Few men embody the ethos of the defending champion Kansas City Royals better than first-base coach Rusty Kuntz. The long-time coach is the maestro behind Kansas City's running game and its outfield defense—previously overlooked qualities that have helped propel the Royals to consecutive pennants and a World Series title.
Prior to a series-opening tilt between Kuntz's Royals and the Red Sox at Fenway Park, we sat down with the ever-enthusiastic coach to discuss his preparation, the grind of 162 when you're 60 years old and what a shin guard means as a scouting report.
Tim Britton: What is the daily routine like for a first-base coach, especially on the first game of a series?
Rusty Kuntz: Well, it's a little easier because we already played these guys at our place for three games, so we've got an idea of where they hit the ball and all that stuff. I do the baserunning, basestealing and outfield play. For instance, we just played Miami. You only play them for three days and you're in and out.
It takes you about four solid days. I've got to go through 13 pitchers and then I usually add on two or three more that Topper gets me. You try to break them down, what their tendencies are, what they like to do, what counts they like to throw breaking-ball stuff in, when they like to pick over. You get an idea of pick counts, pitch counts. You've got to go through all that information.
Basically, every three days we get a phone book. And you've got to rolodex through all of it to see what we need as far as information goes, and you've got to do it about 16 times. You've got to pick and choose and find all the information you can on these pitchers. It probably takes you an hour to an hour and 15 minutes to do one guy.
Like right now I'm doing the Yankees, who we don't play for another three days. It's just so time-consuming. You'll have 10 to 12 hours on one pitching staff, and you've got to find time to do it prior to playing them. Plus you've got to keep up with the speed of what's actually going on right now with Boston.
Some of our pitchers that have faced a majority of their hitters right now, you can go back and look at Ian Kennedy facing Boston May 18 at our place. You go through the game, see what kind of pitches he throws, what their approach to him is and try to match that up. Then you go back and look at what these guys have done in their last maybe three or four games against Tampa and try to match up an Ian Kennedy with a Jake Odorizzi—a similar kind of package right there—and see how they approached [Odorizzi] and how they hit him.
Obviously a hitter is going to change from May to now. So you want to get what they've done in the past, because a lot of times if they've had success, they'll go back there.
It's just video, video, video, video. Every day you're behind the video for about 4.5 hours. Every day. I get up about nine in the morning, and the first thing I do is turn on the video and see if I can get about three hours knocked out in the hotel. Then I come here and do another hour or hour and a half, and then by that time Topper's giving me more information on more stuff. That's the grind of what it's like at the big leagues.
Now, does everybody do it? No. A lot of guys, the brainiacs upstairs give you a printout of what their projected lineup is going to be and how it matches up with Kennedy, and they give you their idea of where to play defensively. A lot of guys just take that and run with it.
Me, I've been doing it too long. I don't trust a lot of things. I'm not just going to take a piece of paper from upstairs and go, 'Okay, this is where we're going to play them.' The one ingredient they don't have is what that guy on the mound brings. If he brings his A-game, that piece of paper works. But if he's struggling and he can't locate and he can't find the strike zone, I know defensively in the outfield we go straight up on everybody. You can't cheat if he can't locate.
The last time out Ian against Boston, he was able to locate into all four quadrants with at least two pitches. So he was dealing. So now, I can move the oppo corner in, I can move the pull-side closer to the line, because he's hitting his spots. If he can hit the spots, that's where the hitters are going to hit the ball. So you can cheat.
TB: You've been doing this a long time. How have you refined that process over time as video has become more prevalent?
RK: The same charts I had 35 years ago are the same ones I use now, because I trust what's on those sheets. I'll make some little notes on there—if a guy's struggling, if a guy can't locate, if a guy's spot-on—so that I can go back and look at those notes the next time we face that team.
Video is just a godsend as far as a tool goes. That's why I think it's a shame when guys don't use a lot of different avenues that are available. It's like anything else: If you have information, you have knowledge. You know how baseball is: It comes and goes in patterns. If a guy's hot, what is he doing? He's jerking everything. If he's cold, now is he trying to go the other way more? Those are things you have to adjust to, and that's why video is so important. If I didn't have video and just went off those charts, I might be two days behind. What they do tonight is going to determine what I'm going to do with Duffy tomorrow or Ventura on Sunday.
