Fundamental Skills Resources

 The Value of Baseball’s Currency Never Changes
(10/14/2021)
 
 
   

The Value of Baseball’s Currency Never Changes


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


As we entered the final weekend of the 2021 Major League Baseball regular season, the game’s best two records resided in the National League West. Both the Giants and the Dodgers had already won over 100 games, and they would probably be spending these last few days setting up their pitching and resting their hitters to be at their strongest in anticipation of a deep October run. But thanks to how baseball’s postseason is set up, neither team has been afforded that luxury because one of the two will find themselves playing in the one-shot, winner advance, loser-go-home, Wild Card Game next week. Anything can happen in just one game, so the stakes of winning the division are huge versus the risk of playing in a single-elimination game after such an incredible year. For both the Giants and the Dodgers, it is every bit a sprint to the finish.

There is a microscope in the National League West and on all of the other tight races here in the final week of the season. Everything seems to be heightened. Each game seems just that more important; each run scored or stranded, that much more vital to a club’s postseason chances. But the reality is that it was an entire body of work that got us to this very point. In the marathon that is a 162-game season, no one game counts any more than another. A win in April has the same exact value as a win in August. The same theory holds true within each game: despite the spotlight that shines in the final couple innings, a run in the 1st counts exactly the same as a run in the 9th. It’s the compilation of every inning that makes up the final score in the end.

Had either the Giants or Dodgers pulled out a win here or a win there earlier in the season, maybe they would be breathing just a bit easier this week. If the Red Sox or the Yankees took better advantage of some great scoring opportunities in a game or two back in the spring that they wound up losing, perhaps they would be sitting a bit prettier than they are right now.

The truth of the matter is that teams never know which run will be the game-winner, nor will they know which win will be the difference in their postseason fate. We figure both out after the fact. Because we don’t know in the heat of battle or the middle of the marathon, it cannot be understated for teams to truly understand the importance of every single run and every single win while in the moment.

“Get ‘em next time.”

“There’s always tomorrow.”

“We still have three at-bats to go.”

Become a fly on the wall in any baseball dugout throughout the spring and summer, and you’re guaranteed to hear one if not all of those phrases. They are all often uttered as a positive and upbeat reaction to missed opportunities. In this game, with so much failure, that type of encouragement is not only invaluable but necessary throughout a game and a season. But it is every bit a coachable mindset to breed amongst your teams and players a sense of urgency to get ‘em THIS time or to not wait for tomorrow and figure it out TODAY, or to take advantage of the FIRST at-bat to put runs up and to not wait for the last. When the collective attitude of a team is built from the foundation of understanding that the value of a run and the value of a win are the same no matter when they take place, that’s a team ready to take advantage of every opportunity, no matter when in the game or the season they are presented.


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.


 Seeing the Stolen Base Signs
(9/16/2021)
 
   

Seeing the Stolen Base Signs


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


From Dave Roberts in the 2004 American League Championship Series to Willie Mays Hayes in the movie Major League, the stolen base has long been one of the more exciting plays in baseball, a potential momentum shifter with every 90’ in the game.

As the game has changed in recent years, so has the stolen base and the propensity for teams to use it as a weapon. Gone are the days of players like Rickey Henderson or Vince Coleman stealing over 100 bases in a single season. The idea behind the stolen base to get into scoring position has been negated a bit by the argument that- in this offensive era of doing damage at the plate- the runner is already in scoring position at first, able to score on an extra-base hit.

Regardless of the climate for stolen bases in Major League Baseball, there will always be an appropriate time and place to look for bags at every level of the game. And it’s being aware of those times within the situation and the accompanying signs from the game that are indicators of whether or not you can steal. With the underlying baserunning idea that every 90’ is 90’ closer to scoring a run; that run which may be the game-winner; that game, maybe the World Series clincher; your players’ ability to steal a base might just be the difference between you winning a title or watching your opponent celebrate one right in front of you.

