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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

All those baseball coaches, all in players’ ears

Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox hits a single in the fifth inning in Game 1 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, at Fenway Park in Boston, Oct. 23, 2018. Bogaerts, now with the San Diego Padres, says he always appreciates input from coaches, but the 12th-year veteran decides for himself what to do with the advice. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

By Eno Sarris / The Athletic

Before Game 2 of the 2023 American League Championship Series, Michael Brantley took swings on the field with the rest of the Houston Astros. His father, former major leaguer Mickey Brantley, watched from the stands. At one point, the son stepped back from the cage and looked into the seats. His father motioned to him that he was drifting, and told him to turn more aggressively.

“He’s not only my father — he’s been a pro hitting coach and he’s played,” Brantley said after the game. “He knows my swing better than anybody.”

But in that moment by the cage, two hitting coaches were also on hand, as well as a quality assurance coach and a game-planning coach. One personnel roster for the Astros listed 14 major league coaches in 2023: They were 14 potential sources of inspiration, but also 14 different personalities that a player like Brantley could interact with on game day. The San Francisco Giants had 15 coaches, by one count. In 2014, the last time San Francisco won the World Series, it had eight coaches, including manager Bruce Bochy.

Changes in staffing at the major league level are being met with similar ones on the minor league level, as teams make an effort to ensure that players are used to the game-planning process throughout their development. One executive rattled off all of the staff members the team had in Class AAA as it tried to replicate the major league process: a manager, a bench coach, a dietitian, two strength coaches, two trainers, two hitting coaches, two pitching coaches, two advance scouts and even a manager of minor league advance scouting.

Coaches upon coaches upon coaches, and that does not include the offseason, which is full of fathers and outside trainers with their own opinions about how the player should try to improve.

This explosion in coaching has led to a cacophony in the modern player’s head.

“No matter what, someone’s talking to you, no matter where you go — social media, the ballpark, the training fields — everyone has the thing they want to communicate to you,” said the Giants’ two-way prospect Reggie Crawford, who as a pitcher and hitter has twice as many coaches to deal with than the average player. “You have to figure out what you want to put your time and energy into. There are a lot of voices.”

For veterans, the solution can be simple: Be your own coach (or be the CEO of all the coaches you employ).

“This year is the first year I’m my own hitting coach,” Cleveland Guardians outfielder Ramón Laureano said about his offseason, in which he bought weighted bats and devised a routine. “It takes time, it can take seven, eight years, to be really good and really bad and know yourself enough to be your own coach.”

But there’s still a trick to it. You have to not only be ready to hear new things, but also retain some cynicism about the things you might hear.

“It’s always good to improve; I’m always open to new ideas,” San Diego Padres infielder Xander Bogaerts said. “If they say something, I don’t have to do it necessarily, but if it is something that might help, I’d like to hear about it.”

Veterans have the money and gravitas to hire their own coaches and follow their own plans. It can be tougher for a player coming through a minor league system, talking to coach after coach at every level. What happens when he runs into a coach telling him something that does not seem right for his game?

“Guys can fall victim to that when they’re younger because they are people-pleasing and trying to be coachable,” Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger said.

So, how do you not listen to your coaches and also not be labeled “uncoachable”? Players have an answer for this one.

“Create real personal relationships so there’s something other than baseball to talk about,” said a minor leaguer who did not think his current coaches could help him. “With the old guys, especially, just getting them to tell their glory day stories. Feeds their egos and keeps me in good spirits. If you come with a thought-out plan and show effort, they usually don’t say anything.”

Giving players the keys to their future is also good for the organization and the outside coach, even when they come into conflict.

“If you can prove what you’re saying to the player and the team says no, the player is going to come back and say, ‘Can you provide me the information to show it to the team?’” said Driveline Baseball’s director of pitching, Chris Langin. “But if you can’t get the player to commit, they won’t show it to the team. You try to empower the player, by telling them what you think they should do and providing evidence.”

If the player cares enough, just having that intention to gather information will almost always be a good thing for his career. Even for a veteran such as Shane Bieber, who tried new voices this offseason and was surprised to hear (from Langin) that his curveball grip had somehow changed over the year, without the pitcher noticing.

“It was unintentional; it was amazing, but it was also a relief,” Bieber said.

As a player, the trick is to assimilate all that new knowledge into what you already knew, take the good, not the irrelevant, and do so while not irritating the coaches around you (especially if you are a prospect). And for the front office executive, the plan is to create an environment where all of this is encouraged, and the player can learn and be open and honest — but also somehow ends up with the coaching you want for them, from the mouth of one of your organization’s hundreds of coaches.

Simple? Doesn’t sound like it, but somehow it has to feel that way.

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