Expertise vs. experience? MLB’s latest revolution is changing the face of coaching

The rise of coaches with no pro playing experience represents the latest step in baseball’s player development revolution.

Batting practice was over for the day at New York Yankees camp. Or it was supposed to be. But as hitting coach Dillon Lawson was strolling off the field, veteran infielder Wilmer Difo was jogging on. He had missed his assigned group.

Lawson returned to his post behind the plate as the rest of George Steinbrenner Field emptied and watched Difo take cuts alone. In his second year working with the Yankees’ major-league hitters, Lawson does not walk away from chances to bond with his players, even non-roster invitees such as Difo who probably won’t make important contributions in the Bronx this year.

See, when Difo debuted in the majors in 2015, Lawson was an assistant coach at Southeast Missouri State University. He never played an inning of professional baseball at any level. He bounced directly from playing college ball to coaching college players, earning a graduate degree and working his way through a series of jobs “that no other grown man was going to take” — they paid as little as $12,000 a year — until a pitch recognition program he helped develop at Southeast Missouri State drew interest from MLB organizations.

Eight years into his career, Lawson got a shot coaching hitters in the Houston Astros’ minor-league system. In late 2018, the Yankees organization hired him. Prior to last season, they promoted him to the major-league staff.

Just five years ago, in 2018, MLB’s traditional primary coaching ranks (manager, bench coach, hitting coach, pitching coach) included only five coaches with no pro playing experience, plus one assistant hitting coach.

That number has ballooned since then. On 2023 staffs, there are 13 coaches in the traditional positions — one bench coach, six hitting coaches and six pitching coaches — who never played affiliated professional baseball. There are 16 more in the ever-expanding category of assistant coaches devoted to hitting or pitching, plus several more in less traditional, less skill-specific roles. In all, there are more than 30 uniformed coaches with blank Baseball-Reference pages but full LinkedIn profiles.

“Obviously, the longer we all coach, especially at this level, the more instant credibility that you get,” Lawson said. “But for me, there isn’t necessarily that instant credibility. You just have to work with it. That’s why it’s important to be at the BP, it’s important to be in the cage, to be at the lunch table and do all those types of things and have those conversations.”

Player development is no longer a minor concern

The changing face of MLB coaching stems from the broader player development revolution. Think of it like a family tree. The sabermetric revolution was the patriarch, the grandfather of how baseball is played today. Establishing statistical analysis as a bedrock element of running a baseball team involved changing minds, yes, but it also reshaped the actual human composition of front offices — with Ivy League executive types and quants overtaking former players in decision-making roles.

The player development revolution is, in many ways, the sabermetric revolution’s offspring and the father of the contemporary game. Once every team was using data to evaluate and acquire players, there weren’t nearly as many advantages to gain. The next logical step was figuring out how to use advancements in statistics and technology to make current players better.

Like the sabermetric revolution, this one started outside organized baseball. After washing out of a then-moribund Astros lineup in 2013, 25-year-old outfielder J.D. Martinez sought the help of private hitting coaches. His work that winter with the esteemed Craig Wallenbrock and an assistant named Robert Van Scoyoc unleashed a power-hitting monster. After 252 career major-league games, sporting an 88 OPS+ that signified he was 12% worse than a league-average hitter, Martinez emerged in Detroit in 2014 and posted a 154 OPS+.

The scope of what player development meant and who could benefit from it expanded more or less overnight. The purview of major-league coaching staffs eventually opened up alongside it. Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake — who also won a role on Aaron Boone’s staff with no professional playing experience to lean on — pivoted from scouting to molding young arms.

“I think before, there was a mindset that, ‘All right, we’ll develop in the minor leagues, and then when we get to the major leagues, they're major-leaguers,’” Blake said this spring. “So they just are who they are.”

By 2015, Statcast data brought exit velocity and spin rate measurements into the public realm, and bustling independent operators such as Driveline and Cressey Sports Performance were using technology to help players at all levels improve or totally reinvent their games. Once viewed as insurgents, Driveline founder Kyle Boddy later worked for the Cincinnati Reds for a few seasons. Other early adopters got plucked out of the college ranks, including former Vanderbilt pitching coach Derek Johnson, who worked for the Milwaukee Brewers before joining the Reds.

Blake spent years working with Cressey, then went in-house with Cleveland prior to the 2016 season. He helped kick the team’s pitching development machine into overdrive as an unheralded fourth-round pick named Shane Bieber added velocity and morphed into an ace.

“A lot of the teams, more progressive teams, were starting to look less about what was on the coach's baseball card and more about what could they offer to our players,” Blake said.

