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August 27, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

Baseball's Biggest Coaching Bias

by Gabe Kapler

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers, and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 – with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox’ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on Twitter @gabekapler. You can read his earlier articles for BP here and here and listen to his discussion of advanced stats on Effectively Wild with Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller here.


The photograph of my former Double-A hitting coach Matt Martin posing with his all black high school baseball team tickles me. Just as he does now in the culturally diverse world of Minor League Baseball, Matt, a blond-haired, blue-eyed man, stuck out then like an orange in a pyramid of apples. In my mind’s eye and without effort, I can see the teenaged version of Matt strutting through the cafeteria, oblivious to the eyeballs trained on him. He’s Eminem in 8 Mile, with less of the ungodly talent and no awareness of his awkward whiteness.

That was my naïve interpretation, or my fantasy of what was. The reality, it turns out, was drastically different. Matt felt more at home at his high school—which by his definition had 90 percent black, 9 percent Latino and 1 percent white students—than in any other environment since. He was universally accepted and looked up to by his classmates for his athletic ability on the baseball field and basketball court. Additionally, Matt displayed his toughness hanging with his peers in a game called “Chest and Ribs,” essentially a fist fight where only an uppercut to the jaw was off limits. Matt was a peacock.

Stepping into the professional baseball-coaching world would be far more vexing than his experience at Estacado High School on the East side of Lubbock, Texas. In pro ball, he would be deflated by a group of field staff who with spiteful intolerance of independent thought regularly hammered down a different-shaped nail.

I remember the first time I saw Matt at Tiger Town in Lakeland, Florida in 1997. In an ecosystem where the coaches wore golf shirts, Matt rocked a full Run DMC-style sweat suit and baseball cap. “That’s odd,” I thought to myself as I digested his serious countenance and erect posture. His was the face of a baby, surrounded by sun-blasted, leathery faced colleagues for whom we rookie minor leaguers were used to standing at attention. From my perspective, Matt had nil in common with the other coaches, and that’s probably what intrigued me about him.

Matt and I bonded early, but not yet deeply, in the complex’s weight room over our mutual love of Ice Cube, DJ Quik, and the Houston Rockets. We each had severe man crushes; his on Hakeem Olajuwon, mine on my childhood idol, Charles Barkley.

In 1998, we spent the season together in the tiny, filthy clubhouse at the since deceased Wolfson Park in Jacksonville, Florida. It was in the bootleg batting cage, the nets literally collapsing on our heads, that I spent countless hours relentlessly striking balls inconsistently weighted off a tee, with Maniac Matt by my side, invisibly grimacing to support me as I fought through the sessions. “Relax your hands,” Matt would tell me. “Breathe.”

Matt’s intuitive comprehension of what would make him a great coach was granted by the gene genie or some higher power, not learned. It’s not his understanding of mechanics, although that certainly is a contributing factor. And it’s not his experience. It’s love.

I felt Matt’s passion firsthand. I knew he stepped to the plate with me, sunk his spikes into the dirt with me, and navigated the game’s emotional swings by my side. When I recognized this about him, I knew I was in the presence of a platinum heart.

If there is another soul as passionately loyal as Matt’s in the game of baseball, I haven’t felt its presence. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who had him as an infield coach in major-league spring training at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix, agrees. “The best thing about Matt is his loyalty,” Mattingly says.

In 2011, I was in camp with the Dodgers and witnessed Matt impacting players for the first time since he mentored me in 1998. He bounced around the desert complex assiduously overseeing every infielder with the same care. He speaks Spanish fluently, and the ear-to-ear grins on the faces of Latin players assured me I was witnessing a difference maker.

I investigated further to confirm what my small sample was telling me. I sat with then-Dodgers middle infielder (and now Kansas City Royal) Jamey Carroll over a typical ham-and-hard-boiled-eggs spring training breakfast. I asked him about Matt’s knowledge, with the understanding that the two men had begun a routine of daily work. Jamey had the dope and gladly dealt it. He was emphatic: “Matt’s the real deal. He certainly knows what he’s talking about.”

Every infielder I poll tells me the same thing: Matt’s knowledge and understanding of infield mechanics is second to none.

So why is Matt Martin not helping your big-league club this season? Partially because he’s different and opinionated, and because baseball is notorious for disliking both attributes. His appearance and teaching style are drastically divergent from the MLB cultural norm. In a world where conformity feels safe, Matt can come off as threatening—not in the least to players, but certainly to other staff members.

When he disagrees with you, he will let you know, no matter who you are. Sometimes without filter and often times when he shouldn’t. Sugarcoating doesn’t sit well with him. He views it as disingenuous.

“Matt will give his honest opinion, even if he stands alone,” Mattingly told me.

Standing alone, it turns out, is not conducive to ladder climbing. Martin, 44, is currently responsible for overseeing the Baltimore Orioles organization’s defense as the minor league Infield/Latin American Field Coordinator. The O’s are his sixth organization. He’s been coaching since 1995. Prior to getting his foot in the door as a coach, he had a short playing career in the Cincinnati Reds organization, reaching high A-ball.

