First, the premise: Coaching is teaching.
At the major league level, there’s an assumption that players already know how to play, and to a certain extent, that’s true. Outfielders know they should hit the cutoff; pitchers know strike one is the best pitch in the game; second baseman know the mechanics of turning a double play.
But as with everything in life, major league baseball is more complicated than it seems, physically and mentally. Sure, you should hit the cutoff, but against certain really aggressive baserunners, throwing behind them when they make a big turn is a good play. And if a batter hits .400 on the first pitch and .220 thereafter, ball one might help more than hurt. And so on …
These subtleties are what experience brings, and presumably coaches can help players take full advantage of their skills by pointing out when the traditional is not the most effective.
At the same time, though mechanics are taught from Little League on up, even a cursory glance at a game will show that each pitcher has a different motion (and not just Tyler Rogers), and every hitter sets up in his own way.
Those mechanics, especially the more convoluted ones, get out of whack sometimes, and adjustments have to be made. Or the adjustment is in the basic swing itself, which was fine in AAA but has too big a hole in the majors. Even turning the double play can be improved, perhaps by eliminating a habitual unnecessary hand motion, or setting the feet a few inches one way or another to prepare for the throw.
And finally, and perhaps most important, handling the stress and pressure of playing a difficult and complex game at the highest level is a skill in and of itself – and like anything else, can be improved.
But “knowing” and “teaching” are two different things. Sure, it’s likely those who have had success in the major leagues know a lot, but communicating that knowledge is a different story. First, of course, it has to be consciously understood – and some players just do it and never think about it. And second, that understanding must be conveyed to someone who maybe doesn’t have the same skills, or doesn’t really know how to listen.
On top of all that, here’s a news flash: People are different. Coach A may be able to easily talk to Player X, and help Player X improve his swing. But Player Y may not get along with Coach A, but when Coach B says something, he’s all ears.
Which is why the Giants have 13 coaches – and not incidentally, is why they’re getting more out of less than any team in Major League Baseball.
So you think Alyssa Nakken is just a sop to feminists, and really can’t add much to a major league coaching staff? Well, consider that many guys are very competitive and very macho – you might even know a couple athletes like that. If another man tells them something, their first instinct is to bristle, to think “Who are you to tell me anything?” But for a few, the same message coming from a woman might get through because the guy doesn’t feel threatened.
Maybe, but how often will that happen, you say. What, one guy out of 25? Out of 40?
The average major league coach probably makes a couple hundred thousand dollars. If one player can be improved by one win over replacement, that’s worth $8 million on the open market. So you pay Alyssa Nakken $200,000 and that one guy who listens to her lifts his game by half a win? That’s a pretty good return on investment – but what if it’s two guys? Or three?
So the Giants’ staff, considered bloated by some, not only has a woman, but it has 12 other personalities, 12 other teachers, who will connect to some – but never all – of the 26 players on the active roster, and 40 on the full roster.
And have you noticed that the Giants pick up players like Mike Yastrzemski or Kevin Gausman or Lamonte Wade Jr. and all of a sudden they take a step up? Or a guy like Brandon Crawford starts hitting more home runs than ever?
It used to be that the St. Louis Cardinals were supposed to have the magic touch, but you might have noticed that the Giants have a better record. And in fact, despite that lost weekend in Washington, they have the best record in the National League.
No one, of course, expected that, but then again no one ever expected a major league coaching staff would include 13 people, one of them a woman. And though correlation is not always causation, it does make you stop and think a little, doesn’t it?