Embrace Each Player’s Individuality

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

Every spring training, MLB Network runs their annual show, 30 Clubs in 30 Days, previewing each team’s season while highlighting some of its best players. When the production crew hit Angels’ camp in Arizona this past winter, Sean Casey got in the batter’s box with Mike Trout- arguably the game’s best player- to discuss his daily routine of work at the plate. Trout keeps things simple, focused on, in his own words, “getting on top of the ball and trying to hit a ground ball up the middle every time.”

Early in the summer, ESPN checked in to talk hitting with another young star, Kris Bryant, who has put together an MVP caliber season with the Cubs. Like Trout, Bryant keeps his approach simple. But unlike Trout, Bryant looks to, in his own words, “hit the ball in the air.”

Then in late August came the interview that rocked the baseball community. Reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson impressively dissected every detail of his swing, every feel, and every cue. By one count, seventeen different points of his swing in the eight-minute spot. SEVENTEEN… For a swing that will take less than one-third of a second from start to finish. From his heel to hip to knee to foot to shoulder to elbow back to hip and everything in between, no one knows his own swing better than him. When it comes time to swing, he is thinking about, in his own words, “firing the back shoulder and back hip.”

One guy thinking about working on top of the ball, one guy thinking about working under the ball, and one guy thinking about getting body parts to the ball. Three of the game’s best players. Three entirely different approaches to hitting. These massive discrepancies between one another beg to ask the question, who is right?

The answer is easy: all three of them. 100% correct.

But how can that be?

Baseball is very cyclical. Every skill of the game goes through phases with new **EUREKA** approaches to making players better, probably none more so than hitting. There was a time when squishing the bug was the ultimate swing fix that taught hitters how to get their backside into and through the swing. Retired Ranger great Michael Young was the poster-child for getting the stride-foot down early, and current stars Ian Kinsler and Curtis Granderson still employ that very cue today. The late Tony Gwynn hit his way right into the Hall of Fame by wearing out the 5.5 hole that he made famous, just as Wade Boggs did the same by famously staying on top of the ball for a streak of 790 consecutive at-bats without popping out. Alex Rodriguez helped introduce the world to the leg kick, just as Chipper Jones showed off his double-tap, while Albert Pujols revealed how rhythm can replace the stride entirely. All very different methods to hit, all with proven successes at various levels of the game from its highest to lowest, and everywhere in between.

Despite the content of its starts, this is not an article about hitting. This is an article about coaching.

Here in 2016, we are clearly living in an age of analytics and statcasts, with launch angles, exit velocities, and swing planes serving as the current hot terms spoken by the talking heads all over television and the Twitter verse. Not surprisingly, the new pop-culture of hitting analytics is quickly trickling into the way hitting is being taught in batting cages and on baseball fields across the land, much of which definitely offers some benefits to players.

Another popular word commonly heard these days is process. It’s everywhere. Focus on the process. Trust in the process. Embrace the process. Many talks about the process, but few actually truly understand what this process really is.

For players, the process is a very individual thing. It’s controlling the things that they can control to be in a position for success. It’s a focus on the work, rather that the result, with the idea of getting better. It’s a trust that blood, sweat, and tears put in during the day will eventually pay off when the lights are on at night. And as detailed above with Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, and Josh Donaldson, there are all kinds of different processes that yield impressive, MVP-like, and historic results.

For coaches, their process has to be a collective thing for betterment of their team as a whole, but often one that gets clouded by their philosophical beliefs when it comes to the individuality of each individual player on that team. Many coaches out there get married to THEIR process, and not that of the players they are trying to help. It’s important for coaches to have conviction with what they believe. But it’s far more important to have conviction in favor of what works best for the player. And that’s something that will always be different from player to player. The way you teach may very well work…but so might other ways that may completely contradict yours. Be open not just for your own sake to constantly learn, but be open for the player’s sake, because as a coach that’s our sole purpose- to help our players! It’s not about us- it’s about them. Always.

I am a coach.

A coach who has been incredibly fortunate to have worn many different hats in the game. From a playing career that began as collegiate walk-on turned All-American at Rutgers and ended because of a knee injury while with a Major League team in Spring Training, I witnessed my fair share of the good, the great, the bad, and the downright ugly as I ascended towards the highest levels of the game…To a coaching career that started at my alma mater with Todd Frazier on the team, progressed to attempts to recruit the next Todd Fraziers, and continues to this day having instructed many of the current Boston Red Sox who are fighting for the pennant this season. I’ve been around Major League All-Stars long before they were Major League All-Stars and college walk-ons shortly before they were cut.

I say all this not to boast, but rather to show the unique perspective from which I am coming from having been around some of the sport’s very best players at very different levels on the field. In the grand scheme of our game, I am still a puppy as a coach. I thought I knew it all just weeks into my coaching career in 2006, when I was ready, willing, and able to make a huge impact on every single player I touched. Little did I know how little I actually knew…

The more I coach, the more I realize the inherent need to constantly learn.

