SAN FRANCISCO – Before the San Francisco Giants scored 107 best baseball wins last year, broke an eight-year string of Los Angeles Dodgers titles in the National League West and looked like geniuses, a seemingly crazy idea came up a year earlier.
What if, manager Gabe Kapler asked his new boss, we expand the expert staff? Like, really expanded, to a total of 13 coaches? Kapler, who was given the seemingly impossible task of replacing Bruce Bochy, explained his vision, comparing it to the importance of a strong student-teacher ratio. The smaller the class size, the more benefits students have.
“And I thought, well, this isn’t elementary school, this is a big league,” said Farhan Zaidi, president of Giants Baseball Operations.
But the more Kapler lobbied, the more it made sense.
“It was really out-of-the-box thinking because it wasn’t just one or two coaches going over the norm,” Zaidi said. “Look, I had my skeptics. I thought, ‘Are we going to have enough work for all these people?’ But it turned out to be a really good analogy. “
The Giants have indeed increased their staff to 13 coaches (not including the manager) for the 2020 season. hitting; and pitching coach, pitching director and assistant pitching coach. They listed traditional roles (bench coach / field coach and first and third base coaches) and non-traditional ones (quality assurance coach). There was a coach / catch coach, plus two assistant coaches, one of whom was Alyssa Nakken, the first female coach in Major League Baseball.
For most of Bochy’s 13 years, during which he piloted the Giants at three World Series championships over a five-season period, he worked with what had been the standard in baseball for decades: six coaches. They were bench, kicking, throwing, first base, third base and column. By 2019, their final season, the Giants have added an assistant hitting coach and, under the new replay rules, a “coach / video replay analyst”.
It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, but given the way the game has changed, there may be an era of videotapes before the digital age.
“It may be a little out of bounds, but out of bounds it’s more and more out of bounds,” said Larry Baer, president and CEO of the Giants whose approval of the increased budget for coaches brought enormous returns last summer.
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Indeed, in an industry where success breeds equines, 13 teams this year cite coaching staffs in double digits. Cincinnati parried San Francisco with 13 coaches. Phillies, Cubs and Diamondbacks are 12 each; The Red Sox and Angels have 11.
“Teams are paying close attention to the support they can give players and recognize that we have many more resources available as organizations than we did 15 years ago,” said Chris Antonetti, president of Cleveland Baseball Operations, whose Guardians employ eight coaches.
Kapler’s theme isn’t a favorite, mostly because he’s embarrassed to be given credit for an idea that is rooted in the game. Yes, he said, he may have 13 coaches, but he would prefer people to point out that it was his players who won 107 games.
Besides, for him, the idea of expanding the coaching staff is just common sense.
“You have a large group of players, and they all have different communication styles, they all have different backgrounds, they all come from different parts of the country and from different parts of the world,” Kapler said. “The goal for us was and is to give everyone in our club someone I can connect with and connect with.”
The idea is to adapt the programs to the needs of individual players and to ensure that communication flows in two ways. When Brandon Belt, Darin Ruf and LaMonte Wade Jr. take the ground balls on the first base, everyone may want to focus on another skill on a particular day. Maybe Brandon Crawford wants a lighter load, but Mauricio Dubón wants to prepare harder. New employee Pedro Guerrero gives the Giants a Spanish-speaking punching coach to serve those players in the dugout during games, bypassing the need for an interpreter.
The key philosophy is for players to become “co-pilots” in their careers, said Kai Correa, a bench and field coach, who added that the Giants want to become “as much chefs as consumers” in their ongoing development.
“We spend as much time using our ears as anything else,” Correa said.
Only three coaches have played in major tournaments – Andrew Bailey (throwing coach), Brian Bannister (pitching director) and Antoan Richardson (first base coach). Only five of them 13 were even in the professional staff of the first league. Kapler met some of them during his four years as director of Dodgers player development from 2014-17. He knew others, either by reputation or by the reviews of five-star colleagues, so he hired them.
“He was a longtime listener, the first time he called,” said JP Martinez, an assistant throwing coach who was hired last year after Ethan Katz left to become the Chicago White Sox throwing coach. “I paid attention to his career, I heard stories in the lower leagues about his intensity and commitment to fitness and nutrition.”
Martinez added that when Kapler succeeded in Philadelphia in 2018 and 2019, “The impression is that he called from the spreadsheets, and one of the things he preached strongly to Bales and me last year was not to focus too much on matches where you don’t watch the game, and we don’t pay attention to the atmosphere in the dugout and what we feel about the players. “
Martinez came from the Minnesota organization, where the Twins linked old-school baseball men such as former managers Sam Perlozzo and Mike Quade with analyst experts such as Josh Kalk, the organization’s guru.
“When I landed here, it was the perfect crossroads between the two,” Martinez said. “There’s a lot of feeling in this clubhouse.”
There are also plenty of faces to teach players, especially for newbies.
“You run into people over breakfast, lunch, coffee or something,” said right-winger Alex Cobb, who signed a two-year, $ 20 million contract for a free agent with the Giants this winter. “It’s not like quick outings where you go to every room and talk for a while.”
As for the Giants veterans, they have not only adapted – they have also progressed.
Right-hander Anthony DeSclafani made a career year last summer, scoring 13-7 with a 3.17 ERA in 31 starts. He picked up advice on his crooked ball from Martinez, received advice on his change from Bannister, and drowned in “Bails that transmits everything to the mental side of things.”
“Everyone had their own unique experience to offer, and that’s really great,” DeSclafani said.
Belt, a veteran entering his 12th season, said many players were initially skeptical of the new system. “But there’s literally someone available to you at all times,” he said, “and you don’t realize how much that means until you get it.”
MLB regulations allow one manager and eight coaches in the dugout during matches (when the lists expand in September, clubs are allowed nine coaches on the bench). Giant coaches who are not in the dugout are stationed in the clubhouse or behind the dugout in a closed punching cage to help where needed. Nakken, for example, ensures that potential pinch hitters know which rival pitchers are warming up on the bench. One of her other responsibilities is to break the percentage of the opponent’s ball so that the Giants can deploy five in the field at the right time.
All in all, Kapler compares Nakken to a traffic director who makes sure that communication between coaches, as well as between coaches and players, is flawless.
“I don’t feel too much pressure, except that we want to be as ready as possible every day,” Nakken said of her pioneering role as a woman. “So, in that sense, it’s a responsibility to come and do the job really well.”
Before the spring training in 2020, Kapler organized a two-day vacation, during which the entire coaching staff visited interesting places in San Francisco, ate, talked – and socialized. This spring, the coaches attended the Bon Iver concert in Arizona.
As Correa said, it is a group that knows how to use its ears. Communication “is not something that has always been known as strength in baseball,” said outside player Mike Yastrzemski, “but knowing what’s going on gives guys peace of mind to know what they need to do to get out and be successful.”