Joe Espada and the challenge of balancing smarts with aggressiveness on the bases

Unfortunately, there's more to being a third base coach than high-fiving guys who hit homers. (Presswire)
Unfortunately, there’s more to being a third base coach than high-fiving guys who hit homers. (Presswire)

Earlier this week, the Yankees (finally!) announced their 2015 coaching staff, most notably adding a new hitting coach and assistant hitting coach. They also added a new infield coach in Joe Espada, who also takes over as third base coach. (Espada spent 2014 as a special assistant to Brian Cashman.) Robbie Thomson is shifting to bench coach and Tony Pena is returning to his old role as first base coach. Got it? Good.

Under Thomson last season the Yankees had 21 runners thrown out at home, the fourth most in baseball. There were definitely some egregious sends on Thomson’s part last summer. We all saw that. But, under Thomson from 2009-13, the Yankees had the third, 18th, 29th, 17th, and 27th most runners thrown out at home. So that’s two good years, two bad years, and two average years in the six with Thomson at third base. That averages out to … well … average.

For many reasons, the Yankees had a lot of runners thrown out at home last season. One of those reasons was Thomson. Other reasons include slow runners, great relay throws, good hops for the catcher, and plain ol’ luck. There were other factors in play too but those are the big ones. Point is, there’s a whole lot that goes into this game we call baseball, and pinning the team’s issues with having runners thrown out at the plate last year on the third base coach is at best only partially correct.

The 2014 Yankees, as detailed in this very space back in October, were not a very good base-running team last season. They did steal a lot of bases with a high success rate — 112 steals and 81.1% success rate were fifth and second best in MLB, respectively — but they were terrible when it came to going first-to-third on a single, advancing on wild pitches, stuff like that. I mean literally worst in baseball according to the numbers. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury stole a lot of bases, though stolen bases are only one piece of the base-running pie.

The 2015 Yankee do figure to be a little better just because Didi Gregorius has taken the extra base 55% of the time of his career (first-to-thirds, etc.), well above the ~40% league average. He doesn’t steal a lot of bases but he does take the extra bag on base hits. Chase Headley‘s and Stephen Drew‘s days of being double-digit stolen base threats are likely a thing of the past and neither has rated well at taking the extra base these last few years. Alex Rodriguez used to be an elite base-runner but with two surgically repaired hips at age 39? Nope.

New third base coach Joe Espada is going to face the same challenge Thomson faced the last two years: balancing the need to be aggressive to score runs while having a generally slow team. The Yankees had 21 guys thrown out at the plate last summer and what that number doesn’t tell you is how many times Thomson made what appeared to be a bad decision sending a runner home only to have it work out because the throw was off-line. You know, the kind of thing that happens in just about every baseball game ever. Someone you have to force the issue.

The Yankees have had a below-average offense the last two seasons, and these days stringing together three or four hits to create a rally is really tough because of infield shifts and all that, so I think Thomson did have to be aggressive with his sends as the third base coach. The team simply didn’t have as many opportunities to score as they had in the past, so he had to try to create runs and sometimes hope for that off-line throw or the catcher being unable to apply the tag on time.

Did Thomson maybe take that too far this past season? Yeah, possibly. But the Yankees had to push the envelope in these situations and they will have to continue doing so under Espada. Once upon a time the Yankees could sit around and wait for the big multi-run homer. That isn’t the case anymore. Pure station-to-station baseball won’t work too well given the hitters on the roster, but, at the same time, running at will won’t work as well either. A balance has to be struck somewhere.

In case you’re wondering, the Marlins had the 12th, 26th, eighth, and 24th most runners thrown out at the plate with Espada as their third base coach from 2010-13. And that tells us pretty much nothing about how he’ll perform as the third base coach in New York this year. Different rosters, different players, everything’s different. Espada has to find a way to push the envelope as the third base coach while not exposing the, shall we say, speed limitations of some players on the roster. That’s something Thomson struggled with in 2014.

Yankees announce new hires and changes to coaching staff for 2015

Pena has a new role for 2015. (Presswire)
Pena has a new role for 2015. (Presswire)

The Yankees have finalized and announced their 2015 coaching staff. As expected, Jeff Pentland and Alan Cockrell have been hired as the hitting coach and assistant hitting coach, respectively, and Joe Espada joins the team as infield coach. We heard those moves were coming yesterday.

