FORT MYERS, Fla. — The coaching staff of the Minnesota Twins was raided this offseason. While former bench coach Derek Shelton, hitting coach James Rowson and assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner’s impact on the team last year were meaningful, in some ways their departure is a positive. It shows that the Twins chose people who were on the vanguard of how modern baseball is played, and their absence creates an opportunity for someone with a fresh perspective to join their coaching staff.
Bench coach Mike Bell, who replaces Shelton, spent 13 seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks — most recently as VP of player development. Hitting coach Edgar Varela was promoted internally and will share duties with Rudy Hernandez, last year’s assistant hitting coach. Bob McClure, a former pitching coach for the Philadelphia Phillies and Kansas City Royals, was hired away from Philadelphia where he served as a senior pitching advisor before the 2018 season, and will serve as the team’s bullpen coach in 2020.
It’s easy to think that the 2019 coaching staff, especially Rowson, sprinkled magic dust on his players after the Twins led the league in home runs and won 101 games last season. But there was no magic formula for the Bombas, and the coaching staff catered to each individual player. For some it was mechanics. Others it was mental. In many cases it was both, as each player’s swing is different and nobody’s mind operates in the same way.
“Everyone wants to talk about organizational hitting philosophy. That is such a broad kind of catchphrase, or catchword,” said Rocco Baldelli. “You can’t sum up a general philosophy in a couple of sentences. Every hitter is different, and to get the most out of every guy I think you have to be able to identify different things, able to treat every guy like they’re an individual, able to give particular work and particular ideas that are gonna work for them.
“I really don’t ever like talking about organizational hitting philosophies, because I don’t think that makes sense. That sounds like a one-size fits all mentality, and that’s not the way we do things here. And last year James and Rudy, the way they went about their business, with our guys in the cage, with the way we talk about things, very simple things we believe in? Yes. But as far as an organizational hitting philosophy? I don’t think so.”
Shelton is now the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rowson is the Miami Marlins’ bench coach and appears to be the manager in waiting, and Hefner is the Mets pitching coach. Each received a promotion from a different team and would have been blocked by incumbent Twins coaches. Rocco’s position as manager is safe after winning 101 games last year, and pitching coach Wes Johnson is coveted by the Twins because of his ability to use biomechanics to increase his pitchers’ velocity and spin rate.
Continuity is still valuable, especially when it comes to player development given that prospects tend to perform better if they receive consistent messages from coaches as they progress through the minor league system, and the Twins are wise to keep talented coaches like Johnson around. But organizations can get stuck in their ways. By having some churn while retaining key figures, Minnesota can maintain its status as a cutting-edge organization without losing its best coaches.
Ron Gardenhire famously had his guys — Joe Vavra, Rick Anderson, Scott Ullger, etc. — and much has been made of the fact that they were never poached away. Vavra and Anderson are on Gardenhire’s current coaching staff with the Detroit Tigers. And while they were at one time innovative and ahead of baseball trends during the Twins successful run from 2002-10, they also were there when things went south following the opening of Target Field. The Twins fell behind the analytical revolution, and had to bring in their current progressive coaching staff to turn things around.
The churn this year should bring in new thinking and a different voice for the players, but continuity has allowed them to be creative with how the coaching staff is structured. Hefner was called an assistant pitching coach, where McClure has the more traditional title of bullpen coach. Hernandez was an assistant hitting coach last year and now has the co-hitting coach title this season, and is able to share that role because of his relationship with Varela.
“Every combination hitting coach wise is going to work differently,” said Baldelli. “Sometimes the guys divvy up the work where a particular player might spend more time with one guy than another. Actually I think that’s great.
“We have two hitting coaches because you want guys that are different, that have different personalities, that probably have some common beliefs as far as the way that we’re going to operate and common beliefs is the way that we’re going to approach our work but they get along really well, too. There’s a friendship there and I think they’re looking forward to actually working with each other.”
As long as the Twins are able to maintain enough continuity to foster player development and retain their best coaches, turnover is inevitable and positive. If a few of their coaches are hired away each year, it means they’re doing something right.