TB: You have that phone book of data. How do you narrow it down to a single sheet of paper for a guy to look at?
RK: That's the time-consuming part of it. At any given time, we've got four pro scouts that have seen these clubs, and all their information goes into a computer to spit it all out. Actually that's what my son does: He takes that information and condenses it into folders and ships it out to us.
To go back to how it's progressed, I'm learning more what to look for. When I first started, I was overwhelmed. 'Oh my God, where do you start with this?' When you first start, you just try to take the most obvious things, and you try to use those as maybe a little tool for yourself as far as giving a little edge. When this guy's ahead in the count, he really likes to turn. But as soon as he gets to two strikes, he just tries to flick it that way. Like Pedroia will do that at times, and you can tell how comfortable he is with the pitcher by probably the second or third pitch. You'll see that front hip turn and that front elbow explode out of there — well, he's seeing this ball really good and is trying to go up top. A guy like Herrera comes in and he's tougher to find and he's got 98 to 100, he's probably not going to fly out as much. He'll let it travel a little more and maybe close down his stance and try to shoot it to right field. He's a professional hitter. You try to keep up with those kinds of matchups.
Then you've got the game situation. If they've got a couple guys on and they're down by three, I don't care what you are, he's trying to turn and burn. He knows he has to do that at the plate. They might be down by one, Herrera's in to close out the game, he goes to that two-strike approach to try to shoot it through that four-hole to get a base hit. You have to know the game situations too. In those phone books, you find out all that info — ahead in the count, behind in the count, tie score, starters and closers — how all that stuff matches up. That's what the analytical guys have.
TB: You were just in Miami. How different is your outfield defense when you're preparing for a park like that compared to Fenway?
RK: Well that was okay because that ballpark is like ours. Another point along those lines, I've never seen those guys swing a bat. I couldn't tell you who this guy is compared to that. Hechavarria or Yelich—you go back and watch as many games as you can cram in and try to match that pitcher up with someone you might have during that series. So I've got to match somebody up with Ventura and Volquez. If I can't find that on whoever they just played, I've got to go back even more. You go back and try to find, who matches up with Ventura? How'd they approach him?
But you still haven't really ever seen him hit. Those three-and-dones are almost impossible. Now that we're playing interleague and you're playing National League teams like that, it's a cram session for three games. And you go, 'Is it worth it for three games?' Especially if you lose all three. 'I spent about 27 hours going through material and we lost them anyway.' But if you win two out of three like we did and you're trying to get back into that wild card, it makes it all worthwhile. Like I tell these guys, what else would you do? You're getting paid to do this. This is your job.
TB: As a guy with a passion for outfield defense, how validating is it to see the way that is valued now maybe compared to earlier in your coaching career?
RK: Well, you still see a lot of teams that still play straight up. And that's great, but if that one ball you could have been over and in a little bit because you knew that's where he would hit it, that's what gives me the ass. You trust what you see, but you've got to go with your gut. 'The way he's swinging, the way he's pitching, move him in.' He makes that catch, yes. If you don't move him in and the next pitch is a single, now you feel like crap.
You try to engage in the game, how it's flowing, how they're swinging. It's August; that's totally different from May. April is totally different from June because of the temperature. The wind is blowing out, that creates depth problems. August—what's his bat look like now? Does it have a five-pound weight on it? Did they get in at 4:00 in the morning and are just going through the motions in BP, dead-ass tired? There's all kinds of things you look for as far as setting up your defense—not only just what the pitcher/hitter matchup is. All those other different things like the weather, wind, time of game, time of year — this ball is going to fly a lot more today than in April.
I tell young coaches, when you're looking at a guy for the first time—like, I looked at Ozuna for the very first time. There's a couple of things you want to look for right off the bat if you've never seen the guy and want to know where to play this guy. Obviously my pitcher's velo is going to play in. Ventura's throwing 101, I'm going to play you oppo. I don't give a shit if you're dead-pull.