The one thing that has helped me more so than anything else to develop as a coach over the years has to become open to new ideas that will help my players develop themselves. I was stubborn when I first started coaching some ten-plus years ago, and while I still absolutely have my beliefs, I’ve seen the value of building from those beliefs and not being married to them. Looking back, some of my best work as a coach came with players who would later be released or cut, while some of my biggest failures would come with players who I can now watch on TV every night.

In my current position as a minor league manager, I have the privilege of working with 25 uber-talented individuals, just about every single day for seven months of the year. Collectively, they are better at our game than the majority of everyone else in the entire world. Every single one of them is different. Different gifts. Different abilities. And we teach them individually according to their own individual talents (and personality) to build from what they already do well, not to completely change them into one singular ideal.

Without question, my biggest challenge as a coach every year is figuring out each individual player, individually. Learning what their strengths and weaknesses on the field, as well as figuring out what makes them tick, personality-wise, off of it. The combination of knowing those two pieces of information directly correlates to my ability to impact our players. And that information takes invested time to learn. It’s an ask instead of telling, approach. It’s a watch instead of tweak, approach.

Instead of telling the player what to think, ask the player what HE thinks! Trying to hit a fly ball is what Kris Bryant does, and it works great for him. Mike Trout tries to stay on top of the pitch, and that approach has brought him historic success. Two completely contradictory ideals, two outstanding results. What if Trout or Bryant played for coaches who flat-out told them that what they were doing was wrong? Who knows if those players would today still be the backdrop of this piece…

In Josh Donaldson’s interview, he flat out said that “if your coach tells you to get on top of the ball…tell him no.”

Well, I had a coach who told me to get on top of the ball once. And he completely turned my career around.

His name was Bill Slack. And he was a pitching coach.

There was a stage in my playing career- as a professional, with a couple years already under my belt- when I somehow developed a loop in my swing, and I became a left side rollover, right side lazy fly ball hitter. For whatever reason, it was a rut I fell into for an extended period of time, and one that I struggled to get out of which, not coincidentally, made it a struggle for me to get out of A-ball.

One day late in the summer of 2003, while playing for the Wilmington Blue Rocks of the Carolina League, Slacker- as he was affectionately called- was throwing my group of BP and stopped after I hit two lazy fly balls to right field in my first round, which, now that I think about, he was probably sick and tired of seeing. He told me, and I quote, to “try to hit the *crap* out of the ball on the ground to the shortstop.” At the time I remember thinking to myself how I was already damn good at doing that!

Next swing, I hit a routine ground ball to short. He told me that it wasn’t hard enough. So, I put a little more effort behind the swing, and hit what I thought was a decently-firm ground ball to short. He said that wasn’t hard enough either and told me to try to hit the kind of ground ball that would knock the shortstop’s teeth out.

The next round, I pretended my worst enemy was manning shortstop, and I swung the bat with the intent of hurting that guy on the left side of the infield with a batted ball, and for some reason, the result wasn’t hard ground balls, but backspun line drives. At that point, Slacker kicked me out of my round because it wasn’t a line drive round, but a ground ball round.

So, the next round, I tried even harder- if that was possible- to hit ground balls that the infielder would get out of the way. More aggression into the swing. More of a focus to stay on top. And again, four driven line drives not to the shortstop, but into and through the left centerfield gap, over the shortstop’s head. He stopped throwing, walked off the platform- literally stopping BP- and calmly said, “why aren’t you hitting ground balls?” Dejectedly, I told him that’s exactly what I was trying to do. He then asked, “and what is the result?” And stared at me, then grinned. Then the light bulb went on.

No joke, that single day of BP completely changed me as a hitter as the thought of trying to hit the crap out of the ball to the shortstop fixed my bat path to the ball and kept my barrel in- and through- the zone for a long time. That single day of batting practice set me up to have a career year in 2004, that was parlayed into an invited to Major League Spring Training a year later.

So, first hand, I’ve experienced the effectiveness of the exact theory that Josh Donaldson is telling everyone not to do. And for Donaldson himself, in his own personal case, he’s exactly right! That’s the amazing thing about our game, is the fact that there are so many ways to have success, and as coaches, we need to allow for our players and help them find what works specifically for them.

Being married to a single train of thought is a disservice to the players who might need something else. And that something else may just mean different words to say the same thing. That something else may in fact be completely contradictory to the one thing you believe above all else. Embracing each individual player’s individuality should not be a hard concept to grasp. It’s challenging for many because pride gets in the way. Our pride in helping players can and should be a really good thing…If only it doesn’t get in the way.

Darren Fenster 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.