Players’ View: Does Coaching Age Matter in Player Development?
Back in mid-August, I attended a Midwest League game featuring a team with a notably young staff. The manager and pitching coach were both just 27 years old; the hitting coach was only three years their senior. A few weeks earlier, meanwhile, I’d spoken to a short-season coach who’s been tutoring pitchers longer than any of those three has been alive. He’s old enough to draw Social Security and still on the job.
That got me thinking about the age dynamic. How are players at the lower levels of the minors impacted by managers and coaches from different age groups? Do 18- to 22-year-old athletes respond better to, and learn more from, instructors who are old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers? Or from instructors who are closer to their own age?
Or is it mostly irrelevant? When it comes to player development, are coaches of all ages created equal in the eyes of the youngsters they’re tutoring? More so, does age matter to those in charge of putting together minor-league coaching staffs? I asked these questions to a large cross section of players, coaches, farm directors, and front-office executives.
Rocco Baldelli, Tampa Bay Rays first-base coach: “It can work great if it’s the right individual. That’s what it basically boils down to. Is it difficult for a younger person to come in and coach players who are almost their age? It can be, but it can also be an attribute. Regardless of the job you’re talking about, if you believe in that person’s ability to learn and make adjustments, you have the right person. Their age won’t matter.
“The people overseeing what’s going on — the farm directors and such — would maybe [want to mold their coaches], but I think they also want them to be themselves. You don’t want guys who are basically working off of a playbook and everything is done the same way all the time. You want the messages to be consistent, but to really touch some of these players, and really connect with them, you have to be yourself — again, regardless of your age.”
Andrew Benintendi, Boston Red Sox outfielder: “My first manager, in short-season, was Joe Oliver. He had a younger guy working for him [Iggy Suarez] who was probably in his late 20s. I don’t think it mattered to me how old they were. They both played the game, and they could both relate.
“When you first sign, you’re mostly just trying to figure out how things work. I think I got lucky with those guys. They made me feel comfortable and made sure we went about our business the right way. They preached that we trust the process.”
Jason Blanton, Cleveland Indians Low-A pitching coach: “A younger guy might be able to connect as far as the kid realizing that he wasn’t so far away from having played himself. By the same token, it’s all about the coach’s ability to connect with players, and create relationships and lines of communication with players. To me, age doesn’t matter if you can do that. It’s about people.”
Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles pitcher: “My brother [Buck Britton] is coaching in Low-A Delmarva right now. He’s 31, so he’s close enough removed from playing that they have more in common. Hitters flock to him. Not being older, I think he was hesitant at first with the respect factor, because you don’t want to be seen as a peer — you need that separation between coach and player — but at the same time, being closer in age to the players is something he saw as a positive.
“I think younger coaches can be good for players. The game has evolved, and guys who aren’t far removed from playing have good knowledge of what the game is like nowadays. You might find that some of the young kids out of high school are more willing to talk to someone in that age range than somebody who is more of a father figure.”
Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay Rays manager: “I don’t think age should matter too much. I think it’s how you can relate to a player. Low-A players are obviously different from big-league players, but that’s what it really comes down to, anywhere in this profession: whether you’re 30 or 60, how well do you get guys to respond and buy into what you’re trying to accomplish?
“I think if [analytics] are something an organization values, and a lot of teams do, they need to make sure they have guys in those roles who put emphasis on it. If you’re 60 years old and don’t buy into TrackMan data, you’re probably going to be out of the game eventually. That’s the way the game is going right now.”
Steve Cline, Milwaukee Brewers Low-A pitching coach: “From my standpoint, with my children and now with my grandchildren, I’ve been able to stay up on things. Years ago we did everything on pencil and paper, and now we do everything on our computer, iPad, or phone. I’ve stayed up on the technology, and that’s allowed me to bridge the age gap, if you will.
“The first thing you have to do is gain the players’ respect and their trust. Years ago, when I first started coaching — I’d stopped playing the previous year — I was able to identify pretty easily with guys. But back then, you could tell guys what to do and there was no ‘why?’ Now guys look at me and see a little bit of gray hair, and kind of go, ‘What does this guy know?’ But then you spend time with them and they come to understand that you can give them the information, and you give them the ‘why.’
“I’m on [FanGraphs] at least once, maybe sometimes twice a day, because I’m always looking for insights and ways I might be able to help guys. Analytics and sabermetrics are a big part of the game now. If I didn’t keep up with things, I’d probably find myself out of a job.”
Steve Cishek, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher: “I think it’s all about the individual. If you’re a good communicator and know what you’re talking about, and you know how to handle each guy… every guy is a different personality. That’s what makes you a suitable pitching coach. You have to know the player like the back of your hand and be able to communicate with him.