Every game for a manager or a baserunner with a green light, the question looms: what is the appropriate time and/or situation to attempt a stolen base? While every coach may have their unique philosophy on the stolen base, one thing that is likely universal for all is picking a time and/or situation when they think the runner has a good chance of being safe. With that in mind, here are a few ways to steal bags against some different signs of the game:

STEALING AGAINST THE STOPWATCH
The oldest bag in the book. Take the pitcher’s time to the plate (anything 1.3 seconds and lower is considered quick), add the catcher’s pop time to second base (2.0 and below is very good), and you have their combo time. To get an idea if that combo is suitable for the steal, you can get your runner’s steal time in practice, starting from their lead and stopping on their slide into the base. If that time is quicker than the pitcher/catcher combo time, that’s a good opportunity to be safe.

STEALING AGAINST THE CATCHER
Some catchers struggle to make a strong and accurate throw to second. In the current age of one-knee stances, other catchers don’t put themselves in a good position to throw when runners go. By paying attention to the catcher from the dugout, you may be well prepared to steal a base by the time you get to first, regardless of how quick or slow the pitcher may be to the plate.

STEALING AGAINST THE COUNT
Pitchers are creatures of habit, and catchers can become pretty routine in their game-calling as well. A pitcher often tries to put away every hitter with the same pitch in the same count, or their catchers call for that same pitch accordingly. When a pitcher’s kill pitch is an off-speed pitch down and out of the zone, that makes for a great pitch to run on because of the difficulty of simply catching the ball for the catcher.

STEALING AGAINST THE HOLD OR LOOK
Pitchers are creatures of habit not only with the way they sequence their pitch arsenal against opposing hitters but also how they control the running game. A great jump by the baserunner makes it that much harder for the catcher to throw that runner out, no matter how quick a pitcher is to the plate. So if before delivering a pitch, a pitcher consistently comes set for two seconds every time or only looks once when that runner is on second base, that consistency enables a baserunner to get that great jump that usually results in a stolen base.

Creating an edge on the bases often comes from using the eyes in the dugout. In many cases, when players and coaches pay attention to the nuanced details of the game, those game-changing stolen bases start well before a runner even gets on base. It’s not only a matter of players wanting to steal; it’s as much a matter of them seeing the signs within the game that tell them when it will be appropriate to do so.


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 Uncommon Bond of Common Purpose
(8/26/2021)
 
   

The Uncommon Bond of Common Purpose


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


This was different.

It was transformational.

Three letters, a flag, and a goal changed everything.

U.S.A.

The first time you see those three letters across your chest, you realize the magnitude. That flag takes on greater significance as a unifying symbol and constant reminder of who and what we were representing. When you hear the National Anthem, it hits you; the song isn’t being played for the game; it’s being played for your team. And it gives you chills every single time.

The United States Olympic Baseball Team was unlike any team I have ever been a part of because we truly had one common purpose: an Olympic Gold medal. That was it. That was it for me and everyone else; that gold medal was the only thing on our minds and the only thing we cared about. For 24 players, six coaches, and the other ten or so support staffers, this common purpose amongst every single member of our baseball delegation gave us an uncommon bond that is near impossible to find in the world today. How many times have you ever been a part of something where you could feel that every single person was genuinely on the same page, indisputably pulling the rope in the same direction? Uncommon indeed…

Of the six nations competing for gold, we were the only team who didn’t have our names on the back of our jerseys. Those three letters on the front were all we needed to say exactly who we were. We were not 24 different players, six individual coaches, and some random USA Baseball personnel. We were all on the same team: Team USA.

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In this age of individuality where people are encouraged to have their own voice and motivated to build their own brand, never before has it been more challenging to get a group of individuals to think beyond themselves for the greater collective good. But that’s what we did. And we did it by beginning with only the end in mind, nudged with a handful of symbolic reminders along the way.

On our very first call together as a coaching staff months before the Olympics and the qualifying tournament, manager Mike Scioscia talked about the gold medal and tattooed that image into our minds as our ultimate goal. We hadn’t even punched our ticket to Tokyo at that point, yet that was the vision. In our first meeting in Florida with our group looking to qualify, the message was about earning the opportunity to win gold. At our first gathering as a team, that same message was crystal clear: we were going to Tokyo to win an Olympic gold medal, and within our club, we weren’t scared to talk about it. When your leader believes in something so strongly and communicates it so consistently, a funny thing happens- everyone else starts believing it too.

