Darren Fenster Resources

 Helping Your Team Beyond the Box Score
(6/14/2019)
 
 
   

Helping Your Team Beyond the Box Score


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Baltimore, Maryland.

Red Sox. Orioles.

These two American League East foes found themselves in a tie ballgame when Trey Mancini stepped to the plate with one out in the bottom 11th, ready to send the Camden Yards faithful home happy. With one swing, it appeared as if he had done just that, driving a Ryan Brasier fastball deep to center. The crack of the bat was that sound hitters love to hear. On the mound, Boston’s pitcher’s head immediately went down when he heard it. And Xander Bogaerts barely moved at shortstop when he saw it.  Both thought the game was over. 
 
And it would have been, had it not been for Jackie Bradley, Jr. 

On that crack of the bat that deflated Brasier and paralyzed Bogaerts, Bradley turned, put his head down, and started running back into deep centerfield. Lining the ball up almost perfectly in stride and scaling the wall as if it was a part of the outfield grass, the Red Sox Gold Glove winning centerfielder reached with his glove from his perch atop the wall into the Orioles bullpen and caught the ball, robbing what would have been a walk-off home run for Mancini.

The play went down in the scorecard as a simple F8.  It was played on highlight shows for the days that followed but has since been largely forgotten. What should never be forgotten, however, are the many ways a player can help his team win that aren’t seen in the numbers. 

At the time of his game-saving catch, Bradley was hitting .142 for the season and, for the game, hitless in three at bats, including two strikeouts. Last October, he was a vital cog in the Red Sox World Series title run and was named ALCS Most Valuable Player along the way. While his offensive production hasn’t yet gotten back to his Fall Classic form this season, Jackie Bradley, Jr. reminded us with his glove that the game is not only about what you do with the bat and exemplifies that player who is contributing to his team’s success without necessarily producing runs. His ability to continue being an elite defender despite his offensive struggles also highlights the importance of being able to separate the game, mentally.

That combination is what championship players are made of.

No sport is more discouraging than baseball, where, as we’ve all heard ad nauseum, failing seven out of ten times makes you the best of the best. That frequency of failure is extremely challenging to deal with and often results in hitter’s bringing at bats out into the field- which sets them up for defensive miscues- or pitchers still worrying about a previous inning or hitter instead of focusing on the next inning or better. But when coaches consistently make their players aware of the many facets of the game that in the end play into a win or a loss, they will far more likely be able to move on from a bad AB, a bad inning, or a bad play. 

We all know how much players live and die by the numbers on the back of their baseball card. But championship teams win championships in large part for what their players do in the parts of the game that are NOT seen on the back of that card. Sometimes, a productive out can be more valuable than a base hit. Sometimes, something as simple as throwing the ball to the correct base may be the one play that puts a team in a position to win a game. And sometimes, something like a pitcher minimizing damage in the 2nd inning may be the reason why a team is still within striking distance in the 9th. 

While a player’s stat line may not look pretty, that doesn’t mean that player can’t actually have the type of game that helps his team win. The best players in our game are the ones who can take their game far beyond the box score. 


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently 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.


 The Value Of Versatility
(5/17/2019)
 
   

The Value of Versatility


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Not so long ago, when a player was described as a utility man, it was a fancy way to call a backup on the bench, and not exactly a term of endearment by any means.  But thanks to Big Leaguers like Ben Zobrist, Marwin Gonzalez, Brock Holt, and even pitchers like Andrew Miller or Nate Eovaldi, the players who can play all over the diamond or handle various roles on the mound have quickly become some of the most valuable guys on their team’s roster.

Think back to the World Series last October, and it’s clear to see how valuable Red Sox starters Rick Porcello, Chris Sale, and Game Three super-human Eovaldi were coming out of the bullpen en route to winning that title over the Dodgers.  The Royals and Cubs both won rings in large part because of Zobrist’s ability to be penciled in anywhere with grass or dirt under his feet, so much so that he was named MVP of the 2016 Fall Classic. This past off-season, Gonzalez signed a 21 million-dollar contract with the Twins, and Holt was an American League All-Star in 2015.

Follow any Major League team in this day and age, and you’ll quickly see how many lineups are determined by matchups against the opposing club’s starting pitcher.  And watch any Big League game, and you’ll quickly see how many late game pinch-hit/pinch-run and defensive decisions are made to put a team in the best position to win. Utility players have quickly become some of the most important pieces of a team.