“When I was rehabbing for Seattle in Double-A this year, they had a young pitching coach [Ethan Katz]. Everyone had a lot of respect for him, because he works tirelessly to help guys get better. And then you have older guys, who you respect because they’ve been in the game a long time. They know what they’re talking about. To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re a young coach or an older coach.”
Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher: “I couldn’t see it affecting the way they go about their business. I could see how there might be advantages to have a younger guy, especially dealing with younger kids. Here, we’re always striving to connect with the younger generation, coaching wise and philosophy wise. I can see how a club would be trying to take advantage of that. But at the same time, I think both a young guy and an old guy can get the job done.
“I’ve played for Dean Treanor, who is like 100, and Tom Filer was one of my pitching coaches. He’s a little older. But my first pitching coach was Mike Steele, who was quite a bit younger. [Jim] Benedict was running pretty much the whole thing. Personally, I relate more to the older guys. Growing up, I always had older coaches who were old school and yelled quite a bit. I got used to that style.”
Ben Crockett, Boston Red Sox director of player development: “I don’t think you can take age in mind too much during the hiring process. For me, it’s really about an individual coach’s skill set. Part of that is their personality and the atmosphere they’re able to create. The culture created by a coaching staff creates a level of expectation. What is the focus on a daily basis? Is it structured work? Is it about being looser and letting the talents come out, versus being more rigid? There are different strategies that are tied to the individual coaches’ personalities, and they impact the players.
“At the lowest levels, we’ve had guys like Tom Kotchman, Dick Such, and Goose Gregson, who have incredible amounts of experience. But we’ve also had Darren Fenster manage at that level. Iggy Suarez was in his early 30s. Each situation is individual. I think it’s good to have a mix of coaches with a lot of experience and coaches… learning who they are as they coach.
“If you bring in somebody who has experience elsewhere… different organizations have different philosophies and different structures. They have different ways of doing things, and that gives you an opportunity to learn something about how they went about it. Potentially, you might integrate that.”
Dave Dombrowski, Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations:“What you do is hire the best people that you can, and there are a lot of things you depend upon. You depend upon baseball knowledge, communications skills, being able to relate to individuals. You know that you’re working with younger players, and the ability to communicate with them is extremely important. Various people can do it in different ways.
“You can have somebody who is younger but very closed-minded and confrontational. You can also have somebody older who is open-minded. So I don’t think it’s about age so much as it’s about the individual.”
Dan Duquette, Baltimore Orioles vice president of baseball operations: “There are pluses to both. The young coach and the old coach can be complementary — the elements they can bring to the party. Having complementary skills on a staff is always helpful. Different ages and different skill sets makes for a stronger coaching staff.
“Data is helpful if you can turn it into actionable items to help the player and they can apply it to their performance, but you still have to go up there with a clear head to do your job. You need a clear mind, like a fighter pilot, to hit 95-mph fastball. There’s only so much you can do with the information. But again, there are pluses to both.”
Scott Emerson, Oakland A’s pitching coach: “I don’t think it’s age-specific. I do think it’s technology specific. The game is moving in a different direction. You’ve got TrackMan grading the spin rate of all the pitchers, their extension, the exit velos. Like with anything else, you have to move on with the times. If the game is making an adjustment to how we evaluate as coaches, no matter what your age is, you have to make that same adjustment.
“Gil Patterson, our pitching coordinator, is on top of it all. They give everybody a sheet that gives the parameters of what average is. You have to understand the information that’s being provided from StatCast, from TrackMan, and do some evaluation from that, mixed in with an old-school style of coaching.”
James Harris, Cleveland Indians director of player development:“What you want is expertise. That’s how you get better. The guys that we have on our staffs vary in age from 25 years old all the way up to over 70. And all of those guys work with all of our players. Our lower-level teams have a lot of younger coaches, but they’re around a lot of our older guys, too. It’s a good mix of young and old, which provides for all learning types. Everyone learns differently, and there a lot of different things that appeal to a lot of different players, so we make sure they get a little bit of everything.
“[O]ur older guys… are up to speed [with technology and newer teaching tools]. They’re pushing us for development opportunities. It’s not one of those things that is mandated by the front office, it’s more that it’s required and asked for by the coaches.
“Guys like Johnny Goryl and Minnie Mendoza are almost double my age, and they have some of the biggest growth mindsets in our entire organization. And the cool part for us is that they can compare that information to everything they’ve seen over their careers. [Goryl] is around our players quite a bit, and he’s learning at a rate that is equal to, or greater than, our youngest guys. He’s an example for our youngest coaches, which is one of the reasons it’s great to have him around.”
