This offseason, the Rangers hired Cody Atkinson as their new minor league hitting coordinator. The 31-year-old played collegiately at Everett (Wash.) CC, Centerary College and Corban University and coached collegiately through the 2018 season.
Atkinson spent the 2019 season as the Reds’ hitting assessment and run production coach before being hired by the Rangers in Oct. 2019.
Baseball America spoke to Atkinson recently about his ascension to his new role and his coaching philosophies. This is the first part of a wide-ranging conversation. Part two will run on Friday.
How did you wind up, at 31 years old, as the Rangers’ minor league hitting coordinator?
I think the first answer is a lot of luck. That’s kind of what it takes. I think anybody that’s in the positions we’re in are really hard workers, but they’re also lucky too. I think that I just happened to know some people who stuck their neck out for me.
I started coaching at my old junior college the instant after playing. I was actually looking at playing in Australia in the pro league there, but my old junior college coach, who’s now one of the scouts for the Rangers … called me and said, ‘Dude, what are you doing? You need to start coaching.’ So at 22 years old I started coaching at junior college, making a $2,200 stipend a year.
I spent four years at Everett (Wash.) CC before I got the opportunity to go to West Virginia University. I spent a year there, then I spent a year at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley … and then I got lucky enough to get with the Reds because Donnie Ecker—who’s now the big league hitting coach for the Giants—he was a pretty good friend of mine and was the assistant big league hitting coach for the Reds and kind of brought me in with the new staff there, with David Bell and those guys.
I wasn’t the hitting coordinator, but I was kind of a roving instructor for them last year and kind of learned pro ball, because I didn’t play pro ball. I think that was definitely the most important year for me in terms of being able to do the job I’m doing right now.
I think if you’d asked me two years ago, ‘Hey, could you be a minor league hitting coordinator?’
I would have said ‘Oh, yeah, for sure,’ but if I was talking to myself now, then, I’d say ‘You have no clue yet.’
So, I think, I had really no idea. So, to be able to kind of rove around in the Reds’ system and meet all those people and get a glimpse at pro ball without having a ton of responsibility yet was really important for me. I was going to stay with the Reds and be the hitting coordinator there, but my old junior college head coach who’s a scout for the Rangers now turned my name in to them and they called and wanted to interview.
I was just blown away by the Rangers when I got to meet them and see everything that they were doing and the way they were doing it was amazing. I thought it was such a good place to be and they were pretty far ahead in terms of things that they were doing already, so I was just super happy to just jump in and be a part of what we’ve got going on here.
Did not having played pro ball cause a bit of a stigma for you?
It’s interesting. I would say not nearly as much as you would think. Definitely not with the players. I don’t think the players care what you’ve done—they care about how much you can help them, and I think the players can sniff it out really quickly if you can help them or not and if you’re someone they can trust and someone they can rely on.
If there’s been any type of feeling of a stigma or anything like that, it’s definitely from other staff. Definitely not with the Rangers. I haven’t felt that at all from any staff member with the Rangers, but I definitely went through it last year a little bit as a 30-year-old who didn’t play pro ball and now am in the same rooms and the same meetings as Barry Larkin and Eric Davis. It was definitely a little bit of a ‘You really don’t belong yet’ type of feeling, but I think that’s part of it.
I think that anyone—even if you did play pro ball and you weren’t a major leaguer—you step into any role, you have to prove yourself, and I think that’s something that I’ve been able to do.
So how did you convince those guys, the Hall of Famers and the big league veterans, that you belonged?
I think the first thing is I had to realize how important time was. I think when I stepped into my first big league camp last year in spring training, I maybe wanted to conquer the world a little bit and show guys that, hey, I belong here. I kind of had to realize—and this is kind of where I’m at now—that you have so much time in professional baseball. It’s not like college baseball at all.
I had come from coaching seven years of college baseball, so I had to learn really quickly that these are long seasons and you get a lot of time with the players. What I ended up learning was that if you put your head down and work really hard and never stand at the front of line waving your arm like, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ if you put your head down and work extremely hard and never really ask for credit and just work your tail off, the results will end up showing for themselves.