In subsequent team get-togethers, we were taught things like appropriate decorum when standing for our opponent’s anthem compared to ours, and the meaning behind the backward flag, how it marked going into battle. Martin Dempsey, the retired Army General who served as the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed his life experiences in the military and left us with an incredible perspective about teamwork and how our collective result would depend on our individual actions. In a ceremony before an exhibition game before leaving for Tokyo, members of the North Carolina National Guard presented every member of our traveling party with a flag patch… THEIR flag patch, pulled right off of their uniforms. Those patches- with that backward flag- accompanied us overseas with one always attached to each game’s lineup to keep front and center who exactly we were playing for. Outfielder Tyler Austin bought belts for the entire team. I know what you’re thinking; a belt isn’t that big of a deal. But when that belt has a gold buckle, all of a sudden, we were reminded of our goal every time we put our pants on. During workouts or in batting practice, before that last double-play ground ball or in that final round of batting practice, you’d often hear “for gold” right before that play or pitch.

Everything was for gold. And everyone was for gold. A medal, a flag, and three letters. That’s what made our team go.

Societal norms today have become more individualized than ever, and the landscape of sports is no different. High school athletes showcase themselves in hopes of catching the eye of a college recruiter. College baseball players often have one eye on their team and the other on getting drafted. Minor Leaguers are not playing for that Carolina League ring as much as they are playing to move up to the next level and the level after that, eventually reaching their pinnacle of the Major Leagues. And Big Leaguers? Some might just be playing simply to stay there, while others may very well be playing for their next big contract. At just about every rung of the athletic ladder, there is almost always that next rung to reach for, often reaching an individual free-for-all.

For our club at the Olympics, our ladder only had one rung, and we were hand and step reaching for it together.

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Going back to our first days together in late May to our last in the gold medal game, there wasn’t a single thing that we did that was individually driven; everything was about our team and that medal. But if there were ever an appropriate time for the spotlight to be on an individual, we had it in the form of Eddy Alvarez.

You see, Eddy was our second baseman. And a pretty good one at that. But his backstory is what captivated an entire nation. A first-generation Cuban-American, an undrafted professional signee turned Major Leaguer, and oh yeah, a silver medalist as a speed skater in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Eddy Alvarez was the epitome of the American Dream. His story, so impressive that the athletes of Team USA voted him to represent Team USA- all 613 Olympians- as official flag bearer.

With that honor came the well-deserved attention in a seemingly endless media junket. But Eddy, in true Team USA form, always directed the conversation back to the team and often used the words honor, privilege, and sacrifice when he spoke. When everyone wanted to make it about him, he made it about everyone else. There was no better person to represent who we were and what we were all about.

We are currently living in the age of the trademarked buzzword and catch-phrase. The coach-speak soundbites are everywhere to be “all-in,” “where your feet are” and put the “we before me” to “play for something bigger than yourself.” We hear this stuff all the time. Many know the popular words; however, very few know the accompanying action. Our U.S. Olympic Baseball Team never said any of this stuff, but we lived it in every sense.

Some believe in the Olympics, teams play to win gold, they play to win bronze, and are just *given* silver. While we may not have reached our ultimate goal, our fun-loving collection of “has-beens” and “have-not-yet-beens,” as many described us, left Tokyo proud having won the silver medal, and probably even prouder for the manner by which we did it. Some guys didn’t see any game action in the Olympics or played poorly when they did. Even those players- like most of the rest, some who have won World Series and played in All-Star games mind you- left saying this was the most fun they have ever had on a team. That’s the kind of team this was.

People come and go, and teams get built up only to get torn down, but when there is truly a common purpose to drive an entire group, it’s incredible what you can accomplish thanks to an uncommon bond will never break.

#ForGlory


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and 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.


 When the Star of the Team Is the Team Itself
(7/15/2021)
 
   

When the Star of the Team Is the Team Itself


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


Pop quiz: who was the star of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team?

