Developing & Winning Aren't Mutually Exclusive

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

Can’t we all just get along?

On any given day, on any of the countless social media platforms, you can find baseball coaches ferociously attacking one another from behind their keyboards over a variety of subjects in and around our game. The vast “I’m right, you’re wrong” arguments range from the swing mechanics of hitters, to weighted balls versus long toss for pitchers, to offenses that believe in bunting against those who vilify the mere thought of laying one down.

But there is one argument prevalent today above all others that shouldn’t be an argument at all: developing players versus winning games. These are in no way two ideals that should be pinned up against one another, but rather two that should work hand in hand, coexisting to be mutually beneficial for the other. But for some reason, many have come to view these two subjects as an “either/or,” and are unable to connect them in the productive relationship that they should naturally be found in.

The belief that a coach has to be 100% all about developing players or 100% all about winning games is a misguided one in today’s day and age. My question is: when did these two become mutually exclusive?

Since when did winning become a bad thing?

Since when did making players better become a bad thing?

Since when did these two ideals become all or nothing, one or the other?

This is the baseball world we now live in.

Team coaches are responsible for everything that happens on the field with their collective group of players. The individualized aspects of each player, as well as the overall fundamentals of the team both fall under that coach’s watch. At many spots, at various levels, they are not getting paid (or volunteering) to spend all hours of the day to improve one part of one player’s game, but rather to help teach an entire roster of players how to play the game, and eventually, how to win. There are many of those coaches out there who we would all enthusiastically send our own children to play for.

On the other end of the spectrum are specialized coaches who are just that – specialized. They are not getting paid to teach the little nuances of the game that are the mark of complete baseball players who do the things needed to help their teams win games, nor do they pretend to be. Their sole purpose may be to increase a single pitcher’s arm strength or perfect the mechanics of an individual hitter’s swing. And there are many out there who are outstanding in doing so.

Last time I checked, when players became better individually, their teams had a better chance of winning. And in a very similar manner, when players learn all of the things that it takes to win games, they are becoming better individual players.

So, with that in mind, I’ll ask again, when did winning games and developing players become mutually exclusive?

On the Minor League level where my springs and summers are spent, job security in our player development department is not one bit dependent on winning games. While our focus is consistently placed on helping our players get better day in and day out, rest assure, they are learning how to win along the way. Winning is not just a byproduct of developing players; it is a significant piece of developing players.

The job my staff and I have here in A-ball is to build a foundation of professionalism that will enable them not to be successful for the Greenville Drive in the South Atlantic League, but rather eventually in the Big Leagues, to help our parent club, the Boston Red Sox, win baseball games, because that IS their focus. That aforementioned foundation includes everything from teaching our players how to work individually in a manner where they can get something productive out of every single rep on the field, in the cage, or in the bullpen; to learning from their successes and failures in games that contributed to a win or a loss; to approaching every single part of the job - even those that they might dread - with the same focus and effort as they would the parts that they cannot get enough of.

We are working, day in and day out, to develop championship players. And few championships have ever been won with rosters full of players who didn’t understand what it takes to win.

Without acknowledging winning, players often can become numb to the game’s end result, caring only about themselves and their own development without regard to working with everyone else on the team towards a common goal. Ask any coach – that guy, no matter how good, is a tough pill to swallow.

Without considering development, players will be challenged to find a way to get better when the only thing that matters is the W at the end of the day.

Has the school head coach ever gone into the cage or into the facility to see exactly what his players are working on with their private instructor? Has the hitting guru or velocity expert ever actually seen their clients perform in a game? We can benefit very much from one another being very good at what we do.

When you work to develop players, the result is often winning games. When you place an awareness on what it takes to win games, you are undoubtedly making players better. The two ideals can coexist. They HAVE TO coexist. Better players make for more wins, and players who know how to win make better players.

Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.