Recently, I had the privilege of asking the Rays new first base coach and former top prospect Rocco Baldelli about his previous role in the Rays front office, and about his new role with the coaching staff. Many thanks to Rocco for taking the time.
Matt Silverman is on the record saying he wished the Rays had seven of you in the front office, noting how the Baseball Operations department looked for your input in multiple facets.
Matt's a thoughtful guy....and that's flattering to hear. I'll be sure to hold that compliment against him at some point.
How much of your work over the past four years was focused on scouting and/or data analytics?
One of my favorite things about my former role was being able to observe and take part in all areas of what we do in Baseball Operations. At the onset, there was no specific, intended direction for me. It grew into a lot of player evaluation. Amateur scouting took up a big block of my year, along with some pro scouting and occasionally some International work. I'd also try to see our own system as much as possible. Getting out and seeing the players, along with the respective player discussions, did take up the majority of my time. It took some time for me to acquaint myself with the data/analytics that we use, but the more I understood the more I began to appreciate the importance of having it. And now, I feel more than comfortable enough with it to integrate it into my opinion and decisions. I like possessing information that I believe gives us a competitive advantage, and we'll continue to work hard to get that information.
Do you have any scouting accomplishments that you're particularly proud of?
It would feel wrong to discuss personal scouting accomplishments without also discussing the scouting challenges/failures that go along with them. Scouting is an incredibly difficult and demanding task. Boasting, or even having those types of thoughts, is an easy way to set yourself back. I think it's better to maintain respect for the difficulty of the task. When you put your name and opinion on a report you're really putting yourself out there. There's something beautiful about that. So I'm not most proud of one particular accomplishment. I'm most proud of the effort I put into the last four years and everything that went along with it.
How has your role in Baseball Operations prepared you to be a coach with the major league team?
Throughout baseball, I think things have been moving in the direction of open dialogue between the field staff and the front office. The last four years have really given me a different perspective on the way I see the game. I think knowing where our information and research comes from will be helpful because instead of spending time trying to decipher the information, I can focus on better using and applying the information. The day to day functional aspect of coaching isn't something I have experience with, though, so I have a lot of work to do preparing for that aspect of the job.
If memory serves, you were spotted on several occasions on the Spring Training field working with players in past off-seasons. Did you have any aspirations of coaching when you were a player?
I always thought it was possible that I could end up back on the field and coaching. I didn't know when it would be, and honestly I wouldn't have thought it'd be this soon, but I feel that this is the right time for me. When my playing career ended I knew I needed to leave the uniform off for a while and detach. It was only this past year that I had begun to really contemplate a move in this direction.
How much of your desire to be a coach came from missing being in uniform, and being a part of a major league clubhouse?
There were a number of things that went into this decision for me, but "missing being out there," wasn't really a determining factor. The first thing on my mind was how interesting it would be to return to the field during a time of change. The chance to work within a newly assembled staff really appealed to me. The chance to bring out onto the field some of the thoughts and ideas that I've had over the past few years-that really appealed to me too. And I have a real comfort level with everyone on the coaching staff. It all just made sense to me.
How well do you know Kevin Cash? What do you think his biggest strengths will be as the new Rays manager?
I got to really know Kevin when we were teammates in 2005. I missed the entire season that year and he also missed some time with an injury. He's always had that good personality that makes him relatable to everyone. He can connect with players, the front office, fans and everyone in between, and do it in a down to earth, engaging way. He always came off as very bright (both on the field and away from it). And listening to his thoughts now, he wants us to learn/improve and is open to anything that will help us do that. I think we're pretty lucky to have him here.
Given your experience with the front office, will you see yourself as a liaison between Baseball Operations and the coaching staff? Do you anticipate regular communication?
I don't consider myself a liaison. I consider myself a member of the coaching staff. I think my relationships and experience will definitely carry over in some ways but this isn't a sort of hybrid position. I do expect regular dialogue, but I expect there to be regular dialogue between the front office and the entire coaching staff.
