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Mudville: May 17, 2024 4:47 pm PDT

Rico Brogna

"Use stats and video, but use good, experienced baseball people too.”

Here at BallNine, we advocate all the time for a fair mix between analytics and baseball experience. Why discount either side of the argument of analytics vs. experience when both sides can help you win ballgames?

Unfortunately, there has been a purge of great baseball men in the name of spreadsheet warriors in recent years – and baseball is the worse off for it.

What if we told you that there was a dude with a background in computers who was a successful and popular major leaguer and who also worked as a scout, manager, and coach – and who was also one of the very first “analytics” coaches in major league baseball, a decade ago, for a team that won 98 games?

Sounds like the perfect guy you’d want on your staff if you truly do want to marry the benefits of analytics with playing experience, doesn’t it?

That man is Rico Brogna, and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.

We all know Brogna as the slick-fielding first baseman for the Mets and the guy who had back-to-back 100 RBI seasons for the Phillies, but he was also a pioneer in the modern movement of expanded coaching staffs.

Brogna talks about the pivotal moment in the interview, but in 2013 when Major League Baseball expanded coaching staffs, the Angels zigged when other teams zagged.

Instead of adding an extra hitting or pitching coach, the Angels created a position that combined being an in-uniform, on-field coach with taking a deeper dive into the tendencies of the game.

As the pendulum swung way too far in the direction of straight analytics, a history of playing success at the higher levels of baseball became less of a focus of front offices in favor of guys who could navigate their way around data.

Before all that, however, Brogna was a three-sport star athlete who gave up a potential starting quarterback spot at Clemson to give Major League Baseball a shot when he was a first-round draft pick of the Tigers.

As you can see, there is way more to the man than you probably remember, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Rico Brogna.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Brogna! As a big Mets fan, it’s always great for me to talk with a fan favorite. Let’s start back when you were a kid. What was baseball like for you growing up?

It’ll sound pretty familiar to a lot of kids who grew up in the Northeast playing baseball. We always tried to get out there as early as possible when the weather changed. Baseball was my favorite sport as a kid because it seemed like it went on forever. We’d get the whole spring and summer. You could play stickball during the day and home run derby at night. I followed the Red Sox as a kid because, well, I didn’t have much of a choice. Carlton Fisk was probably my hero. Waving his home run fair was one of my earliest memories for me. Then I moved to Connecticut when I grew up, and enjoyed watching Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly play first base. My dad was born and raised around Boston. He was a coach himself, and I loved sports ever since I can remember. He coached his whole life at a prep school, so I went to all his games.  

Mattingly and Hernandez were two pretty good guys to look up to, especially for a slick-fielding, lefty first baseman like yourself. I can see how you gravitated towards them.

Oh yeah. I had the Don Mattingly poster on my wall like everyone. Keith Hernandez was one of the best. Back then, the National League was where you could really show yourself playing defense at first because with pitchers batting, you had a lot of bunts. That meant you could be active. Keith was the guy charging hard and getting the lead runner. When I was in high school, I used to think I was gonna get in there like Keith Hernandez and be aggressive in making plays on the lead runner. Even when I was on the Phillies, I see VHS tape replays where I was making plays on the third base side of the field or in foul territory. I had to get in there and if they ended up swinging away [because I was too close], then that was good because I got them to do something they didn’t want to do.

Infielder Rico Brogna #2 of the Philadelphia Phillies during a Spring Training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater, Florida. (Credit: Harry How /Allsport

Later when you were in the majors, did you ever get advice from Hernandez? I thought you played a similar style to his.

I did get to talk with him. What Keith helped me with the most, though, was hitting left-handed pitchers. We were playing in Chicago and Keith was on the game. I made sure I ran into him and asked him about that. We got more in depth with that than we did any of the defensive stuff we talked about. It was an area that I had to improve on immediately if I was going to have a good career. He gave me tips right away. It was amazing. It was like, “bang, bang, bang” this is what I’d do against lefties and I was like, “OK, I’m gonna try that.” He had a plan and he hit lefties in a different way. You listen to him doing a game now and he can recall stuff right away. He remembers what he was thinking in the box and how he did certain things.