In contrast, Mattingly was one of the greatest hitters of his generation. When he walks into a clubhouse, images of pinstripes, eye black, and upper-deck blasts flood the collective memories of the players present. He has their undivided attention, but that’s where his advantage ends. After that he has to prove his value with substance, and he delivers. Don is somehow able to maintain a level of humility that allows him to remain totally approachable, an often-overlooked leadership quality. He remembers how hard the game was, and players can exhale knowing that their manager is patient and empathetic to their struggles. From my vantage point, Don is more the exception than the rule.

Teaching is the name of the game in player development, and the lessons are all encompassing, not limited to baseball skills. It’s human development—the shaping of men. Being a superb player doesn’t qualify you to be a successful coach. Part of what makes a special teacher is his or her own struggles and tinkering, which provides the foundation for relating to a player who is having a rough go. If something comes particularly easy for you, it may be more difficult to convey methods of repair when your student gets out of whack. After all, you likely didn’t spend much time scrambling and searching for ways to fix yourself.

In my career I’ve had former MLB hitters as batting coaches who attempted to plug me into another hitter as their main method of counsel, which is not a formula for success. “You see how player X does it? Do it like that!” It’s difficult to buy into the equation that me plus an attempt to hit like someone else equals success.

On the flip side, I’ve worked with a Southern California-based hitting coach, Craig Walenbrock, who has progressive, applicable ideas about swing mechanics and attempts to back each of his theories up with hours of video. Craig never played professional baseball and is better equipped to teach hitting than dozens of MLB all-stars.

In my own experience, baseball men, when challenged, often lean on undependable data such as the success of a counterpart’s playing career. Today’s professional baseball culture gives too much credence to coaches’ playing success, which really isn’t indicative of the ability to help current players get better. Matt and other coaches like him can teach regardless of the limited information on the backs of their baseball cards.

Here’s an archetypal script of a conversation behind the scenes:

Baseball man with MLB service time: “I don’t think (insert prospect) will ever hit in the big leagues. He doesn’t have the bat speed.”

Collective voice of the meeting: “He’s right.” “I saw him in the Eastern League and he struggled.”

Baseball man without MLB service time: “I disagree. I’ve seen him get to plus velocity pitches in off the plate consistently. He will hit at the next level.”

Collective voice of the meeting: Quiet. Skeptical eye contact. Queasy energy.

In subsequent hypothetical conversations, it would be commonplace for men who were in the meeting to gossip about the fact that baseball man no. 2 played very little professional baseball, treating that as a sign that the man with the highest level of experience—and with the most service time as a player—owns an opinion with more merit.

This game of ours functions like an old boys’ club. Relationships act as catalysts to position acquisition within an organization. In a perfect world, personal relationships would be the deciding factor when all else is equal. In baseball, relationships weight the scales more than merit, and therefore clubs lose the opportunity to benefit from superb assets like Matt.

Matt recently interviewed with a prominent organization for a coveted Field Coordinator position and was not awarded the job because, among other factors, he didn’t have “a name.” The work went to someone who did. I can’t help but giggle at the absurdity of this reasoning, and at the same time, I’m not surprised.

There is a portion of the baseball community that lowers the volume on their collective hearing aid if the man standing in front of them wasn’t a great player.

The yardstick the baseball community has used to evaluate Matt has been flawed to a degree. His talents have afforded him the opportunity to impact the lives of numerous MLB infielders, but not to wear a MLB uniform.

I’ve had the good fortune to be in the dugout with Perry Hill (one of Matt’s early mentors), Tom Foley, Bucky Dent, and many more respected infield coaches around baseball. And after talking to enough players and managers to satisfy my curiosity, I can safely say that Matt is as equipped as any to lead the defensive charge for an MLB team.

Rudy Jaramillo and Joe Maddon, two of the men who impacted my career the most, never played high-level professional baseball. But personality matters. Unlike Joe, Matt doesn’t make nice well, and unlike Rudy, he doesn’t stare into your soul and tell a story with his eyes. Matt is all substance and no fluff, refusing to kiss ass and rub noses. But he’s a difference maker with the players he works with.

It’s my opinion that the best coaches in baseball can have a quantifiable impact on a player’s success. If nothing else, they make a tangible psychological contribution in a game where outcome is highly dependent on mental state. Wins have been estimated to be worth roughly six million dollars (variable per team), yet every MLB staff has someone with a name and lots of service time who offers very little in the way of productivity. Replacing that someone with a quirky, difference-making no-namer who has world of love and potentially a win to give might help light your cigar and decorate your hand with a piece of ostentatious jewelry.

Related Content:  Coaching,  Matt Martin

18 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

kcshankd

Damn.

Aug 27, 2013 03:21 AM
rating: 2
 
mattseward

Great article again Gabe. Totally agree, I think unfortunately this isn't limited just to baseball. In the premier league many of the managers are ex players with a high pedigree but you look at the best managers and often they were journeymen or had no careers at all.

