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Tampa Bay Rays Mailbag: How Bad Is Derek Shelton?

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Welcome back to the RCG Mailbag, where we take those burning Tampa Bay Rays questions on your mind and attempt to give you answers.

The easiest way to submit a question is to fill out this Google form. Otherwise, you can comment on any of our posts here or on Facebook, email us at rayscoloredglasses at gmail dot com, or tweet me @RobbieKnopf. If you could say “for the mailbag,” that would make things especially easy. This is our first one of these in a while, and we will actually have another one coming up soon as well.

Michael M. asks: How is Derek Shelton still the Tampa Bay Rays’ hitting coach? So many players come to mind (e.g. John Jaso, Dioner Navarro) as doing better after leaving the Rays while others have simply fallen apart after arriving. Can you analyze the players that have arrived and left to see whether Shelton is doing something wrong?

Michael asks a good question, but before I answer it, let me just make one thing clear. Shelton can’t be blamed for the breakouts of guys like Stephen Vogt and Robinson Chirinos (although the latter been terrible to start 2015) because the Rays designated them for assignment before Shelton had much of a chance to work with them. We can only talk about players who were on the Rays for at least 300 plate appearances or so from 2010 on (Shelton’s first season) and compare their results to before and after they joined the team.

When we do that type of analysis, we have 22 players that we can talk about. Let’s eliminate one of them quickly. I hope no one thinks that Carl Crawford‘s collapse with the Boston Red Sox had anything to do with leaving the tutelage of Shelton, who had been his hitting coach for one year. I will also say that Navarro isn’t one of the remaining 21 because he made only 142 plate appearances for the Rays in 2010 and had collapsed before Shelton had come along. It’s difficult to blame the Rays about Navarro anyway because it took him a couple of years to get back on track.

Of the 21 players we do have, five of them relatively clearly make Shelton look good: Jeff Keppinger, Casey Kotchman, James Loney, Kelly Johnson, and Sam Fuld. Keppinger and Kotchman both had breakout seasons with the Rays and have done nothing since. Loney also broke out after a disastrous 2013, and he managed to stay at his career norms last season. Johnson got past two years of struggles after joining the Rays and has looked about the same since. Finally, Fuld turned from nothing into a serviceable big league player and has stayed there since going elsewhere.

We have to deal with the “correlation does not imply causation” disclaimer quite a bit as we’re doing this, but in any event, Melvin “B.J.” Upton, Sean Rodriguez, David DeJesus, Luke Scott, Johnny Damon, Jose Lobaton, and Elliot Johnson have debatably been helped by Shelton. Upton’s decline since leaving the Rays is inexplicable, but could part of the reason be that he lost his support system in Tampa Bay and his hitting coach? I won’t even try to answer that, although I will presume that Shelton is a small factor in that equation at best.

Rodriguez has struggled to establish himself in the majors with Angels before turning in a couple of strong seasons with the Rays. DeJesus’ OPS+ has been better with the Rays than anywhere, although some of that has come from the fact that he has been platooned more. Luke Scott, meanwhile, never got back to his career averages with the Rays, but he did play better than he had the previous season despite his shoulder surgery and advancing age. He has done nothing since.

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Johnny Damon is a variant of Scott’s situation as he managed to maintain his previous level of play with the Rays despite entering his age-37 season. Like Scott, he didn’t have anything left in the tank after leaving. Lobaton and Johnson are on the opposite edge of the spectrum as players developed by the Rays who were mediocre when they came to the majors, broke out, and then have played poorly since leaving. Lobaton is playing well to begin 2015, so we will have to monitor that, but Shelton can’t really be blamed even if he keeps hitting. Lobaton looked worse the year after, and even if he breaks out from here, it isn’t as though the adjustment was obvious for the Nationals.

Four players that make Shelton’s influence seem at least neutral are Ryan Hanigan, Yunel Escobar, Jose Molina, and Logan Forsythe. All of them played about as well with the Rays as they had previously. If it didn’t seem that way with Hanigan, bear in mind that he was moving away from a hitter-friendly ballpark in Cincinnati and was no longer getting intentionally walked to face pitchers. I won’t label Hanigan as a debatable positive, but the case can be made given that he rebounded well from his rough 2013.

Jose Molina, believe it or not, actually played better with the Rays than he had previously for his first two seasons. He fell off entirely in his third year, making him actually worse with the Rays overall, but that was more due to age than anything else. You can also label him as a positive if you like. Forsythe, meanwhile, took his struggles from San Diego to Tampa Bay but has looked like a different player this season. If this keeps up at all, he will go down as one of Derek Shelton’s biggest success stories.

Now we get to the debatable negatives: Ryan Roberts and Carlos Pena. Roberts played markedly worse with the Rays than he had in Arizona, but he had begun to plummet before he was acquired in 2013 and looked better than that after joining the Rays. Pena, meanwhile, had a bounce-back season after joining the Cubs in 2011 before turning in his worst ever season in his return to the Rays in 2012. He has continued to struggle since then, but it doesn’t look great that he looked so much better in 2011 than in 2010 and 2012 even after we adjust to ballpark.

Finally, we have the clear black spots on Shelton’s record, John Jaso and (drumroll please…) Kelly Shoppach. Jaso did flash his potential in 2010 with the Rays, but it was his collapse in 2011 that prompted the Rays to deal him. The front office should have realized that Jaso should be DHing against right-handed pitching–although they couldn’t because Damon was manning that spot–so this certainly isn’t all Shelton’s fault. Even so, he can’t be blameless in the whole situation.

Shoppach, on the other hand, had been a reasonably productive power-hitting catcher for the Indians before not hitting at all once he joined the Rays. Even worse, he still had two more productive seasons left in him after he left (albeit not up to his pre-Rays levels) even though he was starting to get up there in age. For whatever reason, Shoppach’s offense fell off a cliff for the Rays. At least he delivered those two home runs in support of Matt Moore in 2011 ALDS Game 1 against the Texas Rangers.

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It seems pretty clear that there is no reason to think that Derek Shelton is a bad hitting coach from this analysis. He isn’t perfect, but his influence appears to be mostly good and there are few clear instances when he did something wrong. Maybe we could talk more about Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, and Wil Myers falling off, Desmond Jennings failing to reach his potential, and Evan Longoria being mired in slumps for too long, but we did this whole analysis to avoid the disclaimer “we don’t know whether another hitting coach could have done any better” and now we run back into that problem.

At the end of the day, the Tampa Bay Rays have their reasons to keep Derek Shelton. They think that he is doing something right and that their offensive struggles are more about the players they give him to work with than his results with the players he receives. Fans trust the Rays about a lot of things, but for whatever reason, Shelton isn’t one of them. Yet the more we look at the data, the more it seems clear that he isn’t the terrible hitting coach that people make him out to be. That doesn’t mean he’s spectacular, but he’s certainly closer to average than to the worst in baseball.

Next: The Undercards: Buddy Borden Tosses No-Hitter

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