Darren Fenster Resources

 Finding an Edge
(7/16/2020)
 
   

Finding an Edge


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


For all the wrong reasons, the Astros were the talk of the off-season. Following an extensive investigation by the Commissioner’s Office, it was found that Houston had implemented a system that illegally enabled their hitters to know what pitch was coming, giving them a distinct advantage over their opponents en-route to a World Series title in 2017. Well before technology, analytics, and data were even on baseball’s radar, players and coaches have been looking for an edge as long as the game has been around. The Astros just took it to a whole ‘nother level, going leaps and bounds beyond the appropriate line of gamesmanship within the game.

Players and teams who are constantly looking for even the slightest of edges are able to separate themselves from the pack when they find it. The edge is about the smallest of details; and for those with the eyes and the mind to find it, an edge can be found all over the game.

From 2006-2011, as a member of the coaching staff at Rutgers University, I was responsible for creating scouting reports for all of our opponents. In addition to developing a plan of attack based on the overall stat lines for the opposing players, we also compiled additional information and tendencies that were potentially valuable while easily able to be implemented in game by our players and coaches. Knowing a few of these different things and finding a way to use that information could help us on every side of the ball.

Looking at a spray chart to know where to position our infielders might just enable us to make a play defensively that otherwise may have gotten through for a hit. It may allow a pitcher to get ahead in a big at bat in a key moment to know that the hitter was not a first-pitch swinger. It might open a window for us to get a stolen base on a pitcher’s slow delivery or stretch an extra 90-feet against a weak-armed outfielder. All of those types of edges add up, and over the course of a game and a season, they add up to wins.

The eyes can also create an edge by simply paying close attention. For decades, baserunners, when on second base, have worked to subtly relay pitches to the hitter by intently watching a catcher’s sign sequence. This is essentially what the Astros got in trouble for, only they didn’t use their eyes from second base; they used a camera from centerfield. Similarly, the keenest of eyes can pick up when a pitcher may be tipping his pitches by seeing the most minute difference from pitch to pitch.

For as detailed and challenging as getting pitches may be for a lineup, when out in the field, that edge can be gained much easier. Foul balls tell a story for the defense. When a hitter is clearly late against a hard-throwing pitcher, infielders and outfielders should clearly see that and position themselves a few steps to the opposite field. Pitchers can get a leg up against a hitter by reading swings; was the batter completely fooled by a change-up? Then it might be a good idea to throw it again. Baserunners may get a great jump on a dirt ball when realizing that the pitcher always throws one when he gets to two strikes. All of these tiny, little edges add up, especially when everyone on the team is looking for them.

Finding an edge is all about preparation off the field and in the dugout, allowing players and coaches to anticipate when the game comes around. Information enables those in the game to take the guess work out of it. With all of the variables that can occur over the course of an inning, a game, and a season, every pitch can be a crapshoot. The more variables we can eliminate, the easier we can make a really, really hard sport.



Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 The Last Line of Defense
(6/18/2020)
 
   

The Last Line of Defense


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Over the last few years, no skill in our game has transformed more than hitting. With new ways to evaluate swings, combined with more aggressive approaches to hit the ball over the shift instead of around it, hitters are doing more damage than ever. For all that has changed in the batters’ box, there is a very important corresponding fact that we need to acknowledge: outfield play has never been more important than it is today.

Every year as a manager, usually on the day when we are teaching our players the pop-fly priority team fundamental, I would gather everyone together and explain to them that when the ball went in the air, they needed to become Dennis Rodman. A confused look usually overcame the entire group, not knowing for sure who exactly Rodman was.

Before he became “that guy with all the tattoos,” as our young players vaguely recognized him, Dennis Rodman was arguably the best rebounder in NBA history, carving out a Hall-of-Fame career by doing the dirty work on the court that few would ever embrace. When the basketball was shot in the air, Rodman expected to get the rebound. Every single time. And THAT’S the approach all great outfielders have; when the ball goes in the air, they expect to catch it.