That’s kind of where I was at last year. I put in a lot of work with a lot of players and then about halfway through the year I think the results just kind of showed for themselves. That was when I was able to have a bigger voice and feel a lot more accepted because of the impact I was making on our guys.
When it comes to the way you teach, how much of the philosophies you try to impart is new school and how much is old school?
I think it’s evenly split across the board. I’m the son of a coach—my dad owns Atkinson Baseball Academy in Seattle, and he’s had an academy for as long as I can remember, so I kind of grew up as a coach’s son. My dad is extremely old school. I believe you’ve got to fall somewhere in the middle.
There’s a reason that old-school traditions are old-school traditions—because they worked. It doesn’t become a tradition in teaching or coaching if it doesn’t work, right? If something doesn’t work it doesn’t gain any ground, it doesn’t gain any traction. I think that there’s a reason why a lot of those things are really important.
At the same time, you have things like tech and analytics and mobility assessments and strength and conditioning, and notes and reports and past injury histories and eye-testing and neuroscience, and you have all these other things that are tools to help you coach. But I believe, and I say this often, the No. 1, most important, by far, thing in coaching is human interaction, and that’s really what it boils down to: You can be as smart as anybody, you can be the smartest guy around—I have a master’s degree and I’ve done a lot of studying and a lot of research, and none of that matters if I can’t convey that to another human being. If I can’t make another human being feel something, it doesn’t matter, it’s not important.
That’s what we try to do with our guys here. We try to promote the idea of the thing that you have to be the best at is interacting with your players, interacting with your staff, interacting with people. That’s the No. 1, most important thing. All that other stuff is just icing on the cake. Let’s make sure that our players love us, our players trust us and know that we care about them and they know that we’re here for them first.
When you look at players at the end of their careers or players when they’re asked about coaches and people who made impacts on their lives, you never hear them talk about content. You never hear them say ‘Oh, it was this mechanic.’ You always hear something about how that coach made them feel. It’s always that, right. It’s always: This is the way he made me feel, and that’s why we had a good relationship.
So, I think one of the things we try to do here with our players is we try to give them ownership of everything. We have three core convictions that we believe in the hitting department here with the Rangers.
Empower players, No. 1. Eliminate credit, No. 2. And eliminate credit means no one’s taking credit for a player’s success—a player’s success is his success. The environment that leads to his success, that’s our responsibility, but ultimately his success is his responsibility.
The third one is: Embrace failure. We want to create an environment where we’re training really hard and challenging things, but we’re OK with failing to get to success, because we believe so much that failure is an integral ingredient to success.
The reason why I’m bringing that up is because an old-school train of thought didn’t really empower players. It was a lot of ‘Hey, everybody’s going to do it this way,’ and I think that’s where we’re a little more new school—the fact that we’re giving our players a buffet of resources and we’re saying ‘Have at it. Figure out what works for you. We’re just along for the ride to help you out.’
We’re more like watchmen, and what do you do with a watchman? If you ever need something from him you go talk to him, but when you don’t need anything from him, that guy’s just in the shadows. That’s really what we want our coaching style to be, where more players get comfortable in the environment and on top of it all we’re very new school in the amount of tech we use on a daily basis.
It’s just another tool to help us coach. The way we explain it to players is really important, too. We’ll say ‘None of you is being assessed or evaluated based on your tech score, based off your bat-sensor score, your K-Vest, your force plates, your Rapsodo or TrackMan data. Whatever it’s telling you is not an assessment of you, it’s a profile to help us coach you.’ All it is is profiling, and it’s important for our players to understand that from us, because we actually believe that.
For us, I think that’s where tech is misused across the board. I think that in our game right now, people are trying to hit numbers and they’re trying to say ‘This is good and this is bad,’ but for us we say ‘There’s no good and bad, there’s just you, and we’re trying to figure you out.’
For an example, if a player’s got slow rotational speed or slow bat speed, we’re not going to say to them ‘Hey, your scores are bad,’ we’re going to say to them ‘Hey, listen, your speeds aren’t very high, so your path has to be on plane for a very long time.’ You have to really train your path to have a large margin for error and then you have to be an elite game-planner, for instance.