You know, the Miracle on Ice Team...was it the team captain, Mike Eruzione? Maybe it was Jimmy Craig, the goalie? How about their coach, Herb Brooks? Not sure? When thinking back on that team of college hockey players who shocked the world by beating the Soviet Union en route to winning an unlikely gold medal in Lake Placid, it’s really hard to pinpoint one person when the entire team is who everyone remembers. The team did the unthinkable. The team itself was the star.

Fast forward 40-plus years, move off the ice and onto the diamond. Another team represented the United States where again, it wasn’t any individual player who stole the show but rather a collective team who stole the show. With the Tokyo Olympics less than two months away, four nations had already qualified to compete in the sport of baseball. The US was not one of them. Our opportunity to do so came last month in Florida at the Americas Qualifier, a tournament where eight teams would fight for one of the remaining two spots.

A part of US manager Mike Scioscia’s staff as our third base coach, collectively with extraordinary help, communication, and organization from USA Baseball personnel, we spent the better part of three months constructing a roster that we hoped would be good enough to compete for the Olympic bid. One of the unique aspects of putting this team together was the vast player pool we had to choose from; anyone who was not on the 40-man roster of a Major League club was eligible to play. With hundreds of names to consider, we looked at everyone from guys who had never been out of A-ball to former Major Leaguers who were seemingly at the tail end of their careers to everyone in between.

And that’s exactly how our final 26-man roster shaped up; a club made up of guys from every end of the experience spectrum.

When the team convened for the first time at old Dodgertown in Vero Beach for training camp, our players and staff shared introductions during our initial team meeting in the clubhouse. Major League All-Stars like Todd Frazier talked about why playing for THIS team was important to them. World Series Champions such as Edwin Jackson viewed winning a gold medal in the same light, and some of baseball’s top prospects who had previously worn the red, white, and blue as amateurs, excited to do it again. We also had a few journeymen who played almost everywhere, near and far, not to mention a former Olympic silver medal winner on our club...in speed skating!

But most importantly, in that entire clubhouse, we had zero egos.

When the room turned to Jon Jay, a ten-year Major League veteran, his message finished with a simple directive to everyone on our team. “No complaining…” he stated. “…About anything. This isn’t what we are all used to (as professional baseball players), and we are going to have some bumps in the road, but nothing gets in our way of doing our job and winning this thing.” It set the perfect tone for the next two weeks to come.

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From the first pitch of the first game, we knew this was different. Facing Nicaragua in Port St. Lucie, Florida, it felt like we were playing in Managua, the country’s capital, with their entire nation in the stands. Nicaraguan fans were into every pitch as if each was the 9th inning of a World Series game. As coaches, we often preach to our players how every pitch matters, but over an entire season of 100-plus games in professional baseball, you will overcome some hiccups where teams don’t take that approach. In the format for this qualifier, we didn’t have that luxury. Every pitch DID matter, and we all felt it.

We wound up winning that first game 7-1, but it was much tighter than the final score would indicate. The intensity of that environment was different than anything most of us had ever experienced on a baseball field before. Mike Scioscia described it as having the same feel as an elimination game in the Major League postseason. By the end of that first game, our lens had clearly changed from what we were all accustomed to in professional baseball. No one was playing for a promotion to the Big Leagues. Not a single player was playing for their next big contract. No one was trying to build their brand. It wasn’t about what was next for each individual player; it was about what was right in front of us as a team and what the team needed in that very moment to push us closer to a win. And everyone was on that proverbial bus.

The Dominican Republic would go down next in a tight contest, 8-6. Then Puerto Rico, 6-1, in a rain-shortened affair. In the Super Round, we needed a seven-run 8th inning to break the game open against Canada, on our way to a 10-1 win. And in the clinching game over Venezuela, Todd Frazier morphed back into that Toms River Little League star we first met in 1998, carrying us to a 4-2 win with a 4-4 day at the plate.

Five days. Five wins. One Olympic ticket punched.