There are three main priorities when it comes to outfield play, and the first is a simple one: EFFORT. Go. Get. The. Ball. Without effort, an outfielder can’t even be average. With effort, an outfielder will always give himself a chance to make a play. All of the extra bases are in the outfield, and nothing shuts down the extra base easier or better than simply effort to get on the baseball. The harder an outfielder goes after a ball, the sooner a baserunner or third-base coach has to make the decision on whether or not to stretch an extra 90’ or send the runner around.

The second priority of outfield play is a mental one: ENGAGEMENT. We want all of our players, no matter the position but especially our outfielders, to engage in the pitch, the play, and the game. In the Major Leagues, on average, roughly 300 pitches are thrown per game. That means for 150 of them, our players are out in the field playing defense and are expected to lock in mentally on every single one. That means they are timing out their pre-pitch to be ready to move to the best of their ability if the ball is hit their way.

We expect our outfielders to be engaged to the play. Whenever the ball is put in play, and many times when it’s not, there is always somewhere for everyone on the field to be. When players are focused on their specific job at hand, they are in the correct position, doing the right thing. The final piece of engagement is with the game. Depending on the score, the situation, or the inning, the variables of the game will dictate our players decisions offensively and, in this case, defensively. When our outfielders are engaged in the game, they know where to throw the ball, when to dive for a ball, or when to play it safe.

And lastly, the final priority of outfield play is OWNERSHIP, where we want our players to take pride in perfecting their craft in becoming the best defenders they can be. This is a two-pronged focal point, the first of which takes place during drill work. Our practices routines are designed in a way to only have one or two specific things to work on as we progress through our drill packages. When players truly take ownership, their drill work is laser-focused on the things they are working on and they can’t help but get better.

The second part of ownership is found during batting practice… on the outfield grass. Without question, the most important part of an outfielder’s day is when they work live during BP. There is no drill or fungo that offers a better rep than what an outfielder can get during batting practice. It’s as close to a game rep as there is, allowing for outfielders to get consistent with their pre-pitch timing, clean up their reads and breaks, and perfecting their routes to the ball. How an outfielder approaches batting practice will determine whatever they will become.

Many coaches have long tried to “hide” a productive bat in the outfield, thinking that they could sacrifice defense in favor of offense. Well, with the direction the game is going in, that strategy probably isn’t the smartest one in this day and age. For outfield is truly the last line of defense.


Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 While Few Will Be Basestealers, All Will Be Baserunners
(5/14/2020)
 
   

While Few Will Be Basestealers, All Will Be Baserunners


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


In February of 2019, I reported to Fort Myers for my first Spring Training in a new role as our Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator. In that role, I am essentially the lead voice- with a lot of input from a lot of people- for our organization with regard to how we will approach developing outfielders and baserunners. As players began trickling into JetBlue Park, many came up to me, excited about getting better on the bases… just not in the sense they truly needed to improve.

“Fens, I really want to get more bags this year,” a number of them proclaimed.

What I quickly realized was that most players associate baserunning only as basestealing, which is just one of the many elements of the overall skill. Furthermore, the stolen base is a dying play at the Major League level, with only six players in the entire game finishing 2019 with more that 30 bags for the year, which works out to a little more than one per week. Gone are the days of guys like Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman stealing over 100 bases in a single season.

So, with our focus on developing the skills needed to help our club win in Boston, it doesn’t make sense to spend a ton of our time working on something in the Minor Leagues when it will only be a tiny part of our success in the Big Leagues. That goes for any part of the game, and in this case, basestealing. But for as few who will become true basestealers in the Major Leagues, every single position player we have WILL be a baserunner, and if they take the same pride in the developing the skill required to running the bases as they do their skills of hitting or fielding, they will have a chance to impact games with their legs, and they don’t even have to be fast in order to do so.