As you take over as outfielder coach, how much of a role do you anticipate defensive metrics and data analytics to play in your coaching?
There are a lot of ways to use information. As a coach, sometimes you can use information to identify strengths and weaknesses in players and therefore know what skills to spend time working on. But in most cases, I think information helps with decision making (who to play, when to play them, where to play them, how to pitch them, etc...). When players are out on the field they are reacting. They are doing what comes naturally to them. So for the most part I don't think data and analytics should be something that enters the player's mind very often while they are performing.
Becoming proficient at the physical/technical aspect of outfield play takes the vast majority of the player's time and gets them ready to perform in the game. The coaching staff can help put a player in position to succeed (figuratively and sometimes literally) but the player's physical ability is what has to take over once the pitch is thrown or the ball is hit.
George Hendrick, who you're taking over for at first base, was always quiet with the press. Do you have any stories about George you might be able to share?
I'll tell no stories. But I'll say that George is one of the coolest and most interesting people I've ever interacted with in my baseball career. He comes with true personality and charisma. I'll also say that George is an amazing story teller, one of the best I've ever come across. But I'll be leaving him to tell his stories.
Who was the first person to call you "The Woonsocket Rocket"?
I'm not really sure where it came from. I think the first time I heard it was on Baseball Tonight or Sportscenter. It's a little embarrassing to hear it these days.
You've been a part of the Rays organization for more than a decade. How has the player development process changed from when you were a prospect?
I think that's an interesting question...
Baseball ops departments have obviously changed an incredible amount in the last 15 years and they will continue to evolve, but I'd say that Player Development has probably changed the least of all areas.
Many parts of the department have obviously undergone changes but the core of player development is the repetitive training that improves the skill of a player. There's only so much time in the day of a player or staff member, and working on those skills takes up a lot of that time. We take pride in saying that the overall care, attention and oversight that the players get has certainly improved. I think the nutrition/medical care has improved as well. But I think that the vast majority of a player's day has remained very much the same.
So some peripheral things have changed but many core objectives and processes have remained the same. On a more specific note, I think in Tampa Bay our players' paths to the majors have slowed some because of the competitive state of the major league team. It's more of a methodical progression now because when our players arrive we need them to compete and excel at the highest level.
You've played under several great managers in your playing career. Do any of those experiences inform how you will operate as the new outfielder's coach?
Positivity and confidence win out when preparing players to go out and perform. In the major leagues I played for Lou, Joe and Tito. Two of them I would describe as very outgoing and positive, and one as having a more stern personality. But even with Lou, one of the most impactful moments I remember having with him had to do with confidence building.
After just a fair spring training in 2004, I opened the season really struggling at the plate. After five or six weeks of hitting in the high .100's I began to really struggle mentally and my thoughts were compounding my physical issues with the bat. I was called into his office one day [in Camden Yards] and he said to shut the door. I thought I might be getting sent down. At the moment I probably wasn't hearing every word he said, but I remember something along the lines of, "Kid, relax. You're not going anywhere. You're our guy and you're going to be in CF every day, so take it easy and let's get things going. Now get out of here." I believe it helped me to turn my season around.
Having followed your career since your debut for the Rays in 2003, it will be a joy to see you back on the field next season. What will it mean to you to be wearing that No. 5 Rays jersey again on opening day?
Thank you. I've always felt fortunate to have a place in professional baseball. As time's gone on I've become even more appreciative and emotionally attached to the game. Opening Day and the last game of each season have always been special days for me. So I'll thoroughly enjoy being out there for the anthem next Opening Day. As far as the numbers go... the players are the priority now, so I think #5 has moved on to a new owner and I'm graduating to #15.
Last question: What is your favorite Lion King character?
If I have to go on IMDB/Wiki to answer this question then I probably shouldn't be answering it, right? After some internal discussion...Pumbaa.