added 2/8/2015 by Greg Thurston
As the Astros muddled through three consecutive 100-loss seasons, I often wondered how much of an effect coaching had on the unpleasant situation. Granted, the team was operating with the league's lowest payroll, but the shoestring budget applied not only to the players but the coaching staff as well.
First time managers Brad Mills and Bo Porter were often asked to work with inexperienced coaches. One coach with a long and successful track record, pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, was fired in the middle of the 2011 season. Arnsberg was replaced by Doug Brocail, who had no previous coaching experience. After the Astros pitching staff posted the league's worst ERA in the 2013 season, Brocail was "promoted" to minor league pitching coordinator and replaced by the man who could very well be the savior of the franchise. Brent Strom took over and transformed two pitchers who were having trouble staying in the big leagues, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, into stars. Other members of the Astros 2014 coaching staff may have played significant roles in the breakout seasons experienced by Jose Altuve and Chris Carter.
The Astros 2015 season could end up speaking volumes about exactly how important a coaching staff can be. While Strom will be back to honor the final year of his contract, the Astros have parted ways with third-base coach and infield instructor Pat Listach, as well as first-base coach Tarrik Brock. Both coaches were dismissed after only one season in Houston. Hitting instructor John Mallee has also moved on, opting to go home to Chicago to work with the Cubs. While Gary Pettis, Rich Dauer, and Dave Hudgens figure to be adequate replacements, one can't help but wonder if an adjustment period could slow things down a bit. Relationships between coaches and players can take time to develop.
Even though the Astros ranked well below the league average in almost every offensive category during Mallee's 2-year tenure as hitting coach, the young club actually showed steady improvement. Last season the Astros were fourth in the majors with 163 home runs. The team also saw increases in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. In addition, Astros hitters raised their walk percentage while lowering their overall strikeout percentage compared to the previous season. The club also raised its wRC+ from a dismal 85 in 2013 to a more respectable mark of 96. Mallee often praised Carter as a tireless worker who was committed to taking his game to the next level. Just how much of an impact new hitting coach Dave Hudgens has on Carter's performance remains to be seen.
Carter's 2014 season was a tale of two halves. As of July 3rd the Astros' big man was struggling to stay in the lineup, producing a paltry .181/.263/.399 slash line through his first 269 plate appearances. Add in his monstrous second-half that included 24 home runs and a .267/.350/.572 slash line and you have a set of overall numbers that are strikingly similar to Chris' first season with the Astros – albeit with a notable increase in the power department.
A more aggressive approach at the plate may have played a role in Carter's success. Chris swung at 48.6% of the pitches he saw last season, as opposed to 45.1% in 2013. Carter was also more aggressive on pitches that were in the strike zone, swinging at a 70.2% rate. Not only was that a substantial increase over his mark of 64.6% from 2013, the seemingly passive Carter also came in above the league average.
Hudgens' "wait for your pitch and attack it" approach could require some getting used to for Carter. With the Astros depending on Carter's thump in the middle of the order, another slow start will need to be avoided. As for Altuve, a repeat of 2014 would be asking for a lot. Although his skill set would seem to play no matter what the coaching situation, you never know how quickly those relationships are going to take shape. Given the aggressive approach taken by Jeff Luhnow this offseason in an attempt to improve the team, expectations among the fan base are going to run high. As far as win-hungry Astros fans are concerned, the honeymoon period for A.J. Hinch and company could be a short one.