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Why MLB Teams Look To College Baseball For Pitching Coaches But Not Managers

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Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson alongside Jose Berrios. (Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

The Twins last winter made waves around baseball with their highly unconventional hire of Wes Johnson as pitching coach. Johnson was the pitching coach at Arkansas, and while he had done impressive work for more than a decade in the college game, he had never played nor coached in professional baseball.

But Johnson was at the forefront of new technologies and training methods and the Twins were eager to incorporate his expertise into their big league club. Their move to hire him away from Arkansas marked the first time since 1979 that a coach made the jump straight from college baseball to the major leagues.

With Johnson’s help, the Twins made significant strides on the mound this year. They went 101-61 and won the AL Central Division for the first time since 2010. Their ERA went from being in the bottom third of baseball to the top third. Their WHIP fell and their strikeout rate increased.

The Twins’ gains can’t all be attributed to Johnson, but his influence was felt. His impact, combined with the success Derek Johnson, the former Vanderbilt pitching coach, has had as a pitching coach with Milwaukee and now Cincinnati has more teams taking a long look at college coaches for their own MLB jobs.

Johnson wasn’t the only college pitching coach to get inquiries last winter and this offseason, big league teams called some of college baseball’s best pitching coaches. Michigan’s Chris Fetter, Arkansas’ Matt Hobbs, Texas Christian’s Kirk Saarloos and Arizona’s Nate Yeskie all have been the subject of interest from MLB teams.

The appeal to big league teams of a premium college pitching coach is clear. College baseball has in many ways gotten ahead of professional baseball in innovation and implementation of new technology. And college baseball has generally been better than professional baseball at developing prep pitchers into stars.

But while big league teams have become very interested in bringing college pitching coaches into the fold, they still aren’t looking to the college ranks for MLB managers.

There were nine managerial openings this offseason and none of those teams has been reported to be interested in an active college coach. Pat Murphy, the Brewers bench coach and former Arizona State and Notre Dame coach, interviewed with the Mets. Murphy did spend 96 games as the interim manager of the Padres in 2015, but by that time he was five years removed from the college game and had spent four seasons as a minor league manager. Murphy had to spend five years managing in the minors before he got his only MLB managerial stint. That’s apparently as close as any college coach came this year to a big league managing job.

In football and basketball, it is not uncommon to hear top college coaches mentioned as job candidates for NBA and NFL openings. The Cleveland Cavaliers this spring hired John Beilein away from Michigan, tapping the college basketball pipeline. Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens jumped straight to the NBA from Butler in 2013 and is one of the more accomplished coaches in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.  In the NFL, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has been the betting favorite for more than a year to become the next Dallas Cowboys coach.

Baseball, however, has not seen an active college coach in the mix to become a big league manager since then-

Nebraska coach Darin Erstad interviewed with the Dodgers after the 2015 season. He later removed his name from consideration. No college coach has been hired as a big league manager since the Yankees plucked Dick Howser, who had previously been a Yankees’ coach, out of Florida State after the 1979 season.

It’s not for a lack of college coaches with impressive resumes. If, to name several, Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, North Carolina’s Mike Fox, Louisiana State’s Paul Mainieri, Louisville’s Dan McDonnell, Virginia’s Brian O’Connor, Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan, UCLA’s John Savage or Arkansas’ Dave Van Horn had similar success in football or basketball instead of baseball, they would have likely at some point have found themselves in the mix for a job at the next level.

Instead, they continue to compete for national championships in Omaha, not the World Series.

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In previous generations, MLB teams didn’t look to the college ranks for their managers because of the emphasis they placed on experience and the importance of having been a part of the professional baseball development ladder. But that path has long been busted. There are still plenty of old-school managers in the game, but today it is much more open to new voices. The Cubs and Yankees – two of baseball’s biggest brands – hired managers straight out of ESPN’s broadcasting ranks in David Ross and Aaron Boone in recent years.

So why are big league teams not looking to the college ranks for managers? The reasons are legion and varied.

Some of it is a difference in how baseball is played, as compared to basketball and football. In those sports, especially football, an innovative coach would be able to bring his unique game plan from college to the pros. Chip Kelly and Kliff Kingsbury were attractive to NFL teams because of the offensive concepts they could bring with them. But baseball is baseball. There’s no hurry-up or Air Raid offense that MLB teams want to adopt from the college ranks.

There also are some key aspects of an MLB manager’s job description that don’t exist for a college coach. The manager has become the most forward-facing employee for an MLB team and must meet with the media twice a day during the season. Even in college baseball’s biggest media markets, a head coach’s interactions with the media are much more limited. There also would be questions of how they would handle the difference between paid and unpaid players, though that’s something that NBA and NFL executives must wonder about when considering college coaches.

There are some significant drawbacks from the college coach side, too.

While the highest paid MLB managers out-earn the highest paid college coaches, managers’ salaries are relatively modest. A USA Today study in 2018 found that the average salary for a manager was $1.5 million. That number has assuredly gone down, as four of the seven highest-paid skippers in 2018 have retired or been fired. The top college coaches – the kind who in another sport would be considered for jobs with professional teams – are now making more than $1 million and some are near the MLB average for managers.

MLB teams could certainly make it worth a college coach’s while to make the move and the number of million-dollar college coaches is still relatively small. But beyond the money, there is more job security in college. MLB managers increasingly seem to exist just to be fired. Only four managers have been in their current position for five seasons with Oakland’s Bob Melvin the longest tenured at 8.5 seasons. There’s more turnover than ever in the college game, but the top-end coaches are working with long-term contracts and many of the game’s elite coaches have been in their job for a decade or more.

While some aspects of an MLB manager’s job and college coach’s job are similar – in-game tactics and managing a clubhouse, in particular – there are also some critical differences. College coaches are used to being in control of their program. Yes, they are given a budget, but, on a micro and macro level, player procurement, development and strategy are all up to them. They fundraise, often have a say in any facility improvements and beyond. In MLB, much of that control would be replaced with a collaborative relationship with the front office, which has the ultimate say. At this point, the average MLB manager is clearly subordinate to the front office when it comes to many decisions that an NCAA coach would make.

Coaches who have excelled on the recruiting trail and seen that success turn into wins would struggle to replicate that model in MLB. Oftentimes in the NBA or NFL, a college coach is given more control of roster construction to try to take advantage of their evaluation skills, but such a setup is untenable in baseball. Other college coaches thrive on teaching the game. Those opportunities are more limited in baseball than basketball and football because of the everyday nature of the game and lack of practice opportunities.

Ultimately, it’s a tough needle to thread and an MLB team would have to be very confident in the decision to buck convention for such a high-profile hire. Such a coach would have to have won a lot in college – or had experience as a successful big league player – and have a strong reputation as a collaborator and communicator, to his players, others in the athletic department and the media. He would probably be younger – not with retirement on the horizon but still in the middle of their career – to fit with big league trends. He’d have to embrace analytics, not just in development but also in in-game strategy. Most importantly, he’d have to want to make the jump.

Does such a coach exist now? MLB teams don’t seem to think so.

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