Sean Rodriguez‘s hot start is due to an adjustment Shelton noticed, we will never know. He’s not going to come out and say “Yeah, Sean was clueless until I showed him what he was doing wrong.” Yet, we’re so ready to pin blame on Shelton when the offense struggles.
Think about it. You’re in Tampa and you are struggling, like the rest of the team. You are going to listen to Derek only so much. He comes to you one day and says, “Ezekiel” (yeah, for some reason your name is Ezekiel). “If you just do this, you’ll start hitting better than Babe Ruth.” You try it and it doesn’t feel comfortable. You continue hitting like Koyie Hill in a slump (bad). Joe Maddon says, “Incorporate what Shelton taught you or you’ll be banned to purgatory. You are the one who has to make it work.” Shelton doesn’t step in the batter’s box, however. You’re on your own. The next day you get traded to the Mets. Changing hitting coaches will not make hitters start hitting. Wil Myers has to learn to deal with sliders down and away. Desmond Jennings has to become the hitter the scouts said he can be. Matt Joyce needs to learn baseball is also played in June, July and September. Evan Longoria has to be consistent, not gaudy. There is only so much that Derek Shelton can do to change all of that.
Also worth noting is that there is another thing preventing the Rays from scoring runs. A hitting coach’s sphere of influence is limited to the batter’s box, but the struggles the Rays are going through this year are, in large part, because the Rays are not putting pressure on the other team’s defense to make plays. Too often, they seem to be sitting back and waiting for the big hit. But the composition of their team has changed, as well. Gone are Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton swiping 50 bases, and it has shown up in the numbers. In 2013, their stolen bases fell by more than half, marking the first time since 2000 that the Rays did not steal at least 100 bases in a season. This year, they are tied for dead last in baseball with four. This is an underrated aspect that has been largely ignored as the calls for Shelton’s firing rang out this season. Shelton’s influence as a hitting coach ends when the player makes contact, but we do not take into account how important base running is. When a team forces the issue on the base paths, opportunities open up.
Should Derek Shelton be fired? No, the Rays are loved and have been successful because they do not take anything for granted. Shelton is doing his job fine, and the issue lies elsewhere with the team. If the Rays can start manufacturing more runs, the hitting will improve and we won’t need to keep having this conversation.