Unfortunately I think a lot of it comes down to how decisions are perceived, no one will praise a team hiring Matt Martin but a former player will get them credit with the fans. As a Met fan I hear constantly about the players in 1986 being involved in coaching. Whilst I cannot tell whether they are the best people for the job, common sense would suggest they probably aren't

Aug 27, 2013 04:17 AM
rating: 2
 
jtwalsh

Gabe,

I love your contributions to BP. The Effectively Wild podcast you appeared was fantastic. I might have to pony up for a Kapler jersey.

Aug 27, 2013 04:20 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jason Collette
BP staff

I've always felt like the coaches who never had that huge amount of playing career successes were more desirable. Even at a little league level, we've seen the stars become frustrated with their less-talented teammates and that culture only grows as players move up. The lesser talented busted ass daily on the little skills to build some path to the future while the ultra-talented took the express lane to that path. .

Aug 27, 2013 05:10 AM
 
tonyfranco

Gabe, "you are good. You've got a gift..." for writing.

http://youtu.be/iZtbASCE7ZY

Aug 27, 2013 06:29 AM
rating: 1
 
rwinter

Please keep writing, Gabe. Your stuff is a pleasure to read

Aug 27, 2013 06:47 AM
rating: 7
 
fgreenagel2

This was fantastic. I always appreciate stories about outside-the-box thinkers and how the establishment is threatened by them. Your points were logical and measured. Thank you.

Aug 27, 2013 07:44 AM
rating: 1
 
Raoulquinn

Excellent article! Having known Matt Martin in the past and talked with him about baseball on occasion, this article is spot on. Matt combines both a knowledge of the game and a passion that is unrivaled.

Aug 27, 2013 08:25 AM
rating: 0
 
John Douglass

When does the 'guest' thing drop from Gabe's phenomenal work herein?

Aug 27, 2013 08:30 AM
rating: 16
 
SiddFinch

To quote Jack Buck, "Pardon me while I stand up and applaud!"

I ran into this in my six years of working in collegiate baseball (my playing days stopped in 4th grade). It made me realize that this might not be the best career choice. I can't tell you how many times I was skipped over for a coach's son, especially at the winter meetings. I understand being the child of someone has perks in all professions, but in baseball you don't even need a resume.

Gabe makes a great point. Nobody wants a kid with glasses spewing out information why the bunting is a bad idea, how we can measure defense or baserunning, how you shouldn't save your best pitcher exclusively until the 9th, or explaining FIP (I think I just described Dusty Baker!), but there is a certain point that you are hurting your team.

I guess it goes back to Hawk Harrelson and TWTW (the will to win). Doesn't trying to gain all the information possible on your players/opponents qualify as wanting to win? Apparently Not. That being said, I'm preaching to the choir (BP website) and working with someone for 200 14-hour days can be excruciating even with someone you like! Relationships matter, but they shouldn't hurt your team.

Aug 27, 2013 08:34 AM
rating: 3
 
jalee121

Gabe, you have been absolutely shoving it with your last two articles. Please BP, let this continue.

Aug 27, 2013 10:07 AM
rating: 5
 
lewish

Awesome, article Gabe...just like the others!
Thanks!

Aug 27, 2013 11:26 AM
rating: 1
 
jnossal

Guess what? For better or worse, old boys' clubs are how pretty much every organization on Earth operates. It isn't just baseball. You'd be surprised at how many major corporations whose hidebound cronyism matches or even exceeds that of the baseball industry.

Aug 27, 2013 12:51 PM
rating: 5
 
devine

I think one of the factors at work here is:

When a baseball player is done playing baseball, what are they qualified to do?

If a player had some training, education, or skill outside of that required to play baseball, then there's probably an answer for that player, other than "not much".

But I imagine that there is a sizable number of former players who have no external skill set to fall back on, and put a substantial amount of effort into trying to get people to believe that being good at playing baseball = being good at coaching it.

And if there is an existing network of coaches/managers/executives who were former players, those people would likely be highly susceptible to buying it.

Aug 27, 2013 14:42 PM
rating: 2
 
devine

And Gabe?

a) Thank you for a fine article
b) You can write - please do more of it!

Aug 27, 2013 14:43 PM
rating: 1
 
smallflowers

Please hire Gabe Kapler immediately.

Aug 27, 2013 15:51 PM
rating: 1
 
SChandler

Great article. The same goes for announcers. As I believe I read on BP at one time, The skills it takes to play the game and the skills it takes to analyze the game, different skill set.

Aug 28, 2013 08:48 AM
rating: 0
 
SabreTorres21

Fantastic article Gabe. This is seriously some of the best stuff I've read this year and I read a lot of very talented writers.

It's funny how being good at one thing seems to make people think you'd be good at something else that actually requires a different set of skills. I work as a research scientist and when you climb the ladder you end up in management. Think about that: If you turn out to be a great scientist you can be promoted to a position that requires a completely different set of skills than the ones that got you to that position in the first place.

My point is that, of course, you're right. Playing baseball and coaching it are two different sets of skills.

Aug 30, 2013 06:57 AM
rating: 0
 
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