Congratulations, you’ve traveled through time. We’re now in the future. The Giants have moved beyond their 20th century ways, not only to embrace analytics in their organizational management and roster construction, but now in their coaching ranks.
The Giants have announced Gabe Kapler’s major league staff for 2020. See what I mean about the future? 2020 is an imminent reality.
Less believable is that the eight new coaches hired (Ron Wotus will return for his 23rd year on the coaching staff) are all younger than me. Why am I making this about me? Well, I’m not trying to, but I just want to point out how young they are, not just relative to me, but relative to the game itself. The Giants aren’t just purging everything that had to do with Bruce Bochy, Bobby Evans, Brian Sabean and 150 years of baseball practices, they’re forgetting about it entirely and turning exclusively (save Wotus) to neophytes to their jobs.
Bench Coach: Kai Correa (31)
Hitting Coaches: Justin Viele (29), Donnie Ecker (33)
Director of Hitting: Dustin Lind (31)
3rd Base Coach: Ron Wotus (58)
Pitching Coach: Andrew Bailey (35)
Pitching Director: Brian Bannister (38)
Assistant Pitching Coach: Ethan Katz (36)
Bullpen Coach: Craig Albernaz (37)
I’m not trying to do some reverse age discrimination here. My reference point for Mike Myers is Saturday Night Live and Wayne’s World. Justin Viele knows him best from Shrek and the Cat in the Hat. That’s not a dig, it’s reality and it gets to the idea that the Giants, more than anything else, desperately sought out a radically different perspective on how to coach and manage baseball than the thoughts and methods that had calcified within the foundations of Oracle Park.
The Giants sought and paid a premium for experience. They favored it over innovation. Farhan Zaid and Gabe Kapler want the opposite. What these coaches lack in experience they make up for in general knowledge of the subject (baseball analytics) and confidence to communicate their ideas so that they become best practices and continuing actions.
This coaching staff is as much a Molatov cocktail being thrown at the franchise as it is the entire concept of a clubhouse. The Giants aren’t just innovating, they’re inventing. Consider Gabe Kapler’s coaching staff not like an upgrade or an evolution, but a complete rethinking of what it means to manage a baseball roster in the dugout, on the field, and in the clubhouse.
But what does it mean to be a Director of Hitting or Pitching Director? Eno Sarris explored the changing culture of baseball titles in this nifty article on The Athletic (subscription required)
“Over time, people’s responsibilities evolve,” Zaidi said. “Actual responsibilities depend on organizational need, they depend on the other people in the organization and they depend on your interests. There’s a rough structure, and people will evolve over time.”
That’s how you get something like a Pitching Director.
“Teams have had pitching coordinators on the minor-league side. Now a lot of teams have a director of pitching that oversees both the major- and minor-league sides. Is that title inflation because it’s sort of the same position, or is it a totally new position and a new infrastructure because there’s new work in terms of pitch design and mechanics and everything that people are doing in terms of run prevention? That’s a nice example of a case where a cynical view of it would be title inflation, but the reality is that there’s just more work being done, and there’s more hierarchy in baseball because of it.”
So, from that we can assume Brian Bannister will be tracking and aiding in the development of both Seth Corry and Logan Webb, that Dustin Lind will bring Marco Luciano along in the same way as Jaylin Davis, and they’ll be working in concert with the dugout managers of similar titles.
It’s an audacious plan. The Giants aren’t putting together a staff so much as a single living organism that learns and evolves but also moves in sync with its various appendages. They key will be the relationships these coaches develop with each other. Will Brian Bannister and Andrew Bailey work well together? Will Dustin, Justin, and Donnie be the Huey, Dewey, and Louie to Gabe Kapler’s Uncle Scrooge?
Gabe Kapler knows analytics and knows how to get highly trained athletes to communicate with each other and in that process become better at what they do. That’s his operating principle, anyway. But the theory itself begins with the coaching staff, who won’t just be bringing down the front office’s numbers on tablets declaring that certain behaviors and defensive alignments must be observed. They’ll be a mild version of a personal coach for each and every player, disseminating preapproved lessons.
It’s a more hands-on approach and codifies once and for all an organization’s desire to continue developing players after they’ve reached the highest level. Perpetual instruction defies the standard issue characterization of a baseball player, who prefers strict habits and “going about his business”, but teams are beginning to realize that in order to maximize their financial investments, they must have players who never stop learning, and they can’t do that without coaches whose first action is to instruct.