You were an incredible athlete in high school and actually had signed a Letter of Intent to play quarterback for Clemson before the Tigers took you in the first round of the 1988 draft. How hard was it to pass up football for baseball?

I still don’t know how you make that decision at 17 years old. I liked playing all sports, even basketball, but I didn’t have the opportunities I did in basketball that I did in baseball and football. I really, really wanted to go to Clemson to play. They were a top ten team and would maybe lose one game a year. In 1981 they were National Champions, so they were still riding high when they recruited me. They needed a quarterback and it was a perfect fit. The recruiting was unbelievable. I didn’t have any clue I was going to be a first round pick in baseball. I had already signed a Letter of Intent to Clemson, so people were scared. They didn’t want to lose a first round pick if they drafted me and I [decided to go] to Clemson.

Clemson still called me multiple times a day after the draft. It was like they were recruiting me again. They told me I could play baseball and football there. I’d hear from cheerleaders and kids in the frats. This was going to be a fork in the road for my future. I decided that being a number one pick, they were going to give me a chance to grow up, let me fail, and still stick with me. They want their number one pick to make it. Even if things get rough along the way, they were still going to give me my shot. The hardest call I had to make was to Clemson head coach Danny Ford. It wasn’t like today where the parents do everything; my dad made me call since it was my choice.

I slid into second and it was a close play. Roberto Alomar put the tag on me and said, “Way to go rookie, I hope you get many more.” I was like, “What just happened?”

You got called up in August of 1992 for the first time and doubled off Dave Stieb your first at bat. That’s a tough guy to have to face as a 22-year-old kid in your first taste of the majors. Can you take us through that experience?

I didn’t sleep the night before. I was playing in Toledo and found out after a game I was called up. My wife Melissa made the flight from Hartford to Detroit that Saturday morning. I picked her up and we went to lunch, but I didn’t really eat. I was too nervous to do anything. It was a 7:00 game, but I went right to the field after lunch. I was there before the people who worked there; that’s how excited I was. I was in the starting lineup in old Tiger Stadium. The Blue Jays were a loaded first-place team. We were good too, but the Jays were dynamite and Dave Stieb was incredible. The night before I was facing AAA pitching, and now I was facing Dave Stieb. Every time he took the mound, he had a chance to throw a no-hitter. I fell behind in my first at-bat, but fought back to a full count. He threw me a sinker and I got jammed, but it blooped down the left field line. I slid into second and it was a close play. Roberto Alomar put the tag on me and said, “Way to go rookie, I hope you get many more.” I was like, “What just happened?”

You never really got a shot in Detroit with Cecil Fielder at first base, and so you were traded to the Mets. What were your thoughts about the trade?

I was hoping for a trade to be honest. I was out of roster options at the time, so the Tigers had to put me on waivers or trade me. My wife and I didn’t want to get into the game of looking around at teams who needed first basemen at the time, but we couldn’t help it. The Tigers kept me in big league camp all of spring training which was a sign that they were showcasing me. I didn’t think I was making the team, so that had to be why they did that. The Mets were one of the teams we knew were looking. It was the last day of spring training when I found out about the trade. I literally screamed, “Yes!” I was in the Tigers offices with everyone around. They were kind of all looking at me. Joe McIlvaine was the Mets’ GM and he had been in San Diego just before that. When he was there, the Padres were going to trade a couple good players to the Tigers for a big package that included me. It was like Fred McGriff, Roberto Alomar, or Gary Sheffield. That never happened, but McIlvaine got me when he was in New York instead.

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Rico Brogna reaches out and snags a line drive hit by Houston Astro Ken Caminiti in the 4th inning of a game in Philadelphia, September 7, 1999. This was the second line drive Brogna caught on a flying dive. (Photo by TOM MIHALEK / AFP)

You got called up in August of 1992 for the first time and doubled off Dave Stieb your first at bat. That’s a tough guy to have to face as a 22-year-old kid in your first taste of the majors. Can you take us through that experience?