Blake was one of those people with zero baseball cards but plenty of ideas. Van Scoyoc was another. They just weren’t called “coaches” yet.

After meeting Wallenbrock and Brant Brown — now the Miami Marlins’ hitting coach — as a kid, Van Scoyoc said he became obsessed with their swing philosophies, perhaps to the detriment of his own playing aptitude. He found himself devouring swing research and the early days of FanGraphs instead of focusing on college classes. He eventually went to work with Wallenbrock and offered private hitting lessons, spending years “in the cage 12-14 hours a day every day, seven days a week.”

Through his work with Martinez and other big-leaguers seeking new information, Van Scoyoc became confident that he had something to offer an MLB organization.

“You know, honestly — no offense to anyone — but seeing kind of where coaching was at at the time, it felt like it was a pretty low bar to clear to really do it better than what was being done,” he said, citing an adherence to age-old practices without scientific backing. “As I saw that, I was like, ‘All right, I think I can do this.’”

In 2016, Van Scoyoc joined the Los Angeles Dodgers organization as a hitting consultant and quickly found another willing subject for Extreme Makeover: Hitter Edition. A 26-year-old shortstop struggling to stick in the majors, Chris Taylor missed the Dodgers playoff roster and went to their facility in Arizona, seeing “the writing on the wall” about his bleak chances of being called up.

“So I was sort of looking forward to 2017, and I had already been reading up on some of the swing changes a lot of hitters had made around the game,” Taylor said, referring to the loft-focused, power-adding renovations espoused by players such as Justin Turner. “And I decided this is something I was going to try to do.”

He was relying on YouTube videos and internet research until Van Scoyoc stumbled upon his efforts.

“I was hitting in the cage one day, off the tee, and I was trying a leg kick and all this stuff,” Taylor said. “Robert saw me in there and kind of noticed I was doing something different. He just asked if I needed some help. And then kind of guided me through it. And I liked the stuff he was telling me.”

To that point, Taylor had managed 23 homers in 2,241 professional plate appearances, the vast majority of those in the minors. The following season, he got his shot in Los Angeles and crushed 21 homers in 568 plate appearances. He has been an integral part of the Dodgers’ lineup ever since, signing a four-year, $60 million extension prior to 2022.

Van Scoyoc, whom Taylor called a “student of hitting,” briefly left Los Angeles to work as a hitting strategist for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2018 before the Dodgers brought him back as the major-league hitting coach in 2019. From there, the floodgates began to open for nontraditional coaching candidates.

Robert Van Scoyoc, Dillon Lawson and Matt Blake are three examples of the new wave of coaches with no MLB playing experience.
Robert Van Scoyoc, Dillon Lawson and Matt Blake are three examples of the new wave of coaches with no MLB playing experience.

What new-age coaching looks like in practice

While interviewing for his gig with the Yankees, Blake got the tough question you might expect all these coaches to face. In what now counts as a famous story in the industry, Gerrit Cole asked him if he’d ever made a mound visit.

The answer was no.

“Well, I'm coming from Brent Strom, who can talk to me about what Sandy Koufax did,” Blake said, recalling what he figured was going through Cole’s head after his years working with the vaunted pitching coach in Houston. “What can you bring to the table?”

Blake’s response is a good summary of how the onetime outsiders have adjusted their mindsets to serve rosters of the world’s best baseball players.

“I think it was more like, ‘Well, I can offer up what the best version of you looks like. And together, we can make sure you stay there,’” Blake said.

That means video study, monitoring and contextualizing results through more granular performance data, and even breaking down a player’s biomechanics. Lawson, whose advanced knowledge of the pitch recognition training program earned him entry into professional baseball, said the majors bring a different set of challenges that require adaptability. Some want to dive deep into the information alongside the coaches. Others want just occasional guidance to maintain their already excellent performance.

Anthony Rizzo is a really good hitter,” Lawson said, as an example. “He has these skills. You take a first-year professional baseball player, you’re trying to build these skills — not from scratch, but it’s close. It’s not robust like Rizzo’s game.”

Articulating the varying levels of development, essentially, that baseball players progress through, Lawson listed skill acquisition, skill adaptation and, on the highest rung, skill application.

“A lot of these guys are in skill application,” he said. “They're looking to just prepare in a way that allows them to perform. So there's for sure still development, but it's definitely through a different lens.”

Like the old stats versus scouts dichotomy in front offices, any perceived culture clashes have mostly blended into a hybrid approach that reflects the actuality of baseball in 2023. Pitchers might really benefit from picking the brain of Mike Harkey, the Yankees’ bullpen coach who worked with legendary closer Mariano Rivera. But they likely also benefit from Blake’s detailed understanding of what qualities make for an effective cutter. Ultimately, every player is aiming to stay in the majors and succeed in the majors. That means understanding and adapting to how success is measured and achieved today.

