There’s a real disconnect between fans and teams these days around how teams actually make decisions and prepare their players for the game. Infield drills and batting cage time is still critical, of course, but the role of coaching staffs has changed so drastically in the last decade that it’s often fair to ask “what does this guy actually do?”
Marcus Thames is a good example of this. The Yankees have a great track record of taking lesser hitters and unknowns like Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Luke Voit and Gio Urshela, and turning them into 120 wRC+ studs. Marcus Thames isn’t some hitting savant, but he is able to effectively communicate the findings of the Yankees’ deep, talented analytical teams to his hitters, and that communication has become the chief skill needed for MLB coaching staffs.
The Houston Astros have made this into a science, while developing and improving a who’s who of the best pitchers in baseball. Justin Verlander, perhaps the most famous beneficiary of the Astros’ systemic and scientific approach to coaching, has talked about the way the Astros prioritize communicating their findings:
“What they’re good at is telling you what you’re good at”...[Verlander’s] new employers reassured him that he had an elite four-seamer...and informed him that he was only hurting himself when he used a different fastball - The MVP Machine, Lindbergh & Sawchik, pp187
Justin Verlander re-became the best pitcher in baseball basically by dropping his two-seam fastball, using his four-seam more, and throwing his slider earlier in counts. This wasn’t a personal philosophy of Astros’ pitching coach Brent Strom - he gave completely different advice to Gerrit Cole and Ryan Pressley - but it was information unearthed by the analytics department and effectively communicated by the coaching staff.
This is what the Yankees are looking for as they go about finding the replacement for Larry Rothschild. The Yankees have focused on allowing pitchers to do what they do best, while making adjustments on the fly. Masahiro Tanaka battled all year with finding his sinker while mixing his pitch offering depending on the ball used that day, and James Paxton leaned on a heavy dose of fastball and curve to be the team’s most effective starter in the second half.
Pitching coaches are no longer in the Ray Searage mold, where they come to a team with a particular belief in how pitchers should pitch and all the guys on the staff fall into line. Coaches must now have a much broader scope, potentially at the expense of depth, but that’s why they have such expansive analytical departments.
A critical piece of the search is also likely to be how a candidate jives with the team’s director of pitching, Driveline alum Sam Briend. For the uninitiated, Driveline is a private coaching and consulting firm based outside of Seattle. They’ve helped dozens of MLB and near-MLB players improve themselves and naturally that’s led to the brain trust being poached, with founder Kyle Boddy hired this year to work with the Cincinnati Reds.
Briend’s role has been left ambiguous but it appears he’s tasked with a macro outlook of the overall pitching strategy - how many innings are ideally allocated to starters or relievers, for example. This grand strategy, coupled with the analytical department, will trickle down to individual strategies for each pitcher, and the various in-game tactics used by the staff.
Communicating complicated analytical findings is at the heart of the modern coaching staff, and we should expect that to be the primary focus of the Yankees’ new pitching coach. It wouldn’t surprise me if the team went exactly the way of Aaron Boone and picked a candidate none of us would expect, and just like Boone, it wouldn’t surprise me if that pick ended up being a good move.