Let’s run through their backgrounds.
This past year, he was the minor league defensive coordinator for Cleveland. In 2018, he was the infield coach for Cleveland’s AZL team. Before that, he was a college coach.
Here he is in an extensive interview with the American Baseball Coaches Association:
The first thing he says in the video is probably what got him the job with the Giants:
Between the five of us, we make a pretty good coach.
I think that sums up their strategy for these hires. Two is better than one. Three is better than two.
A bench coach’s primary responsibility involves defensive shifting and lineup management. Hiring a young and hungry defensive instructor who’s highly regarded in the industry makes sense. His answer to a far more pointed question reveals how he might have made it easier for the Giants to get over the experience gap and make him the guy to be what is typically considered the #2 guy in the dugout:
You were an average Division III baseball player. Explain that dynamic.
Major League Baseball is El Dorado. It’s the Golden City. And so, if you want to go to El Dorado, it makes sense that you surround young guys with guys who’ve been to El Dorado. “Hey, tell me about how clean the streets are. Tell me how much gold there is. And jewelry. And the spoils. So, those stories, and their little anecdotes are what help guide a young guy get to that city.
But as player development has evolved and as organizations become forward-thinking, they’ve realized that they needed a merger of the content and the numbers and the science and those stories. Both are incredibly valuable. So those guys [on a typical major league staff], collectively, were really, really experienced and good at navigating that journey to El Dorado, right? And having those one-on-one interactions and putting their arm around a guy or kicking a guy in the butt, and providing small anecdotes and small details; and my roll was to add and assist in kind of programmatic, systematic development programs for the youngest guys — the guys who are most comparable in age to the levels I’ve coached at to establish good routines.
Kapler, Wotus, and even pitching coach Andrew Bailey provide that clubhouse “El Dorado” guidance, with Brian Bannister being able to do the same for minor leaguers. That means the new folks are free to implement training regiments and new practices without having to be too concerned with major league experience.
I also think he kind of sounds like Gabe Kapler. Maybe not in exact tone of voice, but in inflection, rhythm, and word choice:
Justin Viele and Donnie Ecker
Viele has spent the past three years in the Dodgers’ system. In 2019, he was the hitting coach for Single-A Great Lakes. They were second in slugging (.390) and first in OBP (.339) for a combined OPS of .730 (1st placeled the league in OPS (.730) and OBP (.339). Also a Santa Clara grad, drafted in the 37th round by the Orioles in 2013. He played two minor league seasons, 2013 and 2014. Yeah, he was Mike Yastrzemski’s teammate in 2014.
Ecker went to Los Altos High and was the Reds’ assistant hitting coach last year. Before that, he was a hitting coach in the Angels’ minor league system. The Giants’ press release pushes these credentials:
Prior to the Reds, Ecker spent 2018 as the hitting coach in triple-A Salt Lake in the Angels organization. That season, the Bees led the PCL in batting average (.290), runs scored (824), home runs (173), RBI (783), slugging percentage (.480) and OPS (.841) while finishing second among PCL teams in doubles (291) and OBP (.361).
He’s another Santa Clara grad and after being drafted by the Rangers in 2007, played two years for them and two years in independent ball before getting into coaching.
I was only a little irked about the age thing, but as a Saint Mary’s alum, I’m aggravated by this run on Santa Clara dudes.
From 2018-2019 he was the Mariners’ Director of Hitting Development and Strategies on their major league coaching staff. You can read a little bit more about him here, but basically here was the setup in Seattle:
On the hitting side, quality assurance coach Dustin Lind, who is also a certified physical therapist, and Jarret DeHart will do the same while having the additional duty of working closely with the Major League team. The two will rotate through seven to 10 days on and off, home and away, assisting hitting coach Tim Laker with the big league club.
“Rather than having one full-time assistant hitting coach, this will allow both to create relationships with the players,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said, noting that both could work with Mariners hitters on anything from approach to swing changes to individual game strategy.
These hybrid roles seem a little more suited for personal relationships between player and coach, an interesting dynamic to develop in these organizations given that a baseball team is first and foremost a business, and as important as relationships are, when there’s a trade to be made or a chance to save some money, personal relationships are meaningless.
Still, hiring people who can be part coach, part counselor and know going into it that it’s a requirement of the job (again, coupled with the analytics knowledge provided) has an obvious, on paper advantage to hiring guys who are merely experienced hitting coaches in the traditional sense.
