To coach is to live.
Not just spouting numbers, delivering launch angles and iPad information – but to really coach the game of baseball is what it is all about.
Dave Turgeon, who was a Double-A manager not too long ago and was in pro ball for decades, had to leave the world of major league organizations to find what his baseball soul needed.
He couldn’t be happier where he has landed as the National Team Head Baseball Coach at IMG Academy, coaching 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds, juniors and seniors, including top of the draft talent like Elijah Green, a five-tool prospect.
This is salt of the earth coaching, not what he has labeled “GPS coaching”.
Real coaching involves giving the player space to learn and to make necessary adjustments. Turgeon learned through the years not to over-coach and as he says: “This is not science, but it is art. I believe self-discovery with a guide on the side is balance; structure and space needs a balance.’’
Baseball remains an art as much as they want to turn it into a science project. Never forget that.
By offering balance, Turgeon says, “we can create problem-solvers on the field. A good baseball player is a problem-solver.’’
Isn’t that exciting to hear?
“They trust me to go impact and set this culture up the way they want it to be seen. They want to see guys playing the game the right way, playing it hard, playing it smart…’’
It is not just about taking a card out of your cap that tells you where to play. It’s not just about numbers. It’s about solving baseball problems and making the necessary adjustments. Coaching players that aspect of the game has made the game fresh and fun again for Turgeon, who also writes a blog for USA Baseball on exactly that and you can find on his Twitter @davidturgeon45 and USAbdevelops.com.
At every age players can continue to develop.
This is the kind of coach you want as a player. Learn to be a problem-solver. Don’t be a robot.
Turgeon had to learn by going through the meat grinder of professional baseball and the strikeout or home run game that MLB has become. That was all part of the learning process for Turgeon that sent him on this path to success and that is why he is The Story this week.
Turgeon has had the opportunity to go back to several different major league organizations this year but made the choice to stay right where he is at.
“Because I get to coach the game to these young men in its purest form,’’ Turgeon told BallNine. “In its fundamental form and I have lots of great coaches around me and resources to do that with and don’t get me wrong, we have all the data, we have all the tricks in the tool belt and all that stuff and every so often we break it out if we think it can help a guy, but it is not one size fits all.
“John Russell is our field coordinator, former big-league manager, bench coach for Buck (Showalter) for eight years. Dan Simonds is the director of baseball, longtime professional player, head coach in college. They trust me to go impact and set this culture up the way they want it to be seen. They want to see guys playing the game the right way, playing it hard, playing it smart, knowing how to run the bases, knowing how to bunt, knowing how to situationally hit, all these things that are really important.’’
Dave Turgeon (Photo via USA Baseball)
And that means everyone, including Elijah Green who might be one of the top three picks in the draft. Currently IMG Academy, based in Bradenton, Fla., is ranked third in the country according to Perfect Game.
To be successful on any level, it comes back to the fundamentals. It’s always about the fundies.
“Every year it’s pitching and defense and fundamentals for the team that wins the World Series,’’ Turgeon said.
He then made this tremendous point for hitters, who need to learn to use the whole field.
“At the worst case, we are teaching you some barrel accuracy and how to move the ball around the field so you don’t have a grooved swing,’’ Turgeon said. “So you can actually work the ball around the field and take what’s given because there are going to be times you have to do that.’’
Put it all together, “And you are creating a hitter versus a swinger who is just selling out to lifting the ball,’’ Turgeon said of the complete hitter.
One of the biggest tasks was getting young hitters to learn how to take BP to stay in the middle of the field. There must be a purpose to batting practice, it just can’t be about launch home runs pull side. Hitting is an art form, not just a muscle show.
How do you do that?
“You are not going to be able to track a breaking ball unless you stay in the middle of the field,’’ Turgeon said. “When you give them this stuff you are raising the bar instead of lowering the bar because it’s a lot harder to play the game the right way – and to be able to situationally hit and do things for the team and have team at-bats.’’
Lowering the bar is a complaint I hear over and over from baseball people. At the major league level, the bar has been lowered again and again in nearly every aspect of the game as the game has become more individualized and the team aspects of baseball are not preached like they once were taught.
Top prospect Elijah Green. (Photo via baseballspotlight.com)
It all starts with expectations, expectations built on team success and doing the work, doing the reps.
“We reward it and we demand it,’’ Turgeon told me. “We have a shirt that goes out that says Respect the Rep. I recognize them in front of their peers for quality fundamental work on a daily basis which is going to help our team win and being a great teammate.’’
What a concept – playing for the team.
“It’s not based off home runs and wins, it’s all process oriented,’’ Turgeon said. “You get them on the process and they buy in and you demand it and you reward it. You reward them for taking a ball that is out of the zone in BP, that’s a quality rep.’’
Here is a typical batting practice.
