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C.J. Nitkowski has played baseball professionally for 19 years. A former no. 1 (ninth overall) draft pick out of St. John's University (NY) in 1994, he spent parts of 10 seasons in the major leagues with eight different clubs. In 2012 he played in the New York Mets’ minor-league system, where he was attempting to make a comeback as a left-handed sidearm pitcher. C.J. has also played in Japan and South Korea. He has been running his own website, CJBaseball.com, since 1997, and you can follow him on Twitter @CJNitkowski. Recently he played the role of Dutch Leonard in the movie 42, a major motion picture starring Harrison Ford and depicting Jackie Robinson's rookie season. The film is set to be released April 13th, 2013.
One thing that has always bewildered me about the sabermetric community, more specifically its members in the media, has been its general discounting of the value of coaching, especially at the major-league level.
I have read more times than I care to recount how little impact a manager can have on wins and losses, but that’s another topic for another day. What really befuddles me, though, is when a sabermetric scribe plays down the value coaches can have at the big-league level, with doubt about their usefulness dripping from every sarcastic word.
What I find most puzzling is that not only is it not true, but it comes from a source that could never understand what makes a good coach in professional baseball without guessing. Those opinions on MLB coaches are about as valid as mine on ballet instructors.
Like most players, I was slow to come around to advanced statistics. I remember getting emails from seamheads 10-12 years ago, during my career, discussing the importance of things like on-base percentage over batting average. I was bored by the discussion and quickly dismissed what I viewed as radical, illogical thinking. These fans would get very frustrated with me when I discounted their analysis. I remember one guy in particular who would ask me questions and my opinions on things around the league and then snap back at me because my answers didn’t line up with his sabermetrics-based philosophies. It got a little too intense for my taste, and I eventually stopped reading his emails.
Over time I began to listen, paid closer attention, and came around on some sabermetric thinking. I’m not all in, but I see the value in a lot of it. And as recent history has shown us, there is absolutely a place for stat nerds in baseball, a complementary piece in this great game of ours.
Now before you get all up in arms about me dropping the nerd bomb on you, know that I have been viewed as a nerd myself (although if there were a nerd ranking system, I’m sure I would fall somewhere near the bottom). I was discussing with a former teammate of mine who now scouts in the AL the direction in which baseball is going with scouting, advanced statistics, and player analysis. At one point he remarked, “Scouting is something you should consider—the job has gone in a nerdy direction, and you would be a good fit for it.” He asked me not to be offended by the statement, and I wasn’t, but I think you get the point.
So just as players would be wise to stop, listen, and learn a little about advanced statistical analysis before dismissing it so ignorantly, so would sabermetricians be wise to take the time to understand the value of good coaches in MLB.
Why do some prominent sabermetricians in the media dismiss the value of MLB coaching? My best guess has always been that it’s because you can’t really quantify what a coach or manager does for a team. And since you can’t quantify that impact, the thinking goes, it must be minimal or non-existent.
There could be other reasons. It could be because the person had an awful Little League or high school coach experience along the way. I do some amateur coaching now, and those guys certainly exist. Or maybe they had an encounter with a professional coach that didn’t go very well. I’m not sure what the reason is, but there has to be something driving these poorly thought out ideals.
This column not meant to be an “I played and you didn’t” snide remark, but I just don’t think it is possible to really relate to the value of good coaching unless you’ve played this game, especially in the professional ranks.
In the minor leagues you play 144 games plus spring training, maybe playoffs, and possibly instructional league. In the major leagues it is 162 games plus spring and, if you’re lucky, playoffs. The seasons are a grind, both mentally and physically.
By my count, I have played for 39 different managers in four countries over a pro career that started in 1994. I’ve seen many different types of managers and many different types of coaches. There have been great ones and terrible ones, but most of them fall somewhere in the upper-middle section of the spectrum. Major- and minor-league baseball players are fortunate enough to be around some really good coaches.
Coaches and managers take on different roles depending on the level of competition. In the minor leagues, especially at the lower levels, coaching is about instruction. At Triple-A, instruction is still important, but most of the players have been around, and coaching becomes more about tweaking. The real focus is on prepping for the big leagues and trying to put each of your players in line for a promotion should a need arise with the parent club.
Major-league coaches, though, have a somewhat different task compared to their minor-league counterparts. Their jobs are important and have great value to players.
Personality, while an added benefit, is not always necessary. Certainly you would prefer to have a coach you get along with and who’s a good guy, but it is not essential. I have worked with coaches who don’t have the greatest personalities but do know their baseball. In these situations you take them for what they’re worth and make the best of it. You can’t let your season or your career get off track because you don’t like your pitching or hitting coach.
For me, there are three key components to a good coach: knowledge, commitment, and an ability to communicate and relate. Notice that I did not say big-league playing experience or success. Experience is another added benefit, and most major-league coaches have it to varying degrees. However, success in the game does not always translate into an ability to be a good coach.
You have probably heard it said that the greatest players don’t always make the greatest coaches. That is true in many cases. Some players who have reached the pinnacle of the game don’t always know how to teach it, and they struggle to relate to players who are not as good as they were. They get easily frustrated by those players’ failures and inability to adjust as easily as they did. Most of the best coaches were middle-of-the-road players who had to study, grind, and work hard to stay in the game. Some great players have become good coaches, but I believe they are the exception as opposed to the norm.
Knowledge is Key
You can’t fake your way through being a good coach. Understanding mechanics and having an ability to pick up on flaws is crucial for any coach. As a player, if you’re not careful it is easy to pick up a bad habit in your delivery or swing over the course of a season that can have a big impact on your performance. You may begin to struggle and not realize why.