The game has adapted to appreciate players who can play all over the diamond, and you should, too.  When someone can play multiple positions, they are giving their manager multiple options of how to use them.  It’s never too early for players to prepare themselves for that day when a coach asks them to move to a spot outside of their normal comfort zone.

Here are just a few ways they can bridge that gap and shorten the learning curve:

Catchers can take fungos anywhere on the infield to become comfortable fielding ground balls. That practice will actually help them become more athletic behind the plate specifically on tag plays at home.  Infielders should move to the outfield during batting practice and simply work live off the bat to get a feel for reading and tracking fly balls.  Doing so will improve their ability to handle pop-ups when they move back on to the infield dirt.  Outfielders should always bounce around to all three spots to become interchangeable in centerfield or at one of the corners.  And lastly, all players can always throw on some gear and catch pitchers’ bullpens.  Every team needs an emergency catcher if in the event the two guys on the roster go down in one game, and anyone who can reliably catch in a game quickly becomes one of the most valuable on the entire roster because the position is the most challenging on the field.
 
Learning how to play a secondary position doesn’t mean you have to become a gold glover at a spot you have very little experience.  Rather all you need to be is reliable.  Reliable and trusting enough to make the routine play, to throw the ball to the correct base, and to be in the right spot on the field when you are supposed to be there.  Knowing all of the responsibilities of multiple positions will turn you into a smarter player in the grand scheme of the game.

So, the next time a coach asks you to play somewhere outside of your primary position, thank him; he is creating some versatility for you that will turn into value when you learn how to play just about anywhere, any day.



Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently 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.


 Coach To Win Life, Not Games
(4/19/2019)
 
   

Coach To Win Life, Not Games


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Last month, a legend was laid to rest.  

A legend whose impact goes far beyond words; a legend who, through countless others, has impacted people he never even had a chance to meet. 

A couple years ago, a friend of mine had a pretty profound thought about what life was all about. He said, “we spend our entire lives selling tickets to our funeral.” Let that sink in for a second. For as somber as death can be, a funeral shows the lasting impact of how someone lived, through those to attend the services to pay their respects to the family.

Well, last month, Fred Hill sold out his funeral. 

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In September of 1996, I set foot on the Rutgers campus as an immature freshman baseball player who thought he had the game of baseball and the game of life both figured out. And then I started being around Fred Hill just about every day for the next four years who made sure, many days louder than others, that I got to know how much I truly didn't know.

When I had originally committed to go to Rutgers and to play for Coach Hill, I did so without really having any idea what I was getting myself into. I had no idea that I was going to embark on a life-shaping journey with a man who, aside from my parents, would have the greatest influence on my life. He was a second father to me.

Over the past month since his passing, my mind has been flooded with the memories of the twenty-plus years that I was blessed to have this man in my life. Some have me laughing out loud just as easily as others bring tears to my eyes, knowing how much of his life he invested, in mine. What all of these memories had in common was how he was teaching us life through the game. He was ALWAYS teaching us life. And we didn’t even know it. 

When he was always on our case about this or that, he was teaching us the importance of always doing things the right way.  Every time it was above 32 degrees and he had us playing an intersquad game in the University’s basketball arena parking lot, he was teaching us to take advantage of what we had, rather than complaining about what we didn’t.  When he kicked someone out of practice for showing up on time, he was teaching us accountability… and to always be early! When he benched someone for not hustling, he was teaching us that we owed it to ourselves and our team to give our best effort, all the time, in everything we do. 

When he would be the last one to leave the field because he was picking up garbage in the dugout he was actually teaching us how to be humble without ever feeling like we were too good to do something. And every time this ridiculously successful guy who won championships, coached All-Americans, and developed Major Leaguers asked US questions about the game and how HE could get better, he taught us how we should always be learning, no matter how much we knew. 

He is THE reason why I am a coach today. Coach Hill saw something in me before I was even ready to see it in myself upon the sudden end to my playing career. He gave me a second life in baseball, but more importantly, he gave me purpose to my life beyond baseball. If I can have just a tiny fraction of the impact on others that Fred Hill has had on me, my life will be a resounding success.

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Fred Hill turned me into a decent baseball player. And Fred Hill mentored me to become a pretty good baseball coach. But above all else, Fred Hill took me in as an immature 17 year-old kid, and over the course of the next 23 years right up until his passing, helped shape me into the man I am today.