Given Lind’s responsibilities in Seattle, it looks like he was hired over Rachel Belkovec, who would’ve broken the gender barrier by becoming the first woman on a major league coaching staff. Here’s how Alex Pavlovic described her potential role:
The Giants wanted Balkovec, 32, to join them in a hybrid role that would have been something along the lines of a “quality control coach,” a job that has popped up elsewhere in recent years. She would have worked on the hitting side but also contributed to the strength and conditioning side, which is her background. Balkovec had been a Yankee for just a few days when the Giants approached, and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told reporters that Balkovec elected to stay with New York after interviewing with the Giants, who brought her to San Francisco for the interview.
You might remember him from his most notable role: A’s closer from 2009-2011. He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2009 and made the All-Star Game roster in his first two seasons. His last major league game was a little over two years ago (8/15/2017 with the Angels). He left their roster after that season and joined their coaching staff, serving as coaching assistant and video replay coordinator in 2018 before working as the bullpen coach in 2019.
This is the hire I’m most intrigued by right now because it has the least amount of uncertainty surrounding it. Bannister more or less reinvented himself as a major league pitcher because of analytics. Sports Illustrated (RIP) had an excerpt from Ben Lindbergh’s MVP Machine book that explored Bannister’s rise an analytics maven:
Bannister exhibited a post-Moneyball mindset in an era when his own employer was still resisting Moneyball. “Most guys are using [stats] for the purpose of projection,” he told the Seattle Times. “I’m using them for the purpose of changing the future projections. I want to find my weaknesses and find which stats will help me do that, and change my pitching style accordingly.”
Bannister implemented his analytics-driven pitching changes in 2009, and saw a lot of success before partially tearing his rotator cuff. He’d pitch a bad 2010 and that was that. He has a good amount of experience in the Giants’ new role:
Since July 5, 2016, Bannister served as the team’s assistant pitching coach while also serving a dual role as the club’s Vice President, Pitching Development and Assistant Pitching Coach since November 3, 2016. In the time Bannister was a part of the Major League coaching staff, the Red Sox pitching staff ranked among the top third of American League staffs in ERA (3.98, fifth), SO/9ip (9.56, fourth), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.02, fourth) and opponent’s OPS (.717, fifth).
This is a legitimate promotion. Katz was a minor league assistant pitching coordinator for the Giants in 2019. He’s been a pitching coach with the Angels (2013-2015) and Mariners (2015-2018) and was an instructor for Lucas Giolito, Max Fried, and Jack Flaherty, who were all on the same high school team.
Excerpting the Giants:
On the field, Katz was drafted twice, eventually signing with Colorado after being taken in the 26th round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft out of Sacramento State. He pitched in the minors with Colorado for four seasons (2005–2008), compiling a 13–7 mark with a 2.79 ERA in 102 games (eight starts).
He was a minor league field coordinator for the Rays in 2019 and in 2018 managed Class-A Bowling Green, which won a minor league-best 90 games en route to the Midwest League championship.
Over his nine minor league seasons, he played in 371 career games and threw out 44 percent of would-be basestealers (145-of-329).
A coach for Joey Bart?
The Giants still need to hire a first base coach and a quality control coach, and per this tweet, the team has prioritized a Spanish speaker for one of the roles.
Nearly half of the 2019 coaching staff now finds itself out of work and if they don’t find any jobs at the major league level, it’s safe to assume it’s because the baseball they know isn’t the baseball that’s being played anymore.
Coaches can’t work in silos anymore because that’s not how data management works. A pitcher who knows about hitting analytics can be a better pitcher. A hitter who knows what a pitcher’s trying to do will be a better hitter. Coaches who can hop disciplines and synthesize data while being smooth and effective communicators of proprietary team data are a lot more valuable to orgs than baseball lifers. It’s not good or bad, it’s just different.
It’s also funny. Buster Posey is older than his bench coach and most of his hitting coaches. Jeff Samardzija (should he stick to the roster through the offseason) will be the same age as his pitching coach. It’s doubtful they’ve ever had that experience before. On the other hand, this staff wasn’t built for them. It was built for the minor leaguers and Churn victims the Giants are going to run through their development pipeline.
Zaidi, Harris, and Kapler are experimenting. A lot of teams have been running a variation of this model, but the Giants will be the first to focus strictly on data confidence regardless of pro experience. They’re trying to be trailblazers. If it works, this will be the new model going forward. If it doesn’t work, well, then they’ll just hire new people and try again.
Good luck, Wot.