There are other changes, however. Espada is taking over as third base coach with Rob Thomson shifting to bench coach. Tony Pena is now the first base coach. Bullpen coach Gary Tuck and pitching coach Larry Rothschild remain in their roles. Back when former hitting coach Kevin Long and first base coach Mick Kelleher were let go, we heard the Yankees could rearrange their staff a bit, and that’s exactly what happened.

Espada, 39, was the Marlins third base coach from 2010-13, so he has experience in that role. Thomson had been the team’s third base coach since 2009. He served as Joe Girardi‘s bench coach in 2008 and before that was the first base coach. Pena had been the bench coach since 2009 and prior to that he spent the 2005-08 seasons as the club’s first base coach, so he’s returning to a familiar role.

Thomson caught a lot of grief last year because the Yankees had 21 runners thrown out at the plate, the fourth most in baseball, and some were due to aggressive sends that were obviously bad. The Yankees had among the fewest runners thrown out at the plate in baseball from 2010-13, however. The Marlins also had a relatively small number of runners thrown out at home during Espada’s tenure, but that doesn’t tell us too much about him as a third base coach.

Either way, the most significant moves are the additions of Pentland and Cockrell. The rest is just rearranging furniture, really. The Yankees, like several other teams, have decided hitting coach is a two-man job and will count on the new voices of Pentland and Cockrell to turn around an offense that has been below-average the last two years. It seems like an impossible task to me, but that’s the job.

Yankees bring entire coaching staff back for 2014

The Yankees have re-signed their entire coaching staff for 2014, the team announced. That includes Tony Pena (bench coach), Larry Rothschild (pitching coach), Kevin Long (hitting coach), Mick Kelleher (first base coach), Rob Thomson (third base coach), and Mike Harkey (bullpen coach). All of their contracts had expired on October 31st. Not surprising news.

Staff Notes: Rothschild, Thomson, Mackanin

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees re-signed Joe Girardi to a new four-year contract worth $16M yesterday, but there are still some other coaching staff and front office situations to address. Here’s the latest from George King, Andy Martino, and Andrew Marchand.

  • Pitching coach Larry Rothschild is close to signing a new contract extension. Brian Cashman recently said the team hoped to bring him back, but they needed to get the manager’s spot settled first. All of the coaches’ contracts expire on October 31st.
  • The Mariners have internally discussed the possibility of pursuing Yankees third base coach Rob Thomson for their managerial opening. They have not yet asked New York for permission to interview Thomson or any of their coaches, however.
  • The Phillies named Pete Mackanin their new third base coach earlier this week. He spent this past year as a Major League scout with the Yankees. Mackanin is very highly regarded within the game and was reportedly on the team’s short list of managerial candidates if Girardi left.
  • The Yankees will not bring back Charlie Wonsowicz, who has been an advance scout/video coordinator for the last five years. The position has being eliminated for whatever reason. Wonsowicz had been in the organization for 21 years.
  • Lastly, former Yankee and current YES broadcaster Paul O’Neill has some interest in replacing the since-fired Dusty Baker in Cincinnati. However, Reds GM Walt Jocketty confirmed the team has “not reached out to Paul regarding our managerial vacancy.”

Season Review: Joe Girardi & Coaching Staff

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

Evaluating a manager and his coaching staff is a very difficult thing for outsiders. The vast majority of their work takes place behind the scenes, so we’re left looking for clues in places they might not be. That pitcher learned a changeup? Great job by the pitching coach! That hitter is only hitting .250 when he usually hits .280? Fire the hitting coach! We have no idea what clues we dig up are actually attributable to the coaching staff, so we end up guessing.

Because of that, I don’t want to review Joe Girardi and his coaching staff in our typical “What Went Right/What Went Wrong” format. This review is almost entirely subjective and we can’t really pin anything (good or bad) on the coaching staff specifically. We know Curtis Granderson essentially revived his career after working with Kevin Long two summers ago, but having a specific example like that is very rare. Instead, we’ll have to take a broader approach.