Coach Hill may no longer be with us physically, but he will forever live inside of me, and countless other former players, coaches, friends, colleagues, and most importantly, family members whose lives he profoundly impacted, just by being Moose. While his coaching tree is impressive, it pales in comparison to the size of his life tree which has roots that go deep into the center of the earth and branches that can be seen for miles.

Over the course of his Hall of Fame coaching career, Fred Hill picked up over 1,000 victories on the diamond.  Without question, he taught us how to win games.  But for as successful he was as a coach; his true measure can be found in how well he taught us how to win life.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently 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.


 Help Your Players Find Their Voice
(3/15/2019)
 
   

Help Your Players Find Their Voice 


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Baseball is very much a game of routine ; those routines, an integral part of a player’s individual development as well as a team’s culture and environment. Hitters get in the cage every day to get their swings right.  Pitchers work in the bullpen every day to perfect their delivery.  Teams take batting practice, get defensive work in, and run the bases.  Every.  Single.  Day. 

Those routines become a habitual part of the professional player’s day .

Over the course of my six years managing at various levels of our minor league system, beginning in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2013, followed by four years in A-Ball, and finishing in AA last year before transitioning to my new role as our outfield and baserunning coordinator, I saw the value of using the previous day’s game as a teacher for our players to learn from.  When reviewing the games in my own mind, I knew what I saw, and the countless coaching points that could be taken from each contest.  But after discussing those points, almost like a teacher lecturing a class, I became curious to see what THEY actually saw.  So I changed my approach a few years ago.

Prior to giving any of my own thoughts, I’d survey the group, “Alright guys… whatdya got from last night?”

The first few times I did this, as I looked across the fifteen or so position players gathered in the group, I was surrounded by blank stares. Heads down. Crickets. No one saying a word. No one wanting to be called on.

Our team environment , at that time, was not one that encouraged input from players.  So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that these players- who we had good relationships with mind you- were apprehensive to speak in front of the group.  Some were timid to open up for fear of saying something wrong, while others wouldn’t open their mouths perhaps they were too cool to do so.  

Slowly but surely, as we changed the approach, we were able to create an environment where giving our players a voice became the norm, and they became more comfortable in talking the game, and using one another as an additional way to get better.  Even in A-ball with those inexperienced kids who truly didn’t know the game. 

In 2018, I managed the Portland Sea Dogs, our Double-A, Eastern League affiliate. Coming on the heels of my previous experience largely with inexperienced players, last year represented my first opportunity to work with guys who had a career under their belt and knew what it meant to be a professional.  We had a good sense of what made them tick individually, and they had a pretty good feel for the game at that point.  Additionally, the majority of them had played for me at some point and time previously, and were familiar with my style of engagement.  That combination, while being at a point in the careers where they were comfortable in their own skin and their understanding of our organizational standards embraced this style of coaching as a conversation.

Part of managing at the Double-A level last year included spending a week with our Major League team in September as a means to get a feel for how our staff and players were doing things in Boston, and figuring out what exactly we can mirror in the Minor Leagues to best prepare our guys for when their time comes.  What blew me away far more than anything else was the interaction between players and the manner by which there was non-stop communication about the game. Coaches would start our advance meetings, and then the players would essentially take over.  Then later, in the cage, around the dugout, or out in the bullpen, there were constant conversations that were completely player driven, a clear part of the culture that helped us win the World Series in October.  Some of our most inquisitive players, not coincidentally, were also some of our biggest stars.

For players, it’s OK to ask questions.  It’s OK to give feedback.  It’s OK to talk the game.  It’s all in reality, a necessary part of development.  We need to embrace the input from our players to know what they actually know, which in turn will help us learn what they don’t.  By encouraging questions, feedback, and game-talk, we can make coaching a conversation, not a lecture.  For coaches, it’s up to us to help our players find their own voice so they can develop in their own game. 


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and currently serves as the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In 2012 he launched Coaching Your Kids LLC, an organization dedicated to assisting coaches, parents and leagues in developing young players and improving their experience within the game. Previously, Fenster served as the Manager for the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Fenster is a two-time All-America from Rutgers University where he established school records in hits, doubles and at-bats. He was selected in the 12th round of the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft by the Kansas City Royals and played in the minor leagues for seven years. 


