With the way the Detroit Tigers are underperforming this season, it’s understandable that fans will begin to call for someone to be fired; last season it was pitching coach Rick Knapp who got the axe, and this year the fans are calling for the head of hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. But why? What has McClendon done that is so egregious as to warrant so many people calling for his job?
The answer is nothing. If any of the people who are screaming that McClendon needs to be fired could actually explain what the job of a hitting coach is and how that impacts a team then more power to them. But the overwhelming majority of those calling for his job have no idea what he actually does; they simply think that the Tigers aren’t scoring runs so that means the hitting coach needs to go.
Well that’s not how things work, not even close. A hitting coach in the major leagues is one of the most overvalued positions by fans, they believe that these people greatly influence how each player is doing at the plate. That’s not what a hitting coach does, the job of a hitting coach is to notice little mistakes in a swing and be able to tweak them during a season.
Swinging a baseball bat is like running, you just do it, there’s no real coaching that goes into it. Where you can really see how well McClendon is doing his job is with Austin Jackson. Jackson had always had a problem with the number of strikeouts that he would rack up each season and the lack of walks that he was able to draw. But McClendon noticed that last season Jackson had developed a bit of a toe-tap in his swing as the ball was leaving the pitcher’s hand; that toe-tap was a timing measure that Jackson had introduced into his swing, but it was making him late on pitches and making him strike out more often.
In spring training McClendon saw this toe-tap and sat down with Jackson to watch film of his rookie season in 2010 and film from last season. Through watching this video together they were able to identify the toe-tap and remove it from Jackson’s swing. Because of this careful tweaking by McClendon, Jackson has regained his rookie form and has an on-base percentage over .400.
Yes, the Tigers are struggling to get runs across the plate, but is that truly McClendon’s fault or is it just that this team is in a slump? A look at the numbers shows that Detroit has a team batting average of .257, which ranks fifth among the 14 American League teams. A .321 team on-base percentage, .403 slugging percentage and .723 on-base percentage plus slugging (OPS) all have the Tigers ranked sixth in the American League.
Tigers fans have to start actually thinking about baseball instead of just trying to find someone that is the easiest to blame for their team not winning every game all season. Detroit is not a baseball town, it’s just not. For a generation, fans in Detroit have not had a winning baseball team and because of that they have gravitated toward the Red Wings and Lions.
Baseball fans in Detroit tend to be fair-weather and know just enough about the game to be able to call into the local sports talk radio show and make a fool of themselves. Instead of engaging in conversations about on-base percentage and pitch selection, a good majority of fans in Detroit pick the most basic topic and yell about firing Jim Leyland or how bad of a job Dave Dombrowski is doing until they are blue in the face.
Detroit is a hockey and football town, but until the Tigers have sustained success it will not be a baseball town; and the talk about firing McClendon is just another example of that.