Joe Girardi
I think 2012 was Girardi’s worst year as Yankees’ manager. Every manager makes questionable in-game moves during the season, but I felt Girardi made more this year than he had in any year since 2008, and it all started in the very first inning on Opening Day with the intentional walk to Sean Rodriguez. That still bugs me.

Girardi has long been considered a strong bullpen manager given his ability to spread the workload around and squeeze water out of scrap heap rocks, but this year he leaned very heavily on Boone Logan, David Robertson, and Rafael Soriano. Working Soriano hard wasn’t a huge deal because he was expected to leave after the season, but Logan made more appearances in 2012 (80) than any other reliever under Girardi, including his time with the Marlins. Robertson appeared in 65 games despite missing a month with an oblique injury. Part of it was a lack of alternatives (blame the front office for that) and the tight race, but this was something that started before the Yankees blew their ten-game lead.

Girardi also had two notable meltdowns (for lack of a better term), lashing out at a fan following a loss in Chicago and then getting into a shouting match with Joel Sherman after calling him into his office. Maybe my conduct standards are too high, but that kind of stuff is a major no-no in my book. It stems from pure frustration and there is zero good to come from it. Girardi didn’t have a bad year as manager, he did a fine job guiding the team despite an overwhelming about of injuries, but I feel that he’s had better years in the past.

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Larry Rothschild & Kevin Long
When the Yankees hired Rothschild as pitching coach two years ago, he came to the club with a reputation of improving both strikeout and walk rates. That is exactly what has happened overall, and we can see it specifically with someone like CC Sabathia (strikeouts, walks). Obviously the personnel has changed over the last few years, but the Yankees managed to get productive seasons from scrap heap pickups like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia last year while getting better than expected production from Hiroki Kuroda and even Andy Pettitte this year. We don’t know how much of a role Rothschild played in all of this, but the team’s pitching staff has exceeded expectations the last two years.

Long, on the other hand, came under big-time scrutiny following the club’s offensively-inept postseason showing and Mark Teixeira‘s continued decline from elite all-around hitter to pull-happy, one-dimensional slugger. At same time, he remade Granderson and helped Robinson Cano go from good to great. Long does preach pulling the ball for power and apparently that contributed to the team’s poor postseason, but the roster overall is built around guys who pull the ball for power. Outside of Cano and Derek Jeter (and later on, Ichiro Suzuki), the Yankees lacked hitters who could hit to the opposite field. Like Rothschild, we don’t know how much a role Long has played in all of this, and I’m not even convinced preaching power these days is a bad thing given the decline in offense around the league.

Tony Pena, Mike Harkey, Rob Thomson & Mick Kelleher
Not really much to add here. Thomson, the third base coach, does have a knack for being a little overly-aggressive with his sends in tight games while at other times he will hold guys who would have clearly been safe, but every third base coach does that. The Yankees have had an above-average stolen base success rate in recent years (77-79%), so I guess Kelleher is doing a fine job of reading moves and relaying that info over at first base. Other than that, we have very little basis for which to judge these guys on. Despite the whole “everyone should be fired because there are obviously better coaches available!” mentality than can fester following an embarrassing playoff loss, all indications are the entire staff will return fully intact next year.

Thomson not thinking about Blue Jays’ managerial opening

Via Ken Rosenthal, Yankees third base coach Robbie Thomson has not yet heard from the Blue Jays about their soon-to-be-vacant manager’s position. “I’ve got to keep my focus right here,” said Thomson, who also said he wouldn’t even discuss the possibility of finding a managerial position elsewhere until the season was over in fairness to his team.

Thomson has been with the Yankees since 1990. He’s done it all in his time with the organization, starting as a minor league coach before moving up to director of player development, vice president of minor league development, and Major League field coordinator before moving back into the coaching ranks in 2008. He served as Joe Girardi‘s bench coach in 2008, and actually managed the games on April 4th and 5th of that season (both losses to the Rays) when Girardi was sick.

It’s easy to understand why Thomson would leave his employer of the last 20 years for a big league manager’s job elsewhere, but he’s incredibly valuable to the Yanks no matter what capacity he’s working in. Of course, there’s always the remote possibility that his first managerial job comes with the Yankees if Girardi bolts for the Cubs after the season, but again, I think that’s unlikely.