December 13, 2016 • BaseballCoaching

Why observation is critical to improving players and coaches

This past offseason, the San Diego Padres named Andy Green their new manager. To those outside of the baseball fraternity, and to many who are a part of it, the collective reaction was more of a “who?” than a “wow!”

Shortly after the announcement, Green did an interview with MLB Network’s Al Leiter, saying, “I sure do remember you, Al … But I doubt you remember me. Most don’t remember the .200 hitters.”

watch-learnAnd most .200 hitters don’t get a lot of playing time. Their view of the game more often comes from the dugout bench than it does the batter’s box, as was clearly the case with Green, whose primary position is listed as pinch hitter on his page.

By all means, Green was qualified to become a major league manager. He spent three years as a minor league skipper in the Arizona Diamondbacks system before spending one season as the third base coach with Arizona’s major league club, where he was widely praised for the work he did on defense. As a player, he spent parts of four seasons in the big leagues with the Diamondbacks and Mets. Most of his 10-year playing career came in the minor leagues, with one year spent with the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan. In 140 career games spanning four seasons in the major leagues, Green was a .200 hitter.

So how does a career Mendoza-line hitter earn one of just 30 managerial jobs at the sport’s highest level? Simple. He made the most of the games he didn’t play in — and he’s not the first to do so. Take a look at the following current or former major league managers whose footsteps Green can only dream of following.

From player to manager

  • Tony LaRussa. He played in 132 major league games over a six-year period and was a career .199 hitter. He would manage more than 5,000 major league games during his 33-year coaching career that included three World Series titles.
  • Jim Leyland. He never made it higher than Double-A in a playing career that lasted seven years. His managerial career lasted 22 years, collecting three pennants and one World Series title.
  • Bruce Bochy. He never played more than 63 games in a 162-game MLB season. This marks his 22nd year as a big league manager, and he has won three World Series championships in the last six years.
  • Joe Maddon. He played three years of professional baseball, not one of which was spent higher than Single-A. He’s won at least 90 games seven times in his 11 full seasons as a major league manager, and for two of the league’s most historically unsuccessful franchises — the Rays and Cubs.

When transitioning to coaching, it’s conceivable that guys without a ton of success as players have somewhat of an advantage over those who enjoyed All-Star appearances and MVPs. The reason is they know — based on their own experiences — how hard the game can be, and that gives them a perspective that breeds patience with players, an extremely valuable yet extinguishing trait in this age of instant gratification.

Wayne Gretzky is considered the best player in the history of hockey. As a coach, he never reached the playoffs and has a sub-.500 career winning percentage. Isiah Thomas is a Hall-of-Famer and considered one of the game’s top 50 players of all time. Yet, he failed so famously with the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks that he might now be remembered more for how bad he was as a coach.

Watch and learn

Here is an astounding fact: Every single game, practice or workout in every single sport is an opportunity to learn something — just by watching. What’s even more astounding is how few take advantage of it. When between the lines, the best players are so locked in on their job and the competition that they don’t see the big picture of the game. That’s not a bad thing; it’s a trait that helps make them great. But for those who aren’t destined for stardom, the big picture is all they see. The ones who take advantage of that perspective are not only prepared when their number is called, but also if they decide to coach.

baseball batterWhether watching TV or a live game, taking notice of what’s taking place on the field gives you an appreciation of the small details that can pay huge dividends down the road. Was the outfielder not in the correct backup position? Did the shortstop throw the ball to the correct base, preventing the runner from advancing? Is the hitter getting ready to hit on time? Is the pitcher tipping his pitches by the way he holds the ball?

Talent can take players and teams far, but if you ask any coach it’s those little things that can truly make players and teams of the championship variety. Most times, those little things can’t be seen unless players are really paying close attention.

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I’ve often asked my own players if they noticed a specific play in a particular game, the idea being to use it as a teaching point. Few ever raise their hand. What I realized is that while these guys love to play, they don’t enjoy watching. My playing career ended 10 years ago, and it was a different time with far less to occupy our down time. But my love for the sport combined with a drive to improve had me constantly watching games if I wasn’t on the field.

I had a very non-descript minor league playing career before an injury pushed me toward coaching. A lifetime .260 hitter, much like Green, I too “enjoyed” plenty of time from my front-row seat on the bench. But my genuine interest in the game enabled me to take full advantage of that time. During my playing career, former coaches complimented me by saying that having me on their team was like having another coach on their staff. Now, as a coach, I realize how valuable it is to have guys like that.

Watching made me smarter for when it came time to play. Watching taught me so many things that put me in a position to be successful on the field, in addition to the countless things that would hinder my development. I can say watching enabled me to help my teammates improve throughout the season. Watching as a player helped me to become a better coach. Watching taught me so much.

If watching the game teaches so much to those who don’t play, imagine what it can do for those who do.

Darren Fenster is manager of the Greenville Drive, a Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Find him on Twitter at @CoachYourKids.

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