Our development on the bases is geared towards players understanding the importance of 90’. Every 90’ is that much closer to scoring a run; a run that may be the difference in a win or a loss; a win or loss that may have us celebrating a championship or languishing in bitter defeat. Baserunning is far more about details and decisions than it is about being fast or slow or even being out or safe.

Above all, baserunning begins with effort, and effort is a decision that is completely independent of talent. It takes no athletic ability whatsoever to give effort. The fastest guy in the world and the fattest guy in the world can both run equally as HARD. “Running for the possible” is the mindset and approach that all baserunners should have. Sure single? Round first base for a possible double. Sure double? Give yourself a chance for the possible triple. Ground into a sure out? There’s no such thing; run for the possible infield hit. Effort forces errors and changes the entire complexion of playing defense.

Baserunning is a skill, in the same exact respect that hitting, fielding, and pitching are all skills. And there is a very specific, detailed technique that comes with running the bases well. Those details include the route from home to first, the correct part of the base to touch, taking a primary lead, timing out the secondary lead, and what to look for while running. When thinking in such a focused manner on those little things, big things on the bases are sure to follow.

Baserunning is a separator skill that is a true indicator of players who are able to successfully separate the game. The second the ball is put in play, the mind has to transform from hitter to baserunner immediately with a 100% commitment and focus on running the bases. That commitment starts with effort, especially in those instances when we didn’t have a good at bat but still found a way on base. Mentally engaged baserunners are dangerous baserunners who know the situation of the game and anticipate all that may happen that will impact their decisions on the bases.

Impact baserunners are both smart and aggressive. Great baserunning teams make intelligent decisions, taking chances based on the game’s variables combined with their reads off the bat and of the defense to challenge the other team to make a play to prevent the extra base. They are aggressive, with effort as their foundation, to work to get to 2nd where they can score on a single or to reach third where they are in position to score on an out, error, wild pitch, or infield hit among others. With that aggressiveness, players must understand that it’s OK to make outs on the bases. There is a risk versus reward aspect to running the bases. Safe teams who don’t make outs on the bases aren’t giving themselves to get extra bases and, in turn, prevent themselves a chance to score more runs. With risks come outs, but with risks also come runs.

There are free bases all over the field, and it’s just a matter of players being made aware of where exactly to look for them. Whether it be anticipating a dirt ball, advancing as a backside runner on a high throw from an outfielder, or reading an outfielder who isn’t in a great position to make a play, there is a competitive edge on the bases that comes from simply watching the game with the eyes. When players realize that being a great baserunner goes beyond their speed and their coaches consciously spend time practicing all of the skill’s minute details, combined they will create a weapon in their club’s arsenal that other teams will soon fear.


Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 Getting Up After Getting Sent Down
(4/17/2020)
 
   

Getting Up After Getting Sent Down


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Every year at the very end of Spring Training is what is arguably the worst day of the baseball calendar: cut day. A Major League roster carries 26 players. This year, we brought in 66 guys to camp. You don’t have to be a math major to realize that there are far more players than there are spots. The same rule holds true on the Minor League side.

As camp begins to wind down and the Major League roster is set, there is a trickle down all the way through our Minor League system that often causes players to put on their imaginary GM hats. They, too, know that there are more players than spots and try to figure out for themselves where they will fit come April 1st when we leave Fort Myers and head to our affiliates up and down the east coast.

Players spend their entire off-season working towards the next year. They report to camp in better shape, with better swings, better pitches, looking to become better players. Whether they are coming off of a great season or one that didn’t necessarily go as planned, most players come to Spring Training with high aspirations to make the club at a higher level from the prior year. While sometimes that works out, often times, it doesn’t. That reality tends to set in on cut day.

On cut day, there are a lot of sad faces with bad body language across minor league fields all over baseball. But most aren’t upset because their buddies just got sent home. Rather their hurt stems from a demotion that they hoped wouldn’t happen. Whether it’s from the Major Leagues down to AAA, or back to the rookie leagues from A-ball, getting sent down sucks, and is an added challenge to overcome in a game full of incredibly hard challenges.