“We make sure they see velocity, we make sure they see spin, we make sure they see spin from both sides, we make sure they stay in the middle of the field,’’ Turgeon said. “Competitions. We’ve got cones set up, anything to the pull sides of the cones, nothing. And all of a sudden you start seeing guys work inside the baseball and driving the baseball hard to the middle of the field and staying on breaking balls come game time. It’s constant.’’
That’s the beauty of real coaching. And it’s not wholesale changes with a swing in the middle of the season. You have to go with your swing.
“Elijah, based on a simple, simple plan, his average went up about 200 points over three weeks. He carried us,’’ Turgeon said.
Turgeon throws out this question to coaches.
“Are we guiding players or acting as a GPS where thinking and problem solving stop?’’
For Turgeon, to get back to true coaching is a baseball and life revival.
“I’ve had this conversation over and over with guys who are head coaches in the SEC, ACC, Triple-A managers, big league coaches who are all very disenchanted with where they are at,’’ Turgeon said. “A lot of my friends follow my stuff, we stay in touch, we text, we talk, all that stuff. It was a blessing that I came here to be reconnected to the game and the purpose of coaching and how important coaching is.
“The front office types offer a lot of good information, but the disconnect is that they don’t truly understand the game and the game will never not be about fundamentals,’’ Turgeon added.
In one sentence, Turgeon summed up what I’ve been saying is the problem with Nerds for years.
The game will never not be about fundamentals.
Fundamentals. New York Yankees' Jorge Posada holds on to ball after sweep tag on Oakland Athletics' Jeremy Giambi during Game 3 of American League Division Series. Derek Jeter (pictured left) assisted on the play by ``flipping`` the ball to Posada after Yankee Shane Spencer's throw from the outfield was off target. (Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
“If you don’t know what you are doing, how could you be a really good player,’’ he asked. “You look at the Jeter play, the shuffle pass. Good fundamentals. Giambi doesn’t slide. Bad fundamentals. The A’s lose. It cost people how many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Brad Fischer, he was a coach for the A’s, he was like, ‘You know how much money that cost me because he didn’t slide?’ ‘’
The Derek Jeter flip play occurred in Game 3 of the ALDS in 2001 when Jeremy Giambi did not slide at home and was tagged out on the play by Jorge Posada that swung the series in the Yankees favor.
There are other October examples.
“(The Tigers) Joel Zumaya throws a bunt down the left field line, Tigers lose, bad fundamentals,’’ Turgeon said.
That happened in the 2006 World Series, and was one of the pitching fielding errors made in five consecutive World Series games by the Tigers that October that cost them the World Series against the Cardinals. Those errors led to seven unearned runs.
Fundamentals have only gotten worse in the major leagues since then and there is a nightly display of errors. There is a reason for that.
“By selling out to the punch-out on the mound and selling out to lift the ball in the air at home plate, if that’s the game, that’s not a lot of fun to watch, is it?’’ Turgeon asked.
It’s not a lot of fun and falling attendance numbers and viewing numbers are proof positive of that.
“It’s not really baseball, it’s home run derby,’’ Turgeon said of the MLB game on how it stands now with what is emphasized and rewarded.
“Where is the chess in that?’’
His current coaching life “reconnected me to the game in so many ways,’’ Turgeon said. “It reconnected me to impact. It reconnected me to making a difference in players’ lives. And the game at this level too, the game is actually a hook to help kids.
David Eckstein #22 of the St. Louis Cardinals scores on a throwing error to third base by pitcher Joel Zumaya #54 of the Detroit Tigers in the seventh inning during Game Three of 2006 World Series at Busch Stadium on October 24, 2006 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
“Even though the team I coach, they’re highly touted. There are Power Five players, I’ve got a couple first rounders –that doesn’t mean any of them will play in the big leagues or if they get there will they stay there – so where are we really making a difference? Yeah we are going to make a difference with them on the field, but not before we make an impact upon them as young men.
“If there is one thing that I am convicted in and I’m very, very confident in, it is that.
“When I was coordinating, there were two things I would say you have to do as a coach, you have to be super connective, that is the only way you are ever going to build trust, and you have to be really competent for when they are ready for what they need, you’ve got to have what they need,’’ Turgeon said.
Today’s players need structure and they need to figure out the game themselves and that is not being done like it once was in the minor leagues; and you can see the poor play in the majors as a result of all that.
Another key is not to over-coach and that can come in different ways like players being fed a “firehouse of information,’’ according to Turgeon, who played in the Yankee system under Stump Merrill and Buck Showalter after being drafted as a third baseman out of Davidson. He spent 11 years in the Pirates organization as a minor league manager and being the Coordinator of Instruction. He managed in the Cleveland organization and coached in the college ranks at a number of top programs and was a pitching coach as well – so he has it all covered but he had lessons to be learned too.
“Are we guiding them or acting as a GPS where thinking and problem-solving stop,’’ Turgeon asks again.
Turn off the GPS and truly coach and solve problems.