“I think the players are definitely more receptive to the younger coaches as they learn to see what they can offer them from resources and tools and information,” Blake said. “I think they've kind of just opened up their mind that it doesn't have to be the guy that played 10 years to show me how to get to 10 years.”

Plus, if coaches have players’ interests at heart, their résumés fade into the background pretty quickly.

Watching his coaches at work this month in Arizona, San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler ticked off the ways they have won players’ respect and trust without pointing to playing careers. Bench coach Kai Correa is disciplined. Alyssa Nakken is a tremendous listener. Taira Uematsu brings relentless hustle.

“I believe that players respond to anybody that they think can help them,” Kapler said. “And so you take a coach with 15 years of major-league experience as a player, and you take another coach with none, the one with none that cares more and prepares more and works harder and can help the player, the players gravitate toward that coach.”

A more diverse future for coaching

While the coaches without pro playing experience make for a handy barometer, the shift in hiring practices and coaching philosophies is actually less about who’s getting the jobs and more about how.

The earliest change-makers in this arena — from Van Scoyoc to Johnson to hitting guru Jeff Albert — busted down the door by very publicly proving their bona fides online, through private clients or in the college game. And there are still fascinating new voices joining the game through unexpected avenues; the Tigers’ new assistant pitching coach, Robin Lund, was a professor of kinesiology when he started volunteering as a coach for his college’s baseball team.

These days, though, the game accepts a broader idea of where coaches come from, and quieter routes are possible. For instance, Walker McKinven, the Milwaukee Brewers’ associate pitching, catching and strategy coach, worked his way up from video intern to uniformed staff member.

“I played in college. I played a year of indy ball. I just simply wasn't good enough and made an adult decision to try to jump into the other side,” he said. “Which is hard. It really is. When you don't know anyone, you kind of got to eat it for a little bit and swallow your pride and, you know, take a good job, which I did.”

Now, after working with backstops such as Manny Piña and Omar Narvaez, who markedly improved their defensive metrics during stints in Milwaukee, McKinven will have a crucial role as the Brewers integrate trade acquisition William Contreras, a bat-first catcher who could go supernova if his defense catches up.

McKinven’s approach is indicative of the macro-level lesson teams seem to be learning: He doesn’t know everything. No one does.

“So I work with our catchers quite a bit on the field. I was not a catcher, so I bring a certain naivete, I suppose,” McKinven said, making a point of coming in without preconceived notions. “I ask, ‘Why not?’”

In hiring coaches, there’s plenty of room left for that question. Since the St. Louis Cardinals fired Mike Shildt after 2021, there are zero MLB managers without playing experience. But the actual paths of the current managers vary broadly. Braves manager Brian Snitker played in the minors, but his attention has been devoted to the art of coaching since the early 1980s. Cubs skipper David Ross, on the other hand, leapt from playing to broadcasting to managing in the big leagues in less than five years.

A huge swath of coaches — young and old, player or not — have embraced the blend of information and experience. The rising tide of coaches breaking in with non-playing expertise likely reflects a selection process operated by more open minds.

“We just don't have a coaching staff that is built on their major-league résumés,” Kapler said.

Lawson, the Yankees’ hitting coach, wonders if that will be short-lived as more and more current players absorb the expertise flowing into the league.

“I mean, I think I'm lucky. Pure luck in the fact that I was born when I was born,” he said. “Because I don't know that the window for someone like me will always be open. If the outsiders do our job the right way, the players we're coaching are going to have that knowledge as well. And then now they've got the best of both worlds.”

That said, the trendlines, not to mention MLB’s winnowing of the minor leagues, portend an expanded role for baseball “outsiders” — or at least a more level playing field. This is no longer a gimmick or an especially innovative checkbox in a hire. It’s not even a characteristic to flip-flop on, a la football teams that swerve between offensive- and defensive-minded coaches. Last year, the Brewers let go one hitting coach without playing experience and hired another.

What was once a concrete barrier to entry is fading — or, maybe more accurately, melting. Blake, a former scout who uses stats in coaching, blazed a relatively new path to the dugout in the Bronx. But the walk from there to the mound remains the same. Ultimately, this game of a billion data points has a habit of eventually distilling most everything into a binary: Does it work, or does it not?

“I think it's gonna be based on how good of a coach you are, regardless of what your background is,” Van Scoyoc said. “There's obviously more players now that have been exposed and like new-age information, so I think you'll see it start to be a blend of just the best coaches and communicators.”

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