Yankees: Blame Marcus Thames? Assessing hitting coach’s legacy

TORONTO, ON - MARCH 30: Manager Aaron Boone #17 of the New York Yankees and hitting coach Marcus Thames #63 (L) look on during batting practice before the start of MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on March 30, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Aaron Boone;Marcus Thames
TORONTO, ON - MARCH 30: Manager Aaron Boone #17 of the New York Yankees and hitting coach Marcus Thames #63 (L) look on during batting practice before the start of MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on March 30, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Aaron Boone;Marcus Thames /
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There’s a reason I love baseball more than any other professional sport: statistics. Statistics allow me, a person of no special athletic ability, to opine on the performance of elite athletes without feeling like a fraud. They also make it possible to point out the failures of players without feeling mean (“You don’t suck, it’s just your batting average that sucks.”)

But while statistics are the lifeblood of baseball fandom, they do not touch every corner of the game.

When it comes to judging managers and the coaches, fans are left to react to the odd in-game decision, and the general performance of their players.

The Yankees will enter the 2022 season, keeping embattled manager Aaron Boone, but moving on from hitting coach Marcus Thames (and Thames’s assistant P.J. Pilittere). From a narrative perspective, it’s a sad divorce. Boone and Thames are both folk-heroes for what they did as Yankee players.

Boone famously hit a game-winning, extra inning home run against the Boston Red Sox in the seventh game of the 2003 ALCS.

Thames’ moment came on a smaller scale, but Yankees fans will never forget when he hit a home run on the first pitch of his career off of Randy Johnson, the legendary pitcher who was most responsible for New York’s loss in the 2001 World Series.

Yankees: Does Marcus Thames deserve his legacy with the NYY?

Alas, both Boone and Thames were one hit wonders, both being let go by the Yankees the year after their big home runs (though Thames would return and sting Jonathan Papelbon in 2010). The Bombers tried to fix that in 2018, hiring Boone as manager and promoting Thames to be their hitting coach. Four years later, that feel-good experiment has (partially) come to an end.

Thames’s firing comes as no surprise. He was the hitting coach for a team called the Bronx Bombers, a team that was supposed to dominate the league with its offensive ability and win over 100 games. Instead, the Yankees struggled to win a “mere” 90 games, and only one of their bombers, Aaron Judge, really performed up to expectations.

But while Thames’s firing was foreseeable, was it right? His team might not have been hitting, but was his coaching to blame?

When it comes to assessing players, the baseball community has learned to separate individual talent from team results. In the 2010s, pitchers Felix Hernandez and Jacob deGrom both won Cy Young awards despite posting poor win-loss ratios. Pitching statistics are precise enough to tell us that Hernandez and deGrom were not only “winning,” but elite pitchers. Their poor win-loss records were caused solely by their underachieving teammates.

Pitchers like deGrom and Hernandez benefit because statistics such as ERA, ERA+, FIP and xFIP exist. When it comes to coaches, however, we lack the benefit of such precise metrics.

Was Marcus Thames truly an underachiever? Or was he a “losing” superstar, like Hernandez and deGrom? Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing. What we can do, however, is look at how Thames’s story lines up with that of past Yankee hitting coaches, and see what lessons that provides.

Three Memorable Coaches

Thames’s four-year tenure as New York’s hitting coach is nothing to scoff at. The “hitting coach” position dates back to 1958, when it was held by future Yankee manager Ralph Houk.

In the years to follow, few coaches would survive more than two years at the position.  Only two coaches, Chris Chambliss (1996-2000, he also served in 1988) and Kevin Long (2007-14) served longer single stints than Thames.

(That’s right. If you get anything out of this article, it’s that Long had the Longest coaching tenure.)

Thames’s firing appears to have more in common with Long’s than with Chambliss’. When Chambliss was let go after the 2000 season, his team had scored 5.41 runs/game; the league average that year was 5.14. Indeed, Chambliss-coached Yankee teams never scored less than the league average in runs per game.

Chambliss, however, had developed some trust issues with New York’s stars, particularly Tino Martinez. Because New York had another hitting coach in their system,  Gary Denbo (who Derek Jeter sees as a confidante to this day), the team was able to look beyond the surface level results, and hire a coach in Denbo who was better positioned to speak to his players.

