Since Gross took over, the Phillies have posted a record of 102-51, easily the best in the league. However, it could be just pure coincidence. Hitting coaches may or may not have any significance in offensive success, especially with a team stacked with veteran hitters like the Phillies.
Think of it like an established chain restaurant. If the ownership changes, does it really affect the quality of the food? There may be some subtle differences, but overall things would stay the same.
Both Thompson and Gross have been around the game of baseball for a long time. Thompson was drafted by the Braves in the 1979 draft, while Gross was drafted by the Astros in the free agent draft in 1970. Thompson began coaching in 1997, Gross in 1995. There is no doubt that both of these men know the game of baseball and are qualified for the job.
To figure out if the Phillies were a better hitting team under Milt Thompson or Greg Gross, or at least more responsive to one, let’s take a look at the Thompson era vs the Gross era in three areas. Of course, the Gross era is a significantly smaller sample size and has been mostly without Jayson Werth – one of the Phillies best hitters under Thompson.
ROUND 1: Home Runs
The Phillies used to be known as a team that relied on the long ball, and that really isn’t the case anymore. Under Thompson, the Phillies hit 1.28 home runs per game. Under Gross? 0.93. As stated above, Gross doesn’t have Werth in 2011, and losing Werth loses home runs. Regardless, the winner of this round is Milt Thompson. Even with Werth in the lineup, I think their home runs would be down. Winner: Milt Thompson
ROUND 2: Runs
The Phillies undoubtedly struggle to score runs nowadays. In 2011, they are scoring a below average 4.06 runs per game. This could be attributed to “the Ace effect”, where a team will hit poorly in games where a great pitcher is on the mound for them. Nevertheless, we’ll take a look at the numbers. Under Thompson, they averaged 4.9 runs per game. Under Gross, they average 4.5. Winner: Milt Thompson
ROUND 3: The Slash Line
Slash lines are a good indicator of how well or poorly a player or team is hitting. Maybe run production is down in the Gross era, but it’s possible that the Phillies are hitting better, right? Think again. The Thompson era saw a .256/.331/.435 slash line. Not bad. The Gross era is currently posting a .255/.328/.396 slash line. It’s pretty even until you get to slugging percentage, which is again down because the homers are down. That puts the Thompson era ahead on this one. Winner: Milt Thompson
It’s a sweep for the former Phillies hitting coach. Run production was up, as was the all important slash line. The Phillies were a better hitting team under Thompson, but this could be the effect of many variables. Charlie Manuel’s importance to the offense shouldn’t go unmentioned either. Our own Jay Floyd talked to Gross recently, who gave an idea of how much Charlie’s presence is felt:
We have a certain type of manager. Charlie is a manager that likes the guys to swing the bat and he’s under the impression that if he’s got a guy on second [base], he’s gonna take his chances with that guy driving him in and he’s not gonna give up outs. And he’s been very successful and the club’s been very successful.
It sure sounds like Charlie Manuel doubles as the hitting coach, while Greg Gross is just “there” to help out.
BONUS ROUND: Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard is the power hitter on the Phillies. He hits clean up and is expected to hit for power and drive in runs, especially with that $125 million contract set to begin next year. Something interesting happened when Gross took over. Ryan Howard’s power numbers decreased. In the year before Thompson was fired until now, his slugging percentage dropped 67 points (.545 to .478). Conversely, his walk percent showed an increase (7.16% to 11.99%). It seems like Howard’s approach has changed for the worse. His strikeouts are up, while his average (.303 to .253) and on base percentage (.360 to .351) are down. If his walks are up, how is his OBP down? Here’s how: He is getting less hits, especially for extra bases, while striking out more. One could say this is simply a result of Howard aging, and that may be the case, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
All in all, hitting coaches may or may not affect a team’s offensive production, but the Thompson era was clearly more productive than the Gross era. Does it mean that the Phillies should fire Gross and re-hire Thompson? Probably not.
But it is something to think about.