Brock Holt, Boston Red Sox infielder: “When you’re that low in the minor leagues, you’re really just starting out, so I don’t think it really matters. Those guys probably played pro ball themselves, so you’re going to have respect for, and listen to, whoever your coach is, regardless of his age.
“For a young guy coming up, having somebody coaching you who has been there — he’s done it before — makes it easier to listen to what he has to say. But again, their age shouldn’t affect how much respect you show them. If he’s your coach, he should be respected whether he’s 26 years old or 50 years old. That’s part of being a player. He’s there to help you, regardless of the age difference.”
Brian Johnson, Boston Red Sox pitcher: “All of my managers were older, or at least not near my age. I had Bruce Crabbe, then Carlos Febles, then Billy McMillon. I guess they were probably more in that middle area, age-wise. But I wouldn’t have minded having a younger guy.
“When I was in Double-A, I kind of looked at [teammate] Matt Spring as a coach. He was in his late 20s and I would approach him with questions. He was so smart in the way he called a game that I would always be picking his brain. He’s actually coaching in the Angels system now.”
Dane Johnson, Toronto Blue Jays bullpen coach: “I think it’s the message and the enthusiasm about the message. It’s his demeanor. He’s a button-pusher who recognizes which buttons to push. And that’s whether he’s 27, 35, 45, or 60. I’ve seen coaches that have closed the generation gap tremendously by knowing how to talk and having a great feel for being around the players and knowing what their needs are, and how to get their attention.
“One example of that is a college coach at Florida State by the name of Mike Martin. He’s in his 70s and still coaching. I saw him address kids who were 18 to 20 years old — one of them being my son — and I couldn’t believe the way he closed that generation gap and was able to relate to the players in that room. The enthusiasm, the integrity, the message… it was all about baseball, but it was also about life.”
Gabe Kapler, Los Angeles Dodgers director of player development: “I think the value comes in having both energetic youth, and salt and pepper in your beard. Neither one is as strong as having both. The best coaches provide examples of who a player has an opportunity to become and, as leaders, our job is to provide as many options as possible. Just like all humans, players will respond to different personalities. Because of this individuality, behavioral and physical models come in all shapes, sizes, and ages.
“I believe that players, no matter their level, respond first and foremost to give-a-shit. They need to know that their coach cares about them and is putting in at least an equal amount of work. These factors don’t often follow an aging curve. For that reason, age is immaterial to us in the hiring process. Can you model grit, determination, and strong teammate behavior? Are you constantly looking to improve your content? Do you contribute culturally? Can you grind it out in the bullpen, the cage, or on the field?
“The most significant lesson I’ve learned throughout my time in baseball is that we don’t know everything. No one person has all the answers. Instead, we get closer to optimal by bringing in as many viewpoints as possible. Diversity of perspectives, and coming from all walks of life, is how we grow stronger. We achieve more as individuals and as teams by challenging each other, and we acquire the ability to challenge because of our own individual experiences and learning. I can say with confidence that a team of 22-year-olds or a team of 62-year-olds will never outperform a team with both.”
Gil Kim, Toronto Blue Jays director of player development: “One of the keys for successful managers is connecting with the players. We have good examples of that at the lower levels, and they are very different in age. Dennis Holmberg, in Bluefield, is one of the longest-tenured members of our organization. He employs humor. He employs stories from the past. He emphasizes integrating cultures. He does a very good job of emphasizing fundamentals and the importance of your pregame work. He’s a father figure to these players.
“Then you have a guy like Luis Hurtado, in the GCL, who had a playing career relatively recently. He also does a great job of connecting with players. So we don’t necessarily look for age. There are certain common values — passion for the game, knowledge, work ethic, an ability to be creative and open-minded, an ability to connect — that don’t depend on age as much as you might think.
“As a leader of a ball club, a manager is responsible for driving the culture of that club. Just like general managers and other people in leadership positions, it’s vitally important to connect with staff. Your leadership group at an affiliate is the coaching staff, and you want to be able to foster a team-like atmosphere where everybody is getting better — and that includes the coaches. We call it player development, but really, it’s developing every employee.”
Ian Levin, New York Mets director of player development: “I don’t consider age when filling out these, or any, roles. The qualities that our organization values in coaches — communication, baseball knowledge, intellectual curiosity, progressiveness, attention to detail — can be found in staff of all ages.
“Different people possess different skill sets, and while some of the skills are more prevalent in certain generations, it’s not black and white. I want individuals — and certainly coaching staffs, collectively — to possess elements of all of the traits we value so that they can reach the most number of players with the greatest amount of information.”
