In yesterday’s 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, manager Fredi Gonzalez instituted the completely expected move of batting Cameron Maybin leadoff and sending Chris Coghlan to the #2 spot.
Here’s Fredi’s take on the move (via the Miami Herald):
“Maybin has been getting on base,” Gonzalez said before his team’s fifth consecutive series win in Philadelphia.
“Maybe we’ll be able to use his speed stealing bases in the No. 1 spot. If he gets on, Coghlan may be able to use that hole as an advantage. Maybe this will get [Coghlan] going, hit-and-running, that kind of stuff.”
“For me, the No. 1 thing when guys go bad, slump, they’re swinging at bad pitches,” Gonzalez said. “You see Coghlan swinging at balls up. He usually takes them. You see guys . . . trying to handle pitches they really can’t handle and chase pitches. But the first pitch he hit [Saturday] was right on the button.”
“He’s close. The only thing he needs now is a couple broken-bat singles, get the monkey off [his] back.”
Indeed, Maybin has been getting on base (.375 OBP) while Coghlan has struggled to do the same (.146 OBP). Coghlan has struck out 11 times in 49 PA, a 22.4% rate, while walking just 4.1% of the time (2 BB). Add that to his complete lack of extra-base hits and you have a hitter mired in awfully unproductive stint.
But two things should be noted:
1) Does this early performance matter in terms of predicting future performance?
2) Does the lineup move even matter?
April can’t tell you enough
Rich Walz, play-by-play guy for the Marlins, mentioned something I thought was insightful about Coghlan’s early season slumps. It goes something along the lines of this:
“If Coghlan had this slump in May or June, we wouldn’t even be talking about it. But because it’s in April, it’s being focused on.”
I think that perfectly captures the situation going on here. Because the season has started with a slump, his official “season” stats have some ugly numbers on them. Combine that with the vigor with which most fans begin the season, and you can tell why people are interested in focusing on a player’s highs and lows early in the year.
But we know that slumps in and of themselves are not in the least bit predictive. In The Book: Playing the Percentages In Baseball, the authors mentioned in the hot/cold streaks chapter that these streaks had a really low predictive value. In five-game hot/cold streaks studied, players were found to hit about five points of wOBA (.005, that is) better or worse than their three-year averages. Similar values were found in seven-game streaks, which is around the amount at which Coghlan has struggled. In short, you’d be better using Coghlan’s updated projections (ZiPS has him at .334 wOBA, but ZiPS seems a bit low on Coghlan).
Of course, if there is something to be found in Coghlan’s play that may be causing this problem, that would help explain his struggles and how to fix them. The one thing Fredi mentioned was that Coghlan was swinging at high pitches more frequently than before. In the past, I would probably have to take his word for it, but with the magic of Pitch f/x, we can actually find out to a degree. Using Joe Lefkowitz’ awesome Pitch f/x tool, I downloaded all of the pitches sent Coghlan’s way from 2009 and 2010. I took a look at his average sz_top (calculated top of the strike zone based on Coghlan’s height) and, based on that information, guessed a pitch height of 3.2 or above as “high.”
There were 324 such pitches to Coghlan in 2009, and it turns out Coghlan swung at 39.5% of them. For this season, there have only been 35 such pitches, and Coghlan has swung at 42.9% of them. Of course, at 35 pitches, this difference is hardly statistically significant. In addition to that, there were slight differences in the amount of foul balls and balls in play put in this year by Coghlan, with an increased foul count. This difference is directly coming out of the percentage of balls that Coghlan is getting. These differences are minimal at this stage in the game, but they may be something to keep an eye on.