Learn from Watching

FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster

This past off-season, the San Diego Padres named Andy Green their new manager. To those outside of the baseball fraternity, and probably to many a part of it, the collective reaction brought more of a, “who?” than it did a, “WOW!"

Shortly after being named manager, Green conducted an interview with MLB Network’s Al Leiter, and said to him, "I sure do remember you, Al…but I doubt you remember me. Most don’t remember the .200 hitters.” And most .200 hitters don’t get a ton of playing time. So, their view of the game more often comes from the dugout bench than it does the batter’s box, as was clearly the case with Green, whose primary position is listed as pinch hitter on his Baseball Reference page.

By all means, Andy Green was qualified to become a Major League manager, having spent three years as a Minor League skipper in the Diamondbacks system, before spending the 2015 season as 3rd Base coach in Arizona where he was widely praised for the work he did on the defensive side of things. As a player, he spent parts of four seasons in the big leagues with the Diamondbacks and Mets, as part of a ten-year playing career, most of which was spent in the Minor Leagues. He also spent one year with the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan. Over 140 career games spanning four seasons in the Major Leagues, Andy Green was a .200 hitter. As is often the case with many coaches in our game, he did not enjoy a star-studded career as a Major League player.

How then, does a career Mendoza-line hitter earn one of just 30 jobs of their kind in the world? Simple. He made the most of the games he DIDN’T play in. And he is not the first to do so. Consider some the following four current or former Major League managers whose footsteps Andy Green can only dream of following:

Tony LaRussa played in 132 Major League games over a six-year period and was a career .199 hitter. He would manage over 5000 Major League games in a 33-year coaching career that included three World Series titles.
Jim Leyland never made it higher than AA in a playing career that lasted seven years. His managerial career lasted 22 years, having won three pennants and one World Series.
Bruce Bochy never played more than 63 games in a 162-game Major League season. 2016 marks his 22nd year as a big-league manager and has won three World Series championships in the past six years.
Joe Maddon played three years of professional baseball, not one of which was spent higher than class-A. He has won 90 games or more six times in his twelve seasons managing at the highest level of the sport, for two of the league’s most historically unsuccessful franchises in the Rays and Cubs.

When it comes to transitioning over to coaching, it can be argued that guys without a ton of success as players have somewhat of an advantage over those who enjoyed all-star games and MVPs for one reason: they know from their own experiences how hard the game truly is, and that gives them a perspective that breeds patience with players, an extremely valuable, yet extinguishing trait in this age of instant gratification.

Wayne Gretzky is widely considered the best player in the history of the NHL. As a coach, he never reached the playoffs and has a career winning percentage of .473. Isaiah Thomas is an NBA Hall-of Famer, a 12-time all-star, and was named as one of the game’s top 50 players of all time. He failed so famously with the Pacers and Knicks that he might now be remembered more for how bad he was as a coach than for how great he was as a player.

Here is an astounding fact: every single game, practice, or workout in every single sport offers an opportunity to learn SOMETHING…just by watching. What’s even more astounding is how few take advantages of it. When between the lines, the best players are so locked in on what their job is and what they need to do in order to be successful than often times they don’t see the big picture of the game. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s a trait that helps make them great. But, for those who aren’t necessarily destined for stardom the big picture is all they see, and the ones who take advantage of that view not only will be prepared for when their number is called to play, but also for if or when they decide to coach.

Whether it be on television or at a live game, taking notice of what’s going on down on the field gives you an appreciation of the small details that can pay huge dividends when all is said and done. Was an outfielder not in the correct backup position? Did the shortstop throw the ball to the right base, which prevented the runner from advancing? Is the hitter getting ready to hit on time? Is the pitcher tipping his pitches by the way he holds the ball in his glove? Talent can take players and teams very far, but if you ask any coach, it’s the little things like those mentioned above that can truly make players and teams of the championship variety. And those little things many times can’t be seen unless players are really watching the game to see them.

Often times I’ve asked my own players- professionals mind you- if they noticed a particular play in a particular Major League game, with the idea of using it as a teaching point for them to learn from. Few ever raise their hand. What I realized is that while these guys do love to play, they don’t necessarily enjoy watching. My playing career ended ten years ago, and granted it was a different time with far less to occupy our down time away from the field. But my love for the game combined with a constant drive to get better at it had me almost always watching games if I wasn’t on the field playing.

I, myself, had a very non-descript minor league playing career before moving on to coaching due to injury. A lifetime .260 hitter, much like Andy Green, I too “enjoyed” plenty of time on the bench with a front row seat of my teammates on the field. But my genuine interest in the game enabled me to take full advantage of that time on the pine. During my playing career, many former coaches complimented me by saying that having me on their team was like having another coach on their staff. Only now as a coach myself do I realize how truly valuable guys like that are.

So much watching made me smarter for when it came time to play. So much watching taught me so many things that put me in a position to be successful on the field, in addition to the countless things I noticed that I realized would hinder my development. So much watching enabled me to help my teammates get better throughout the course of a season. So much watching as a player years ago has helped prepare me to become a better coach for years to come.

So much watching has taught me so much.

As the 2016 Major League season begins to wind down, and we get to enjoy its annual September pennant chase, encourage players and coaches alike to simply watch. And when the playoffs come around in October and the game’s fundamentals are magnified unlike at any other point in the season, get comfortable in that couch in front of the TV and take it all in, because the game itself is often times it’s best teacher.

So, if watching the game can teach so much to those who don’t play, imagine what it can do for those who do play. But they have to actually watch…be very conscious of the role that your bench players can play even though they may not be playing. They may be winning a World Series championship as a coach before you know it.

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.