Once I get past a pitcher's velo, now I look at the player. The first thing is if he's got an elbow or shin guard on. The elbow means he's close to the plate, and the shin is he likes to pull. If I don't see either one of those, that means he's off the plate and likes to go the other way. Why would you have a shin guard on if you stay inside the ball and go that way, and why would you have an elbow guard on if you're not on the dish? Those are the first two things I look at. If I see those two things, he's a pull guy.
The next thing I look at is, where is that third-base coach or first-base coach? If Big Papi gets up, where is Ruben Amaro, Jr.? If he's back [on the dirt], this guy's a pull guy. That isn't going to lie. If he's not comfortable here [in the coach's box], he's back there—probably because [the hitter] pulls.
You look at the guards and where that base coach is standing, and that gives you an idea.
If I've got a coach back that far, what does that do to my oppo guy? I bring him in. If he's trying to turn and burn, if he pulls off that pitch away, it's going to be a lot more [flare] than [line drive]. Those are the little things you go through when you're trying to position him for the first time. And then you just read what he does.
TB: And sometimes you have Jarrod to go make a catch in center field over the wall, like you taught him.
RK: Well we did do that earlier. I told him to run like hell, jump by that wall and I'll flip one, and we'll do it 20 times until you get it right—because you never know. And then the third hitter…
No, I'm kidding.
TB: It's nice to have those guys out there.
RK: My God. People say I'm a pretty good outfield coach. I've got Platinum [Alex Gordon] in left, I've got Dyson who other than Gore is the fastest guy in baseball, and then I've got LoCain, whose range in center is No. 1, playing right field. And oh by the way, they're giving me a Brazilian track star as my other outfielder. I'm pretty good. Yeah.
If these guys are diving and sliding, I've got them in the wrong spot. With that kind of speed and those kinds of jumps, if I've got them in the right spot, they're standing there.
TB: You were talking about the grind earlier. We talk about the grind on players all the time. What's the grind on coaches, not just going through 162 but all of spring?
RK: These guys come to spring training to get in shape, and we come to spring training to get the regular season going. From a coaching standpoint, you're walking in there from Day One of spring training—if not even before, because these guys come to Arizona in January so you've got to go down in January to work them out and get them going. You're not 20 years old anymore. I'm 60 now. By this time of the season, I'm out of gas. I'm trying to keep up with 20-year-olds and try to keep them going and keep their energy levels up and all that stuff, when I've got none in the tank.
But it's hard. We get here at 11 or 11:30 in the morning, because you've got to use those video machines before the players come in at about two to get your work done off the information you need. And then you sit in front of your locker for two more hours on your iPad to get all the video information out of it.
And then when the players get done playing, then you go home and you start the next series and then all of a sudden, it starts snowballing. By eight months, now you're in the postseason and you're adding the pressure of the postseason on top of the grind.
Which is a great thing, because that's what you've been preparing for since February, to play for October. It seems like a blink of an eye. The last two times we've gotten to play in the postseason in October, it's by far the fastest month that you have. You're either winning it or losing it in the blink of an eye, and the loser goes home. It's very stressful, and it's a hell of a grind.
TB: You're pretty well known for your positivity. How are you able to maintain that attitude through eight months?
RK: I don't know. I don't know. I'm out of gas now, and sometimes I get real grumpy. I don't know. These guys, when you're working with 20-year-olds, you understand two things as a coach and as long as you keep that in perspective and don't lose that sight, you're going to be okay with it.
One, you have to remember how hard this game is to learn. It's almost impossible. And the second thing, it's a hard game to play. As long as you keep those two things in perspective, how hard it is to learn and how hard it is to play, when you come out and you see one mistake after another, you just call timeout, 'OK, come here,' without blowing a gasket or just having a cow because this guy didn't catch this ball or didn't make that play.
But then you also have that fine line where you've got to make sure these guys understand the importance of what's going on — that not every mistake is OK. I tell them all the time, if it's a mental mistake, it's not acceptable. Physical mistakes are going to happen, but mental mistakes? No. Not being in the right spot at the right time, that's preventable. Those are all effort plays. If you're not backing up first base as a right fielder and the ball goes over his head, that's on you. That's just effort. That E2 turned into a triple, and it's on you. First base is on the catcher, third base is on you.