Thames and Long, by contrast, were both let go following seasons in which their teams scored fewer runs than the league average (in Long’s case, it happened two years in a row). Unlike with Chambliss, there do not appear to have been major complaints about Long or Thames’ compatibility with New York’s personalities.

In Long’s and Thames’ cases, the numbers just weren’t what they needed to be, and the Yankees, rightly or wrongly, made their long-time hitting coaches shoulder the blame.

Long’s and Thames’ Star Students

Perhaps a better way of examining hitting coaches, beyond total team runs, is through looking at individual success stories and failures. Long’s clear successes are actually harder to identify than Thames’.

Long inherited many of the big hitters he worked with: A-Rod, Jeter, Posada, Giambi, etc. Granted,  he is probably the man to credit for the development of Robinson Canó. Brett Gardner also learned to be a respectable hitter under Long, and backup catcher Francisco Cervelli developed enough to receive a starting job after leaving New York.

But while Long was tasked with coaching a team of legendary veterans, Thames was really given the chance to shine with fresh talent, and, at first, shine he did.

Thames got off to a great start in 2018, as his rookie pupils Miguel Andújar and Gleyber Torres established themselves as offensive forces to be reckoned with. Later that year, he helped develop career minor-leaguer Luke Voit into a home run juggernaut.

Thames wasn’t done there. In 2019, he oversaw talent surges from Gio Urshela and DJ LeMahieu, a career high in home runs for Gardner, and excellent production from Mike Tauchman and Cameron Maybin off the bench.

And we can’t forget that Thames was the assistant to hitting coach Alan Cockrell in 2016-17. So surely, he deserves some credit for the offensive development of Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Gary Sánchez and Aaron Judge.

Long’s victories were less dramatic than Thames’, but so too were his defeats. Save for Robinson Canó’s down year in 2008 (and Ivan Rodriguez’s forgettable Yankee cameo that same year), Long didn’t really oversee any major meltdowns in player performance.

Thames, by contrast, watched his floor collapse beneath him. 2021 saw his previous victories with LeMahieu, Urshela and Torres disintegrate. His experience training Gary Sánchez, meanwhile, continued to be an up and down battle (though, in fairness, Thames did receive a lot of praise in the middle of the season for helping Sánchez unlearn his leg kick).

“Failure” May Be the Wrong Framing

When the Yankees fired Kevin Long Brian Cashman was very diplomatic in his comments.

"“Kevin is an exceptional hitting coach. He did a tremendous job. The players trust him,” he said, but clarified. “It’s a game of change,” Cashman said. “I need a guy who will use every tool in the toolbox. Working against the shift, adjusting to the shift is something today’s player has got to be open-minded to. … No one wants to be giving away outs consistently.”"

In short, Long wasn’t let go because he had forgotten how to coach, or because he was an incompetent directly responsible for the Yankees scoring a below-average run total. No, Long was let go because baseball was shifting to the analytics age, and Cashman wanted a coach who was 100% on board with the team’s new strategic vision.

In the case of Thames, the issue may be more subtle. As a young coach hired in 2018, Thames is surely on board with analytics. But respecting analytics and being able to apply them in your coaching are two very different things.

The Yankees have built their offense for years around players who can draw walks and hit home runs, but not necessarily hit for average. Someone in the Yankee front office has calculated that that is the best possible team for New York to have put together.

But right now, that team isn’t good enough. Joey Gallo put together an All-Star worthy campaign as a low-average power hitter in Texas, yet declined just enough when he got to New York to be a liability to the team.

Giancarlo Stanton, meanwhile, has provided enough power to be a solid contributor in his time with the Yankees, but hasn’t performed at the elite level that drove the Yankees to purchase his expensive contract from Miami in the first place.

In order to win in the foreseeable future, the Yankees will have to get the most out of players with similar skillsets to Stanton, Gary Sánchez and Gallo. That was the challenge that Marcus Thames couldn’t quite live up to. But whether there’s any coach who can live up to this challenge is very much a mystery.