 Get to Know What You Don't Know
(2/15/2019)
 
   

Get to Know What You Don't Know


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Every off-season, I am afforded the opportunity to travel all over the world to share my love for and knowledge of the game in various capacities.  Whether it be working with a local organization near my New Jersey home, running a camp in Taiwan for some of the country’s best players, organizing a coaching clinic in Kuwait for the nation’s only Little League, or presenting at the American Baseball Coaches Association’s (ABCA) national baseball coaches convention, chances are, I am detailing something that has to do with infield play. That is where my greatest passion in the game lies.  This incredible journey I’ve lived on the diamond, everything that I have ever been able to accomplish in our game either as a player or coach, has a foundation that was built on infield dirt.

Most of my infield talks actually begin with my history as a hitter, where I tell the story about a scrawny player who hit .272 as a junior at Middletown South on the Jersey Shore.  Not many careers go beyond high school with an average like that, especially not in a cold weather state that isn’t exactly considered a baseball hot-bed. But I was lucky enough to be a good-glove, bad-hit shortstop in a state where the head coach of our state university valued defense above all else up the middle.

Fred Hill is an ABCA Hall of Famer who helped turn Rutgers University into one of the best programs in the northeast, able to compete on a national level during his 30-year tenure on the banks of the ‘ole Raritan.  He welcomed me to come on board as a Scarlet Knight almost entirely because of my ability to field the baseball.  While I graduated in 2000 with a handful of offensive records, rest assure, it was my defense that enabled my hitting to come along later on in my career.

My glove gave me the chance to play at a pretty good NCAA Division I program.

My glove got me in the lineup from day one as a freshman.

My glove afforded my bat the opportunity to develop.

Knowing how much of my career I owe to the defensive, I have always been enamored with the tiny details of a side of the game that is secondary to most and absolutely love breaking down those parts and teaching them to players, especially those whose bats aren’t necessarily where they want them to be.  Every player has their own individual development, and sometimes it can be discouraging when our game largely revolves around hitting if that happens to be a weak point of someone’s skillset.  My path, I hope, should serve as a source of inspiration for those to understand that there are other roads to success on the diamond outside of the batter’s box.

I give this background on my love for the glove so you may be able to appreciate what is in store for me in the very near future.  This coming season, my responsibilities with the Red Sox will take me to a new place where I am not quite as familiar: the outfield.

This past December, I was promoted to Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator with the Red Sox. Put simply, the position places a responsibility on organizing and implementing an approach and process for developing our outfielders and baserunners throughout the entire Minor League system, from AAA all the way down to our academy in the Dominican. From this position, we will set a foundation over the course of Spring Training with our staff and players while all together in Fort Myers, and then to have our boots on the ground at each affiliate build from there to help prepare our players to become Major League outfielders and baserunners.

We are drawn to what we know, and what we love.  That’s a completely natural part of human behavior, but in the process of constantly planting our feet in our usual box of expertise, we often unknowingly create blinders to other aspects of the game where our understanding falls short. 

This promotion helped open my eyes to my own personal blinders, forcing me to get out of my normal comfort zone to best prepare for this new job at hand.

So, when attending these coaching conventions over the winter months, I took a bit of a different approach to becoming a better baseball coach than years prior: I chose to seek out what I didn’t know.  Rather than trying to further my own knowledge on infield play as was usually the case, I looked to find that same type of detail from others on outfield and baserunning.

In doing so, I learned about the minute details of one part of the game that weren’t even on my radar, like where the ideal spot is to exchange the ball into the barehand.  I learned specific drills that break down and isolate those parts to help build a solid outfielder.  And I learned more about what things are truly important to focus on in that outfield grass, like getting on the ball quickly and developing a quick release, and what things don’t need any of our time, such as the old-school crow-hop when throwing.  

When first being offered this opportunity, I think my exact sarcastic response to my boss was something along the lines of, “you do know I’m an infield guy, right?”  But as we dove deeper into conversation, he made me realize that this promotion was an opportunity to grow as both a coach and leader, the combined result of eventually turning me into a more well-rounded BASEBALL guy.  For all coaches, that should be our ultimate goal.  

By becoming as knowledgeable as we can be, in as many areas of the game as we can think, our impact on players and coaches will be far more reaching than if we were all just infield guys.  And it’s the game that will grow in the end, thanks to how we made the conscious decision to grow ourselves, by getting to know what we don’t know.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and currently serves as the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. In 2012 he launched Coaching Your Kids LLC, an organization dedicated to assisting coaches, parents and leagues in developing young players and improving their experience within the game. Previously, Fenster served as the Manager for the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Fenster is a two-time All-America from Rutgers University where he established school records in hits, doubles and at-bats. He was selected in the 12th round of the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft by the Kansas City Royals and played in the minor leagues for seven years.