BY KEVIN KERNAN
The game is simple. And beautiful when played the right way.
See the ball. Hit the ball. Read swings, read the situation. Play with passion. Play hard as a team. Play to win.
The IMG Academy Ascenders in Bradenton, Florida finished their high school season a perfect 25-0 this week and ranked No. 1 in a number of national polls; but this is not about the perfect record, the first undefeated season in the program’s history. This is about how they played the game. This is about how they were allowed to play the game, the way they learned the game – and it is a testament to Dave Turgeon and his staff, which includes Roger Cedeno, who played 11 years in the majors, and pitching coordinator Steve Frey, who spent eight years in the majors. Dan Simonds is the director of baseball at IMG.
No cheat cards, no PitchCom, no wristbands or fanny packs. Just baseball men teaching baseball players the game and encouraging those players to think for themselves. No robots allowed.
“We’re independent, and what we have going for us is we play the toughest schedule in the country,’’ Turgeon told BallNine of IMG.
“We have a lot of ex-major league coaches here who are teaching kids how to play,’’ he said of the overall program.
The takeaway is not the perfect record, but how the players at IMG responded to the coaching and became better baseball players. Every coach, every player, no matter what level, would be inspired by the baseball words of Dave Turgeon.
This is how it should be done, and here at The Story baseball comes first.
“Our team is very close, very competitive and they played free, it was awesome to sit back and watch it,’’ Turgeon said.
I’ve known Dave Turgeon for years. His title at IMG is National Team Head Coach. He played in the Yankee farm system under Stump Merrill and Buck Showalter. He also played in the Orioles system, rising to AAA, and spent eight years playing abroad. He was a first baseman, third baseman, and pitcher. He knows the game inside and out.
Turgeon, 57, managed in the Cleveland and Pittsburgh organizations and coached at the college level as well. He lives and breathes baseball and knows how to get the best out of his players. He had the opportunity to move back to a major league organization this year but opted to stay at IMG and teach high school players the game.
Good for him. Good for IMG.
In case anyone needs to be reminded, it’s called playing baseball.
“It’s really cool to see how quickly they learn,’’ Turgeon said of his players. “And learn to trust their eyes and read swings and positions, switching coverage, communicating – it’s baseball. It’s whatever bar you are going to set for your guys. If you want to create baseball players, you can.’’
What a great comment.
If you want to create baseball players, you can.
Some major league organizations might want to try that.
Dave Turgeon. (Photo via IMG Academy)
“It’s not to be micromanaged,’’ Turgeon told me. “It’s a game that’s to be played by the players. And you teach them. Teach them to be fundamentally sound and how to think and show them awareness, and you work on the fundamentals every single day. If you’re fundamentally sound and you have the ability to think on your feet, make adjustments, you can play free.’’
That’s what this is all about.
“You’re not looking at a card. You’re not looking at a fanny pack with numbers on it. Not waiting for the next thing to be told what to do. The game is theirs, it’s not ours,’’ Turgeon said with passion in his voice.
In so many places you watch a game and immediately realize the players are not running their own game. They are pawns on a chess board.
I asked Turgeon if his catcher calls his own game, and he said, “Oh, yeah.’’
Watch any travel ball or Little League team and you can see the coach sitting on a bucket of baseballs, flashing signs for each pitch.
Not the case at 25-0 IMG. There is input, but the catcher calls the game.
“We go through and we give them a simple game plan,’’ Turgeon explained. “These are the weapons we got with this guy. These are the guys we don’t want to let beat us. As the game plays out, you are pitching to the scoreboard. You got a 4-0 lead, your pitch calling is a little bit different, let’s go, let’s ride it.
“You teach them about the value of the shutdown inning, closing out that first hitter,’’ Turgeon said.
Listen to this next comment, especially anyone who has Pitch Count mania.
“Pitching to make them move the bats instead of miss bats is a tough one because they’re all about velocity and strikeouts; and pitch efficiency goes by the wayside with that BS,’’ Turgeon said. “And so you’ll have guys who will go way deeper into games if you pitch to some softer contact or even some hard outs.’’
“It all starts with controlling counts as opposed to high spin rates and velocity and if you can get them away from throwing to the gun and controlling counts, then we can start talking about how we can put a hitter away”
That’s baseball, that’s pitching, that’s why your fielders wear gloves. That moves the game along and that keeps everyone on their toes. Fewer pitches and more outs is a good thing.
Turn on any major league game and you will soon see a fielder misplay a ball. It cost the Yankees a ballgame on Friday night against the Rays when Jake Bauers misplayed a line drive to left, and then in his haste to pick up the bouncing ball, kicked it, allowing Yandy Diaz to score all the way from first. Diaz did not slide at the plate, doing his best Jeremy Giambi impression and was initially called out, but the replay showed he was safe. And so it goes with the best players in the world.
Pitching to contact, defense, and fundamentals are not emphasized nearly enough in the majors as I have been saying for years, so it is so encouraging to find a place of success where pitching to contact, defense, and fundamentals (every day) are emphasized. This is something that should be done at all high school programs and colleges. And yes, even at pro ball.
“We had the best defensive team in the country; use them, and we did,’’ Turgeon said.
“What ends up happening, when you rearrange the furniture in the pitchers’ heads like this, all of a sudden, okay, not only do they start controlling 0-0 and 1-1 counts, which is the game; but they start getting quick outs – and then because of their aggression and because they start getting some confidence with getting outs, the quality of strikes improves and they walk hitters less. Initially they may give up more hits; but it ends up, they don’t put anybody on with walks, and the hit totals start coming down and they are just getting outs,’’ Turgeon explained.