I didn’t sleep the night before. I was playing in Toledo and found out after a game I was called up. My wife Melissa made the flight from Hartford to Detroit that Saturday morning. I picked her up and we went to lunch, but I didn’t really eat. I was too nervous to do anything. It was a 7:00 game, but I went right to the field after lunch. I was there before the people who worked there; that’s how excited I was. I was in the starting lineup in old Tiger Stadium. The Blue Jays were a loaded first-place team. We were good too, but the Jays were dynamite and Dave Stieb was incredible. The night before I was facing AAA pitching, and now I was facing Dave Stieb. Every time he took the mound, he had a chance to throw a no-hitter. I fell behind in my first at-bat, but fought back to a full count. He threw me a sinker and I got jammed, but it blooped down the left field line. I slid into second and it was a close play. Roberto Alomar put the tag on me and said, “Way to go rookie, I hope you get many more.” I was like, “What just happened?”

You never really got a shot in Detroit with Cecil Fielder at first base, and so you were traded to the Mets. What were your thoughts about the trade?

I was hoping for a trade to be honest. I was out of roster options at the time, so the Tigers had to put me on waivers or trade me. My wife and I didn’t want to get into the game of looking around at teams who needed first basemen at the time, but we couldn’t help it. The Tigers kept me in big league camp all of spring training which was a sign that they were showcasing me. I didn’t think I was making the team, so that had to be why they did that. The Mets were one of the teams we knew were looking. It was the last day of spring training when I found out about the trade. I literally screamed, “Yes!” I was in the Tigers offices with everyone around. They were kind of all looking at me. Joe McIlvaine was the Mets’ GM and he had been in San Diego just before that. When he was there, the Padres were going to trade a couple good players to the Tigers for a big package that included me. It was like Fred McGriff, Roberto Alomar, or Gary Sheffield. That never happened, but McIlvaine got me when he was in New York instead.

Rico Brogna #26 of the New York Mets runs to third base during a game against the Atlanta Braves on June 10, 1996 at Shea Stadium in Queens. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

I think as excited as you were to be in New York, Mets fans appreciated you just the same. You saw it at Old Timers’ Day when you got a nice ovation. Why do you think Mets fans have universally embraced you as one of their favorites?

Old Timers’ Day was awesome! Growing up here, I understood the Northeast attitude about players. New York didn’t bother me as it can bother some players. Philadelphia is similar. If they were mad at me when we lost, I understood. I’d be mad too. I genuinely understood the fans because I was one of them! I always tried to make sure I was going to be up front and in front of my locker when I didn’t do something well. If I had good games, I wasn’t going to puff my chest out. Fans want players who are honest, who are gonna play hurt and play every day. They don’t want prima donnas. I always tried to be pretty humble in my success, too, because this game is hard. I played really well right from the start [with the Mets] and that helped too. Those first two months with the Mets I had never played that well in my life.

I know you had a back issue you always dealt with when you were with the Mets and had some other injuries. After playing just 55 games in New York in 1996, you went to Philadelphia and had three great years with the Phillies, averaging 153 games played over those seasons. How satisfying was it to overcome those injuries and produce in Philadelphia?

It was an eye-opener. I had some relatively good years in New York. I was hitting in the middle of the lineup, playing every day – and then I got hurt. I was scared that the injury was going to ruin my career, so I wanted to get my back and shoulder fixed. Looking back on it, when I went to Philly, I was like, “Screw that, I gotta play!” I worked out differently and played through injuries. I didn’t do steroids like many players in our generation did. I was tempted to, but I didn’t go that route. But I worked out like crazy. I got a lot of cortisone shots and I needed to play. I was maybe too naïve in New York. I was mad when New York traded me, but they were right. It gave me a chip on my shoulder, but it helped me learn how to be tougher. That led me to playing 150 games a year in Philadelphia and if you do that, the numbers will be there.

Reading coach Rico Brogna (44) of the Reading Fightin Phils defeat the Akron RubberDucks 8-4 in a minor league class Double A baseball game at FirstEnergy Stadium on Monday, April 23, 2018. (Photo By Jeremy Drey/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

After your playing days were done, you stayed in the game in different capacities. I read that you were one of the very first analytics coaches in baseball in 2013 with the Angels. Can you first tell us a little about how that came about?