Jordan Luplow, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder: “At that level, you’re just trying to keep your feet underneath you and your head above water. If a manager can communicate with players in a way that they receive it well, I don’t think age really matters.
“I had younger guys when I broke in. Brian Esposito was one of them, and I want to say he was in his early 30s or maybe even his late 20s. He connected pretty well. He was a good guy for the job, because he was able to communicate with the players. But regardless of age, most of these guys will have gone through what you’re going through. Even if it was a different time, and the game was played a little differently, they can all relate to what you’re going through.”
Jeff Luhnow, Houston Astros GM: “I think that experience matters, but the types of experiences we’re looking for today are a blend of different things than we were looking for 10-20 years ago. It’s not just the experience of having played at a high level. We’re seeing more and more coaches, at all levels, that maybe don’t have big-league playing experience. They have experience and skills in complementary areas.
“A lot of clubs are creating their own coaches. They’re getting entry-level people who maybe played in college and putting them in a role for a few years and then maybe getting them in uniform. There are all kinds of different formulas. You’re never going to be able to get away from experienced coaches, it’s just that there are more complementary skills necessary today.
“You can [mold young coaches], but you can also find experienced coaches that agree with whatever it is that you teach. In general, younger people have more experience with technology and more sophistication in interpreting the use of technology. That does give them a potential advantage.”
Jaron Madison, Chicago Cubs director of player development: “Having a solid mix of the two is the ideal setup. In development, it’s all about connecting with the players and adapting and modifying coaching styles to best reach and impact the players. We have players from diverse backgrounds and cultures, with varying skill levels and aptitudes, so it’s important that the coaches get to know the players individually, identify what works best and motivates each player.
“The older coaches bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that is beneficial to not only the young players, but also the young coaches. They are able to draw from their database of players and experiences and make comparisons to players that they have coached, or coached against, which helps them tailor their drills and coaching techniques to speed up the learning curve for young players. Typically, older coaches bring a more disciplined ‘old-school’ approach to the game that establishes structure and respect for the game. They have been able to test drills and techniques, and have a good idea of what works and does not work. This allows them to figure out which are most effective with different types of players.
“These veteran coaches need to be open-minded and embrace the fact that the game and players are constantly changing, and what worked in the past may need to be tweaked to reach the players of today. They must be willing to continue to learn and adapt, as well.
“The young coaches are typically closer to the end of their playing careers, and have an easier time connecting and relating to the young players. Many times they have more in common and are more relatable, connecting with the players on a different, deeper level. This leads to a trust and bond that makes them as much of a mentor as a coach/instructor. What younger coaches lack in experience, they make up for in energy and passion. It is typically easier for them to adapt to the advancements and changes in the game, and have a better understanding of peripheral information that is being used to help players on and off of the field. They are more open-minded and have a better grasp of the advanced metrics, video software, sports science, mental-skills work, and analytical data that is becoming more and more prevalent in the game.”
Eddie Romero, Jr., Boston Red Sox assistant GM: “There’s something to having experience — game experience, life experience — the older you get. Having that, and seeing how players react, is kind of like building up an encyclopedia. That being said, younger guys can be more creative and open-minded when it comes to different teaching methods. That’s especially true with the plethora of information that’s out there now. They may be more apt to utilize some of those newer techniques. So, I think there’s value in both.
“If you have a 28-year-old coach and an 18-year-old kid, the coach still has a pretty good age advantage there. And while the younger player may still relate to a younger coach better, there’s no taking away the knowledge and wisdom of somebody who has been around the game for a really long time. There are some long-lasting tenets that will always have an effect on young players, and those come most from guys with experience.
“With our Dominican academy, we have a veteran presence with Jesus Alou, who has seen everything in the game. A lot of times, we try to supplement with younger guys. They can learn from him. And young coaches also learn from young players — how to press their buttons and how they respond to different methods. It’s great when you have a young coach, because you can mold him in the ways of the organization. You can have some of your veteran coaches kind of teach him.”
David Stearns, Milwaukee Brewers president of baseball operations:“Different coaches with different skill sets, and different levels of experience, will impact different types of players. There’s not necessarily a prescription where you can say a coach with decades of experience is going to be better at a certain level, and a former player who is fresh off the field is going to be better at a certain level.
“I think most organizations have some semblance of a mix throughout. Most organization’s goals are going to be to continuously develop coaches. Sometimes that means having younger coaches, who generally start out at the lower levels.
“This usually happen organically. You have a player in your organization who is nearing the end of his playing days. He’s in his mid-20s, he has great makeup, and he’s a really intelligent baseball person. You want to keep him in your organization in some capacity. Sometimes those guys try the front office. Sometimes they go into scouting. Sometimes they become coaches.”