But getting sent down is better than the alternative of getting sent home. And that is the message we seemingly always relay to our players still in the organization on cut day every year.

The players that had to walk out of the complex with bags in hand may have played their last game. In that moment, they would kill to have been sent down to a lower level, because that means they would still have a job. As long as a player has a uniform, they have an opportunity to become a Major Leaguer. Throwing a pity-party for will only take them away from that goal.

Our game is filled with adversity on so many levels. Whether it be a professional getting demoted to a lower level, a college guy being benched, or a high schooler getting cut, they all have the same exact choice, which should be a simple one. They can wallow in self-pity, or they can use their hardship as motivation to overcome and grow from it. Hopefully the send down has left the player better prepared to get back up.


Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.


 The Devil is in the Details
(3/20/2020)
 
   

The Devil is in the Details


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


In June 2013, I made my managerial debut, skippering our rookie-level Gulf Coast League Red Sox. Prior to that point in my coaching career, managing wasn’t something that was truly on my radar; I had just completed my first year with the organization as an A-ball hitting coach, a job that I really enjoyed in an area of the game that I fully expected to progress in. When the opportunity to manage was presented to me, it was a chance to have more of a leadership role and one that offered me a great way to grow both personally and professionally with the responsibility of coaching more players, and in a bigger picture.

Hindsight 20/20, when it came to actually being prepared to do the job I had just been promoted to do, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. While I am sure there is a handbook on how to manage a baseball team, much of learning how to best navigate through a season comes from trial and error more than anything else. Like most, I did the job the only way I knew how at the time and did it to the best of my ability. At various points of the season, I mishandled everything from game strategy, to discipline, to communication, to schedule logistics, and probably a lot in between.

But there was one thing I didn’t mess up: a very detailed approach to teach the game where EVERYTHING mattered. At one point during that summer, a player lamented to a coach on our staff his frustration. “Fenster is on us about every little thing,” he said. “Why can’t he just let us play?” Looking back, that may be one of the best compliments I have ever received as a coach.

For the last two and a half years, the following tweet has been pinned to my profile on Twitter: “Hate that coach who works you too hard, always on your case? Wait until you play for a coach who doesn’t care. You’ll realize how lucky you were.”

Those 140 characters are at the core of who I am as a coach, thanks entirely to the influence that Fred Hill, the coach I played for and coached with at Rutgers, had on me; it was the foundation of who he was as a coach. I have always held my players to a higher standard than they hold themselves to because that’s exactly what Coach Hill did for me .

As a player, I learned the hard way how valuable this approach was for my own personal development. About ten games into my freshman season, we were getting crushed by UCF, in large part because of what seemed like 15 pull-side hits down the left-field line. While playing shortstop, Coach Hill put the responsibility on me to tell our third baseman when off-speed pitches were coming. I didn’t relay one all game. And got completely ripped for it after the game in front of half the team. I was literally in tears, ready to transfer.

When we got back to the hotel, he called me into his room. It was there where he said this: “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the reason I am riding you so hard is because I think you have a chance to be a great player for us. You shouldn’t be upset when I get on you; you should get worried, when I’m not.” From that day forward, I was completely transformed in my ability to handle criticism, no matter how loud that message was communicated.

Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with my own players similar to that one Coach Hill had with me back in the spring of 1997.

Thanks to the many coaches that I’ve have the privilege of playing for or coaching with, I’ve come to realize that a team will always, in some way, shape, or form, take on the personality of its coaching staff. That goes not only for the positive elements but also just as much for the negative aspects as well. Our teams have always had a good sense of being aware of the countless little things that take place over the course of a game because we make them a consistent part of what we teach. There is no doubt that many players don’t necessarily like a coaching staff that consistently gets on them about not doing some of these little things right. The devil may very well be in the details, but that devil wins a ton of games.


Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.