Most major-league pitchers and hitters know their mechanics inside and out and can quickly adjust on their own when something isn’t right. That is part of what makes them major leaguers. There are times, though, when they don’t. It is then that the coach plays a vital role. If you can’t adjust quickly enough, or your coach can’t help you adjust quickly enough, your performance begins to suffer. You hit a slump and might find yourself demoted to the bench, the bullpen, or even worse, the minor leagues.
A coach has to have extensive knowledge of hitting and pitching mechanic, and almost all of them do. They must know keys points in each player’s swing and delivery and stay focused on those throughout the season to help players avoid prolonged struggles.
Commitment to Your Job and Your Players
Being committed to your pitching staff or your hitters is a big part of the successful coach’s job. The season is long for everyone, and it is easy to get lazy, especially on a losing team near the end of the year. A solid coach commits to his players from the first day of spring to the last day of the season. His commitment to be there for each and every guy is a must, and he can never stray from that.
I recently heard Eric Chavez being interviewed on MLB Network Radio and talking about Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. He talked about out how Long was always available to the Yankee hitters. In the cage, the video room, or on the field for early batting practice, he was always around if guys ever needed him. Chavez said this because it was something that stuck out to him. He has played in the big leagues for 15 seasons, and his comments tell me he has had hitting coaches that didn’t always do it this way. I was with KLong in Triple-A Columbus in 2004, and it doesn’t surprise me that he is so well respected and appreciated by his players.
Preparing your players for opponents is another large part of the commitment of a coach. Learning opposing pitchers’ and hitters’ tendencies can greatly improve a player’s chances of success. It is part of the coach’s job to teach those tendencies, and some put more effort into it than others. Providing your players with scouting reports and video of opponents takes time and can be tedious. Not all players utilize this information, but it is necessary to make it available.
I think it’s worth noting the recent trend of teams adding a second hitting coach. The job of hitting coach, when done well, requires a major commitment. Hiring an extra set of eyes and hands to assist the main hitting coach is a smart move that ensures that players always have access to someone for extra work whenever they need it. If major-league hitting coaches didn’t have much value, teams wouldn’t be adding a second one.
Communication and an Ability to Relate
The final and most important piece of the coaching puzzle is an ability to communicate and relate to your players. Knowledge and commitment are almost givens at the big-league level, but communication is a different skill set, and not all do it well.
You can watch your players or study them on video all day long, but if you can’t communicate what you see, then your eyes and experiences become useless. A coach has to speak the language of his players and understand what makes sense to them and what doesn’t. Too often after players have become coaches or broadcasters they forget how hard it was to actually play this game.
Good coaches don’t forget, and they keep that in mind while trying to help their players with mechanical flaws or game plan struggles. This is where having a coach who has been there as a player or has been coaching a long time really helps. He’s either fixed those flaws in himself or has coached other players who have done it. Sharing those experiences with your players helps accelerate their development, allowing them to build a knowledge database of sorts and moving them more quickly through rough patches.
Each coach has his own unique way of teaching and communicating, and not every way works for every player. Knowing your guys inside and out takes time but in the long run benefits all involved. Some players need little talking to and prefer communication to be infrequent, short, and to the point. Other guys are more analytical, take time processing information, and like to talk through it with a coach. A good coach can adjust to either approach.
Pitchers especially can fall into these categories. Some starters prefer to be left alone on game day with little or no talking before and during a start. Others like to keep it loose, conversing before and during the game to stay relaxed and focused. Coaches need to know who is who and how to handle each player, giving him the best possible chance to succeed.
One hurdle a coach must get through is recognizing that every player will not like him and that he will not like every player. It can’t be taken personally, and it cannot get in the way of doing your job, for both parties involved.
I had a coach in Triple-A tell me one time that he gives his older players one chance. If he makes a suggestion for improvement and they’re not interested in it, then he is done with them for the year. I thought that was a terrible philosophy. Your players won’t agree with everything you say and might not take to all of your suggestions. You can’t take it personally. Your job is the same throughout the season for every player, and personal issues cannot get in the way. You have to be the same coach to the guy who takes your advice the least as you are to the guy who is your best student.
Turnover in the coaching field seems to be higher than ever. When a team fails, there is a tendency to have someone taking the fall, whether they deserve it or not. We never know all of what is going on behind the scenes, but more often than not, the blame should fall on the players. If a team doesn’t have good players, the losses can’t be pinned on a coach. If a coach knows the game and can meet all the criteria I mentioned above, a lousy-win-loss record cannot be his fault.
A great coach does not take a career .220 hitter and turn him into a batting champion in a season. It’s the little things that matter, the small adjustments he helps with throughout the season that keep major leaguers on track. It is the commitment to being there for his players every day and the conversations that keep those players mentally strong. The coach’s impact may seem small, but his value is not.
The name of this game is consistency. Once you get to the big leagues, the bulk of your game—your talent and your abilities—are already in place. From there, success is a matter of staying consistent and making adjustments. Good coaches help with that, doing their best to keep a player’s lows from being too low and lasting for too long. The good ones do everything they can to play their part in helping players bring their best to the field every game.
Knowledge combined with an attitude of service and an ability to relate to players defines a great coach. Players have their favorites and credit them with the some of the successes they have had in their careers. What coaches do cannot be quantified, which makes it very difficult for some to comprehend and appreciate their contributions, but the importance of a good coaching staff cannot be overstated.