Those are the ones that give you the ass and those are the ones you have to bring him in and say that's not going to work. You've got to be better than that. You need to make sure that doesn't happen again. And after a while, they get it.
As long as you bring the energy, we'll try to fill up the head with information.
TB: You've been part of a few different organizations. When you were with the Marlins in '93, you're trying to start a culture from scratch. How different is that from your other stops where that's more established?
RK: Yeah, it's a lot harder. I was watching Cliff Floyd today on why baseball chemistry is so important. Most of your guys upstairs, it's about numbers and analytics. Cliffy is absolutely right: It is all about chemistry. These guys live, breathe, eat, sleep — for eight months, they're together more than they're with their families. If you don't have a locker room that bonds together and can stand one another, it's not going to work. That's been proven in the past over and over and over again.
When you talk about starting off the Florida Marlins, some of the chips like Conine and Orestes Destrade, they click and work really good. But then there are also five or six duds you pick up and have to quickly get rid of because they don't mesh with what the organization and team is trying to do. Unfortunately, some of those duds stick around a little bit too long and they create a cancer in the locker room. When that happens, from a coaching perspective—especially in the minor leagues, when you have control of the personnel and the personalities of the players — if you don't buy in, if you don't want to be a part of this, see ya. As a coach, as an instructor, as a front-office person, when you go into a minor-league clubhouse, you want to feel wanted, you want to see smiling faces, you want to see guys happy. They work hard and play harder. Everything is cohesive. If you've got a couple knuckleheads in there that don't want to buy into it, you get rid of them quick because you don't want that to be what you're all about.
Like they say, one bad apple can spoil everything, and it does. In a locker room in baseball, it does. If that guy doesn't blend or doesn't fit in, out. Position players, you only need 13 of them. That's all you need — 13 guys that believe in one another, that will fight for one another, that will do whatever it takes just like you would for your own brother. Until you find those 12 or 13 right guys, it doesn't work. You can only have one bad one and then the rest of them are infected by it.
TB: You've got a lot of homegrown players here. What's it been like seeing them come up through and really evolve as a team and a clubhouse?
RK: It's really cool. In 2012, I got to go back and be a rover, and it was so neat to see Hosmer, Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Alex Gordon was coming back down to Triple-A to learn how to be a left fielder and I got to help him. That group of guys, once they hit Double-A, they won. Triple-A, they won. Big leagues, now they've won a World Series.
That's what makes it so much fun to come to the ballpark every day. Those personalities have survived all those different levels. Those personalities have won championships at every level they've played together. That doesn't happen every day. That just doesn't happen. If you're waiting for the next wave to roll in and do that same thing, you might be here a while. It gives you goosebumps when you think about where they started and how they formed together as one and still love one another to this day. It's just such a great situation to be in. Every day I come to work I can't wait to get here because they're so much fun to be around.
TB: You've got a World Series ring as a player, and you've got one from last year as a coach. Do they mean the same thing? Do they represent different accomplishments in your mind?
RK: I think the player one is more special, because as a coach, you're at the mercy of their performance. You give them all the information, you work them out, you get them ready, and then you push them out there and hope they can do it.
When you're a player, you're in control of that stuff. If you don't work hard, if you don't prepare, if you don't come through in certain situations, then it's all on you. If you do do all that kind of stuff, then it's a little more rewarding than sitting over here and hoping and praying it works. But they're both great. You can't beat it.
The first thing I think about when I win a World Series is all the players who played the game for so many years who never won it, who never experienced that. Last year we had Alex Rios who'd played 14 years and not one postseason game. He came over here and won a World Series ring. He had that one postseason experience and he won it. That doesn't happen.
It's like they say, everybody loves it when you win. The hardest part about winning is the grind — every day what you have to put into it with no assurance, with no guarantee that at the end there's going to be a prize. You come to work and you grind through it every day with the hopes that that's what happens, that you do get to stand up on that stage one day and get that ring. And it's pretty cool.