So, with that example of a player scoring on what other people would say ‘Hey, you’re bad in these areas,’ we’re just going to say ‘Hey, this is what this means. Because you’re slower speed, you have to be a really good planner, you have to know pitching well, you’ve got to study pitchers and what they’re going to try to do to you because you’re going to have to have a leg up on them with slower speeds and then you’re going to have to train your bat path to be elite. Your path’s got to be perfect for you to have success.’
So, I think that it’s kind of an old-school way to go about new-school tech where we’re not saying to our guys ‘This is what the tech says.’ We’re just saying, ‘All of this is a part of it, every single bit of it, and it helps us coach you.’
I think that when I came in—and this is a little bit of what I experienced last year too—players are kind of apprehensive to do the tech until you explain to them like that. If you just say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this, and you might get released if your scores aren’t good,’ that’s kind of messed up, right? So for us, we try to say, ‘Look, we’re going to have bat sensors on you every swing you take. We’re going to have Rapsodo on every single day out on the field. We’re going to have a floating K-vest that probably gets to you every fourth day. We’re going to get all of you guys on force plates, and you know what? When we get all that information and compile it and look at it together, it gives us a picture of you that helps us coach you and is going to help us set your career on a course that’s best suited for you.’
For every single hitter, that’s different, and that’s where I believe we’ve created a system here that we can make 120 different hitting programs. It’s not just the Texas Rangers’ hitting program. It’s Davis Wendzel’s hitting program and Bubba Thompson’s hitting program and Sam Huff’s hitting program. It’s their program, and it’s just within our system.
Continuing with that line of thinking: Swings are like snowflakes in that no two are alike, so how do you allow hitters to be as individualistic as they can while imparting a set of uniform principles across the board?
For us, we have a concept called “compensators,” where we know that there’s guys who are in the big leagues now who are compensating for a bad mechanic and they’re still having success, so we’ve created a protocol where any time one of us, anyone in our system, wants to make a change on a hitter, they have to prove that the hitter needs that change.
So the first thing they do is they look at, OK, is this issue caused by his approach? If the answer is no, then they move on to timing. Is this just a timing issue, and it’s timing that’s causing the swing issue to pop up. If the answer is no, then they move on to other departments.
Now we go: Is this issue a mobility issue or a strength and conditioning issue? Now they talk to the trainer, they talk to the strength and conditioning coach. If the answer is no, they move on. Is this a workload issue? Is he tired? Now they go to the polar monitor and see he’s not overworked, he should be fine.
And then the last part of this is, is your opinion confirmed by film? So we’ll check the slow-motion film, we’ll look at it and see if this problem’s actually happening and not just with your naked eye.
Then the last last part of this is that you need to prove it to me with analytics and with tech. So if you believe, let’s say, that a guy’s swing is really out to in, he casts his hands, and you want to make an adjustment that’s going to change his hand path, I need you to show me that’s happening on DK bat sensors and then you to show me that he hits pull-side ground balls, he never pulls the ball in the air. His pull-side ground ball percentage is through the roof.
The way that we’ve done is this, we have this seven-step process that I just explained. It’s a protocol for us before we ever go to a hitter with a change. If we go through that process and at the end of that process we’re like, ‘Yeah, you need this change,’ the first thing is that the conversation with that hitter is going to be legit, right? It’s going to be like, ‘Hey, man, I looked at all this before I came up to you and talked to you about this.’
And then the second part is, we’re ensuring that if we do have a “compensator” where the coaches say that his hand path is (off) or whatever and whatever that means to us should show that pull-side ground ball percentage is really high and then he looks at the analytics and goes, ‘Whoa, his pull-side ground ball percentage isn’t high, he actually gets pull-side in the air really well. He actually hits breaking balls really well to the pull side, he’s not rolling them over,’ then we’re going to go, ‘We have a compensator here.’ This guy has learned how to compensate.
These guys are already professional players. They’ve already seen 10,000 pitches in their lives and they’ve already moved a certain way. They start creating movement bias when they’re babies. So the last thing to do is take what someone’s done their whole life and change it; what we’re trying to do is just optimize it, and we can.
I’ve definitely come across professional players who need to make changes, but I would say that the majority don’t. I would actually say that the majority just need a little thing here or there that enhances what they already do.