MLB expanded the coaching staff to seven in 2013. What teams around the league did was get another bullpen guy or another fungo hitter. The Angels decided to get an advanced scout on the field. So instead of watching the team we were going to play next week and emailing in reports, I was a real-time advanced scout during games. I would dress in a uniform and worked as an on-field coach with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and those guys during the day. Then I’d shower and meet with Mike Scioscia. Scioscia was an old school guy, but he was real open-minded. He was terrific. Shifts were just starting to come into play and we were one of the first teams to embrace that. I met with Scioscia before and after games, whether it was for five minutes or fifty minutes. It was every single day and we’d talk about what I saw and what he saw. I was getting all of this great information with a future Hall of Fame manager.

It seems like they all really embraced you from the start. Was it something the whole organization just jumped on board with?

They trusted me and they even gave me a full share for the playoffs. I did my homework and they paid attention. I’d be in meetings with the starting pitcher and catcher to talk about things. They wanted me in the meeting. Usually they keep those small and tell you to get away. For example, Jered Weaver would say he needed information to help get some guy out. I’d say that watching film, he’s a back-door slider guy, so if you can bury it on his back foot, you’ll have a shot. Then he’d go out and do that and Weaver would be like, “Yeah, he’s the man!” Then the rest of the pitching staff would be like, “Yeah! Thumbs up!”

We won 98 games that year and it was phenomenal. People didn’t get it at the time, so I had to explain what I was doing. I was getting stats, but also looking at the game. Looking to see if guys are tipping their pitches or giving away signs, both on the field, not on video. I felt like I wanted to manage a team because I was learning so much. I was in pitching meetings, hitting meetings, scouting meetings, GM meetings, owners meetings. It was a lot; it was incredible. Then it took off from there. It wasn’t because of me, we just happened to be one of the first. I had a background in computers and baseball experience too.

That sounds like what I hear a lot of smart baseball people say. That there should be a fair combination of data and baseball experience. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but did you see it get to a point where the data was overwhelming baseball experience and common sense?

Oh yeah. It changed from when I was there. The ideal guy for that position is a former player who also has a scouting background. I had been in scouting for about ten years before that and of course had the playing background. When Albert Pujols or Jered Weaver is in the locker room and you’re giving them information, you better have played. They not only won’t listen to you, they’ll turn around and walk away. That has changed since then, but back then that’s what it was like. I might be biased, but I think that’s the model teams should use. You’re an extra coach who is a former player who has been in their shoes. Then with my scouting background I could evaluate arm action, pitch selection, playing ability, body types, and all of this stuff. Players have to respect someone in that coaching position as if they were a player on that team. When they voted me a full playoff share that was showing me that they accepted me, and that was the greatest compliment. It’s changed dramatically since I coached. I think it’s a lot of paralysis by analysis now.

This all makes so much sense to me and considering all of the experience you have and success in so many different roles, is there a role in baseball that you look at now that’s desirable to you?

Definitely. I really like scouting, player development, and managing. The thing I fell in love with was pro scouting. Managing is great and I have done that a couple of times. There has been a purge though. At the end of my run in scouting in 2018, I’d go to games and run into like one scout behind the plate and ask him where everyone was. They’d tell me everyone got let go. All these young guys were coming in with handheld cameras instead. And it’s not their fault they’re getting hired; I’m happy for them. But they’re using cameras to watch. Maybe that’s smart because they need to watch things over and over again. Whereas a scout with playing experience can watch a game and understand what he sees right away. It doesn’t mean you don’t bring analytics into the game, but to get rid of a whole segment of people didn’t make sense. Why not use everything? Use stats and video, but use good, experienced baseball people too. Look at the Braves and the great baseball people they have on their coaching staff.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

Comments
  • Hey enjoyed your interview! I caught a foul ball from Brogna at a Braves game when he was with the Phillies! Just trying to figure out who he was! I was scouted by Larry Daughtery a Reds scout in late 70’s ! He signed Gary Reddus who was from around where I lived !

    October 9, 2023
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