SAN FRANCISCO — Before the San Francisco Giants won baseball’s record 107 wins last year, ended the West Los Angeles Dodgers’ eight-year National League title streak and looked like geniuses, there was a seemingly crazy idea that had come up a year earlier.
What if, manager Gabe Kapler asked his new boss, we expand the coaching staff? Like, really expanded, to 13 coaches in total? Kapler, who had been given the seemingly impossible task of replacing Bruce Bochy, explained his vision, likening it to the importance of having a strong student-teacher ratio at school. The smaller the class size, the more students benefit.
“And I thought, well, it’s not grade school, it’s the big leagues,” said Farhan Zaidi, president of baseball operations for the Giants.
But the more pressure Kapler pressed, the more sense he made.
“It was really off the beaten track because it just wasn’t going one or two coaches beyond the norm,” Zaidi said. “Listen, I had my skepticisms. I thought, ‘Are we going to have enough to do for all these people?’ But, it turned out to be a very good analogy.
The Giants indeed inflated their roster to 13 coaches (not including the manager) for the 2020 season. Instead of a batting coach and a pitching coach, they employed three each: a batting coach, a batting manager/assistant batting coach and an assistant batting coach; and a pitching coach, pitching manager, and assistant pitching coach. They listed traditional roles (bench coach/infield coach and first and third base coaches) and one non-traditional role (quality assurance coach). There was a bullpen/catching coach, as well as two assistant coaches, one of whom was Alyssa Nakken, Major League Baseball’s first female coach.
For most of Bochy’s 13 years, during which he piloted the Giants to three World Series championships in five seasons, he worked with what had been the norm in baseball for decades: six coaches. They were bench, batter, pitcher, first base, third base and bullpen. In 2019, his final season, the Giants added an assistant batting coach and, out of respect for the new replay rules, a “video replay coach/analyst.”
It doesn’t seem that far away, but considering how gaming has changed, this might as well be the era of VCRs before the digital age.
“It may be a little off the beaten path, but off the beaten path is increasingly inside the beaten path,” said Larry Baer, President and CEO. management of the Giants, whose approval of the increased training budget brought huge returns last summer.
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Indeed, in an industry where success breeds imitators, 13 teams have double-digit coaching rosters this year. Cincinnati tied San Francisco with 13 coaches. The Phillies, Cubs and Diamondbacks are at 12 each; the Red Sox and Angels have 11.
“Teams are paying a lot of attention to the support they can provide to players and recognize that there are far more resources available to us as organizations than 15 years ago,” said Chris Antonetti, president of Cleveland baseball operations, whose Guardians employ eight coaches.
The topic isn’t Kapler’s favorite, largely because he’s uncomfortable being given credit for an idea that takes root in the game. Yes, he said, he might have 13 coaches, but he’d rather people point out that it’s his players who have won 107 games.
Moreover, for him, the idea of expanding the coaching staff is common sense.
“You have a great 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 different parts of the world,” Kapler said. “The goal for us was and is to give everyone in our clubhouse someone to identify with and someone they can connect with.”
The idea is to tailor the agendas to the needs of individual actors and ensure that communication flows both ways. When Brandon Belt, Darin Ruf and LaMonte Wade Jr. take ground balls to first base, each may want to focus on a different skill on a particular day. Maybe shortstop Brandon Crawford wants a lighter workload, but Mauricio Dubón wants more intense pre-game preparation. New signing Pedro Guerrero gives the Giants a Spanish-speaking hitting coach to serve players in the dugout during games, obviating the need for a translator.
A crucial philosophy is for players to become “co-pilots” in their careers, said Kai Correa, the bench and field coach, who added that the Giants want them to become “leaders just as much.” than consumers” in their continued development.
“We spend as much time using our ears as anything else,” Correa said.
Only three of the coaches have played in the majors – Andrew Bailey (pitching coach), Brian Bannister (pitching manager) and Antoan Richardson (first base coach). Only five of the 13 had even been on the major league coaching staff. Kapler got to know some of them during his four years as director of player development for the Dodgers from 2014-2017. Others he knew, either by reputation or by five-star reviews from his colleagues, and he made a point of recruiting them.
“He was a long-time listener, a first-time contract,” said JP Martinez, the pitching assistant coach who was hired last year after Ethan Katz left to become the pitching coach. Chicago White Sox pitchers. “I paid attention to his career, I had heard stories in the minor leagues about his intensity and his commitment to fitness and nutrition.”
Martinez added that when Kapler was successful in Philadelphia in 2018 and 2019, “The impression is that he was making calls from spreadsheets, and one of the things he strongly preached to Bails and me last year was not to get too locked into games where you don’t watch the game and we don’t pay attention to the atmosphere in the dugout and how we feel about the players.
Martinez came from the organization in Minnesota, where the Twins connected old-school baseball men like former managers Sam Perlozzo and Mike Quade with analytics experts like pitching guru Josh Kalk. the organization.
“When I landed here it was the perfect intersection between the two,” Martinez said. “There are a lot of feelings in this clubhouse.”
There are also quite a few faces for players to learn, especially for newcomers.
“You meet people for breakfast, lunch, coffee or whatever,” said right-hander Alex Cobb, who signed a two-year, $20 million free agent contract with the Giants this winter. “It’s not like speed dating where you visit every room and chat for a while.”
As for the Giants veterans, they haven’t just adapted, they’ve thrived.
Right-hander Anthony DeSclafani produced a career year last summer, going 13-7 with a 3.17 ERA in 31 starts. He got advice on his curveball from Martinez, got advice on his Bannister change, and got drenched in “Bails relaying everything on the mental side of things.”
“They all had their unique experience to offer, and that’s really cool,” DeSclafani said.
Belt, a veteran entering his 12th season, said many players were skeptical of the new system at first. “But there’s literally someone there at all times,” he said, “and you don’t realize how much that means until you have it.”
MLB regulations allow one manager and eight coaches in a dugout during games (when rosters expand in September, clubs are allowed nine coaches on the bench). Giants coaches not in the dugout are stationed in the clubhouse or behind the dugout in the indoor batting cage to assist when needed. Nakken, for example, makes sure potential pinchers know which rival pitchers are warming up in the bullpen. One of his other jobs is to break down his opponents’ rushing percentages so the Giants can deploy a five-man infield at the right time.
Overall, Kapler likens Nakken to a traffic manager who makes sure communication between coaches, and between coaches and players, is seamless.
“I don’t feel too much pressure, except that we want to be as prepared as possible every day,” Nakken said of her pioneering role as a woman. “So in that sense, it’s a responsibility to come in and do the job very well.”
Ahead of spring 2020 training, Kapler hosted a two-day retreat, during which the entire coaching staff visited points of interest around San Francisco, eating, talking — and bonding. This spring, the coaches attended a Bon Iver concert in Arizona.
As Correa said, this is a band that knows how to use its ears. Communication “isn’t something that’s always been known as a strength in baseball,” outfielder Mike Yastrzemski said, “But knowing what’s going on gives guys peace of mind to know what they need to do. do to go out and be successful.”