By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Lynn Sladky, AP
Much of the early focus this offseason by both the media and fans has been on the reshaping of the Yankee roster that is sure to occur. I can’t honestly sit here and blame either of those interested parties in that regard, because obviously player personnel is almost certainly the most important factor in building a successful team, but as we have discussed here ad nauseum over the last couple of years, coaching is one of the gripes many people on the outside have had when evaluating the Yankees’ problems. While the Yankees kept Manager Aaron Boone, the rest of the coaching staff will have a very different composition. The Yankees relieved 3rd Base Coach Phil Nevin and Hitting Coaches Marcus Thames and PJ Pilittere, while 1st Base Coach Reggie Willits left the team for a position in the D1 college ranks.
From my perspective, the Yankees had some real issues around Aaron Boone in 2021 (and even before that if we’re being honest). The players loved Phil Nevin, and he came off great in interviews, but the man was one of the worst 3rd base coaches I’ve ever seen. I had been saying it since Nevin came over with Boone in 2018, but it really came to a head in 2021 as the Yankees were thrown out between 3B and home more than any other team by a long shot. It was clear that the Yankees needed to go in a different direction here, even if no other moves were made.
I honestly don’t believe that Thames and Pilittere are bad coaches, but I do think that a different voice was needed. Thames and Pilittere had worked with many of the guys expected to be core offensive players (Judge, Sanchez, Frazier, Andujar, etc.) with great success in the minor leagues, and even at the MLB level prior to 2020. However, even a great teacher’s message can go stale for the same group of students, so I agree with the Yankees’ decision to take a different approach.
Willits wasn’t an overtly bad coach, but given his experience with the nucleus of the previous coaching staff, I have to believe he’s replaceable. The Yankees liked him enough to bring him all the way up the coaching ladder following a good career, but I can’t help but feel that the Yankees will be looking to bring a different look to their coaches at the bases and in the batting cages.
That is already readily apparent with their first coaching hire of the offseason: Luis Rojas. Our Editor-In-Chief, Paul Semendinger, has rightly noted numerous times that an inexperienced manager like Aaron Boone could use coaches with more managing experience on the bench. Luis Rojas certainly fulfills that expectation. Reviews of Rojas’ work as Mets’ manager are mixed, but I’m personally going to give him a pass; if you think that Yankees’ management has issues, the Mets are a dumpster fire that ownership and Sandy Alderson seem intent on accelerating with whatever flammable liquid they can find. The reality is that Rojas was viewed very positively in baseball circles for his work with the Mets throughout their minor league system from 2006-2018. Rojas has significant experience at every level of baseball, and in addition to his run as Mets’ manager, he also managed in the Dominican Winter League, giving him a wealth of experience from which he can draw as a coach. Whatever you think of Rojas’ time as the Mets’ manager, I think it’s pretty clear that he is as qualified as any candidate for Yankees’ 3rd Base Coach.
The truth is that I think the hiring of Rojas telegraphs the Yankees’ intention for the rest of the offseason as far as the coaching staff is concerned. To fill the 1st Base Coach vacancy, I fully expect the Yankees to court another coach with significant experience at all levels of baseball. Personally, I have a hunch that base coaches have more to do with the fundamentals we see day-to-day on an MLB field than other coaches, so I expect the Yankees to look for experience and a commitment to discipline in those roles. They already have a good start in that regard with Rojas, and I fully expect the Yankees to find a similar candidate in the first base coach’s box.
The MLB hitting staff is a different story, and I think we already have some hints about where that’s going. Prior to the 2020 season, the Yankees hired Rachel Balkovec as a roving hitting coach that worked with Yankees throughout the minor league system. Following the cancellation of the minor league season in 2020, Balkovec worked individually with many of the Yankees’ top prospects around the world and at team complexes. In 2021, we saw the fruits of her work as the minor league season can only be described as an offensive success at all levels, as multiple prospects took significant, noticeable offensive leaps forward. Balkovec has master’s degrees in Biomechanics and Human Movement, and uses the interplay between data and physical assessment to help hitters improve.
The Yankees have to get the right mix with MLB hitting coaches, and I fully expect them to lean into the success that Balkovec has had since her hiring. I look at this offseason very similarly to when the Yankees hired Sam Briend away from Driveline Baseball to be the Director of Pitching and ultimately firing Larry Rothchild and hiring Matt Blake. Those moves changed the Yankees’ pitching philosophy with excellent results, and I think the same data and kinesiological based approach will be applied to the hitting staff. If Balkovec herself does not become the new Yankee Hitting Coach, someone very much in the mold will.
In short, I like everything I see on the coaching front this offseason. If Aaron Boone can’t improve with the group Cashman is putting around him this offseason, then he won’t improve as manager in pinstripes.