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We had 26 guys on our club. Each one of them did something to help us, even if it didn’t show up in the box score. Luke Williams ignited a game-winning rally…with a bunt. Jarren Duran changed games…with his baserunning. Catcher Mark Kolozsvary had a standout performance with the bat, but we lost count of how many runs he saved with key blocks behind the plate. Three-time All-Star Matt Kemp went hitless in just four at-bats but brought a veteran presence to our dugout that could not be measured. David Robertson hadn’t pitched in a game in almost two years since elbow surgery and managed to close out two wins for us, including the clincher. Anthony Carter left his team in Mexico to pitch in just one inning for us, a huge shutdown inning that kept momentum on our side in our win over the Dominican. A’s prospect Nick Allen finished the tournament going just 1-17, but without his Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop, we don’t even sniff winning this thing. The list can go on for all 26 guys.

This collection of relative strangers had just six days to become a team and prepare for what essentially was five game sevens. We won every single one and qualified for the Olympics. Mission accomplished; we earned the privilege and honor to represent the United States of America in Tokyo. Over the course of my 15 years coaching baseball, I’ve never been around a more incredible group of players, coaches, and support staff where everyone involved was truly pulling the rope in the same direction, all working towards accomplishing the same thing.

On a team full of stars, we made the real star, the team itself. Amazing what can happen, when that happens…


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and 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.


 What Does Your Team Need From You…Right Now?
(6/18/2021)
 
   

What Does Your Team Need From You…Right Now?


FUNdamental Skills
By Darren Fenster


In the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Yankees, Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was slated to start Game Four. Those plans quickly changed when New York took a 10-6 lead in the 4th inning. Sox starter Bronson Arroyo was knocked out of the game after just two innings. Two relievers didn’t fare much better over the next couple of frames, and it looked like Boston was about to use every single body in their bullpen. That didn’t happen because of Wakefield, who selflessly gave up his start in order to take a chunk of the middle innings of the game.

The Yankees wound up winning the game 19-8, and Wakefield gave up five runs in his three-plus innings of work; not exactly an outing to write home about. But when he volunteered to work out of the pen in what turned out to be a blowout loss for the Red Sox, Wakefield essentially saved his team’s bullpen, allowing closer Keith Foulke and high leverage relievers Mike Timlin and Alan Embree to be fresh for the next night. And that may very well have been one of the biggest reasons why the Sox were able to turn the series around and make their historic comeback after being down three games to none.

What Tim Wakefield did in Game Three of the 2004 ALCS was exactly what his club needed him to do at that very moment.

I doubt a pitcher out there today dreams of being a middle reliever in a lopsided loss; most see themselves being on the mound for the final out of a thrilling win. Position players don’t envision themselves getting mop-up at-bats in a blowout; they picture the game-winning hit or the game-saving play. By all means, players should be working towards and thinking about their ultimate goals. But the reality is that the game needs players for every single moment, regardless of whether it is good or bad, game-changing or not, from the very first pitch of the game to the last. All of those moments should be approached with the same focus and drive as if they were going to be the most important play of the game, even if they weren’t.

The game today has become so individualized where coaches have the ability now more than ever to cater their approach to help maximize each player’s ability to the fullest. Players are more talented than ever in large part because of that specialized means of training. In the process of doing so, what has gotten lost for many is where that player may fit in the grand scheme of a season or a specific moment of the game.

At the end of the day, the entire purpose of all of the blood, sweat, and tears that players invest in their careers is to do their part to help their team win; that is, after all, the point of the game. Sometimes, that will call for a strikeout on the mound or an extra-base hit in the box. But more times than not, the game doesn’t need the player to be the hero; it simply requires them to do what is needed at that moment to keep things moving towards a win. It may mean doing something that won’t get a headline, like limiting damage as a middle reliever or having a productive ground out that moves a runner as a hitter.

There’s a reason why Major League teams have 26 guys on the roster. There’s a reason why colleges are able to carry 35 players in their programs. It’s not to have an entire club full of stars, but rather an entire team ready, willing, and able to do the specific job that the game needs them to do—nothing more, nothing less.


Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and 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.