“Then all of a sudden, they say, okay I’m going to take a shot at putting a guy away, and you get some punch-outs when you need them. It all starts with controlling counts as opposed to high spin rates and velocity and if you can get them away from throwing to the gun and controlling counts, then we can start talking about how we can put a hitter away. Do you want to face .350 hitters or .150 hitters? Control the counts.’’
All you coaches out there, and pitchers, may want to cut and paste those comments into your phone. This is similar to what David Cone told The Story last week about the Art of Pitching. “That was outstanding,’’ Turgeon, a true student of the game, said of Cone’s comments. “David paid his mortgage getting guys out for 20 years. He knew exactly what he was doing, he kept re-inventing himself on the mound, changed arm slots. I loved him.
“It’s so awesome to watch guys be so locked in every pitch,’’ Turgeon said of his young players. “You have pitchers attacking bats. The defense is engaged. It’s an awesome thing to watch. And because of how they show up at practice every day, they earn the right to make plays and be fundamentally sound, and be trusted and have confidence. You call them out on the good things on the field.
“And our hitters are taking walks instead of being in such a rush to hit. As a team, our offense, we punched out [only] two more times than we walked this [entire] year. It was basically a one-to-one ratio and we faced top competition. My team, obviously, they are very talented, but we are also young, and they are seeing the guys they are going to see in the SEC, the ACC, wherever they go; some of them are going to see these guys in pro ball. They go in there with a plan and they trust the plan and they realize that you have to have a really simple plan and execute it and be stubborn to it. You are going to win more than you are going to lose, and there is nothing like having nine guys with a real good plan who are not afraid to take a walk and pass the baton to the next guy – and have that pitcher out of the stretch all night.’’
Turgeon is quick to credit his staff for the team’s success and the building of the educated player.
“Between Roger Cedeno and Stevie Frey we’re talking the game, our hitters are sharing intel in the dugout, they are watching the pitcher and they are staying committed,’’ Turgeon said. “Our simple plans at practice of staying in the middle of the field, executing sacrifice bunts every single day and moving the runners, and having situational rounds in BP and executing that. Learning how to take BP all transfers into the game and taking what the pitcher is giving us.’’
Steve Frey, pitcher for the San Francisco Giants throws a pitch during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on May 18, 1995 at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Allsport/Getty Images)
That sounds like what baseball used to be before it lost its way.
“The guess hitting and the changing lanes, as the season wore on, really went away,’’ Turgeon said. “You just saw guys have success and put up quality at-bats. Having productive outs, and moving runners, and celebrating those things.
“It’s all about scoring runs – last I checked, it’s not bad to have a guy on third base and less than two outs and have the ability to get him in.’’
Amen to that.
Camaraderie is built and that brings a smile to any coach’s face. “It’s the best when I see the guys celebrating little things in the dugout; you are like, ‘Yeah, man, this is so fun.’ It’s so fun to see them enjoying the game,’’ Turgeon said.
“Stevie did a great job with our pitchers, getting them to believe, attacking the zone and being aggressive and trusting our defense,’’ Turgeon said. “And Roger did an unbelievable job. I work with the infield and share the hitters, but Roger did an unbelievable job with our outfielders and how they moved and communicated and positioned themselves. Early on this was foreign. It was a young outfield, but Rog was awesome at teaching them how to read swings.’’
Exactly how was that done? Of course there is individual work, but Turgeon explained, “During BP our guys worked like dogs getting jumps and reading balls off the bat. Rog is so high level, but is connected so the players adore him. During BP he is out there working the sun ball. What he did with that outfield was nothing short of remarkable.’’
At times Cedeno would move his outfielders into position from the dugout, but other times he would essentially hide in a corner of the dugout where the outfielders could not see him so they would have to position themselves.
Roger Cedeno #32 of the St. Louis Cardinals runs during a game against the San Francisco Giants at SBC Park on August 1, 2004 in San Francisco, CA. (Photo by Don Smith/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
“They are out there and they trust their eyes and they move as a unit, playing the wind, playing the hitters, playing the pitcher batter combination – it was really special to watch,’’ Turgeon said “I love seeing kids get it and I love seeing kids play free.’’
No cards in their back pockets. Thanks to Cedeno, the base-running was spectacular too.
Yankees super scout and former Cubs GM Jim Hendry told Turgeon two weeks ago, “You guys play hard, you run balls out, you take chances on the bases, I enjoy watching your team play.’’
That says it all about the work Turgeon, Cedeno, and Frey put into the players.
Other veteran scouts also were quick to compliment the group. “You got to respect the game, and apply pressure,’’ Turgeon said of his basic philosophy. “It costs nothing to hustle and apply pressure.’’
Turgeon was so happy to see one of his ex-players in the Pirates organization, Drew Maggi, finally make it to the majors after 13 years in the minors.
“Drew is the ultimate pro, ultimate grinder, ultimate competitor, he was always the epicenter of any team he was ever on because of how he showed up every day,’’ Turgeon said.
It’s that kind of approach to the game that Turgeon and his staff are teaching.
This is the goal.
“Teach them how to respect the game,’’ Turgeon said. “Teach them how to be fundamentally sound, teach ‘em how to work.’’
That’s the winning formula, coaches, at any level. Now go out and just do it.