The Manager’s Perspective: Matt LeCroy on Mentoring in the Minors

Matt LeCroy played for Ron Gardenhire back when the former was a slugging catcher-first baseman for the Minnesota Twins in the early 2000s. Today, he shares many of the veteran skipper’s attributes. LeCroy is now a manager himself — he skippers Washington’s Double-A affiliate, the Harrisburg Senators — and there’s a lot of ‘Gardy’ in the way he goes about his business. Equal parts engaging and nuts-and-bolts baseball rat, he’s adept at balancing the variety of responsibilities that comes with the job.

Managing in the minors obviously differs from managing in the big leagues. The focus is more on player development than it is on winning, which LeCroy learned after being hired to lead Low-A Hagerstown in 2009. Now, 10 years after that first managerial gig, he’s using his experience — including what he gleaned from Gardy — to mentor the likes of Carter Kieboom and, earlier this season, Juan Soto.

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Matt LeCroy: “The biggest thing I’ve learned is to put players in positions to be successful. Preparing guys for the big leagues is a lot harder than I assumed it was going to be. When I first started out, I had goals, too. I figured that if I won, I may have a chance to go coach or manage in the big leagues. But that’s not why I’m here. My main job is to make sure I maximize everybody’s abilities to the highest level possible, so that they can go to the next level.

“As for the winning part of it, you try to teach people how to win, but you don’t sacrifice their development for a win. How you go about that business is… I learned that it’s a process. You can teach them every day about something, but it may not happen until three months down the road, four months down the road, or even next season. The experience I got in my first years of managing helped me realize that I have to maximize each day and, at the same time, stay patient.

“I facilitate. I make sure that the day is organized. My hitting coach does all of the hitting. My pitching coach does all of the pitching stuff. Our strength-and-conditioning coordinator makes sure all of the training stuff gets done. I have to make sure those programs are being facilitated.

“Every day I get together with my coaches and we talk about each guy. If we have somebody working on a specific thing, we obviously talk about that. Take, for instance, Carter Kieboom. He’s had a little… not a rough stretch, but a stretch where he’s kind of pulling off the baseball. And that goes into a report, as well. We’ll put in the report what he did during the game, how he continues to work on staying up the middle, and how he did that during our early work.

“But again, it’s each guy. Say we use 11 [position players] tonight. Our hitting coach will put down what they did, what he thought their approach was, how they executed it. I’ll look at that, and then I’ll send it out. That report goes to the front office, and on to player development.

“Our minor-league system has a philosophy on everything that we do — our defensive stuff, our offensive stuff, our baserunning, our pitching, our catching. They all have a program that we facilitate as the Washington Nationals. For instance, we have a two-strike approach. We talk about the importance of putting the ball in play and using the whole field. And we want to stay on the fastball. Nowadays, when you get to the big leagues, everybody is 98-99 out of the pen, so if you can’t hit the fastball, you’re going to have a hard time being successful.

“We don’t talk much about [driving the ball in the air]. We’re more on getting in a good position to hit, so that you can see the baseball. We’re kind of giving them a foundation of how to hit. When they get higher up, if they want to talk about ball elevation… but we really don’t talk about that. We talk about hitting the heater.

“Basically, the way it works is that you have a hitting coordinator who is over all of the minor leagues. My hitting coach reports to him. If one of our guys is struggling, or working on something, they’ll get together and figure out what kind of work is needed. My hitting coach will come to me and tell me what they decided on, and then we’ll facilitate it.

“Our pitching philosophy is about fastball command. I caught Joe Nathan in the big leagues, and his biggest thing was strike one. For him, it was, ‘If I can get strike one, you’re out.’ When you look at the charts, which we show these guys, that’s true. If you can throw strike one, your chances of getting this guy out are really good. Now, if you pitch backwards, you’re kind of living on the edge. I don’t like living on the edge.

“I use all of my experiences — hitting, catching, the teams I’ve been on, the teammates I’ve had that were superstars and the ones that weren’t. Any type of information that can help these guys stay the course and get better. I want to give them the truth.

“Double-A is where it gets easier to recognize who has what it takes. To me, this is kind of the make-or-break level. Part of it is physical, but there’s also the mental part of it, the ability to handle failure. There are the guys who have that mental toughness to get through the tough times, that mindset of ‘How quick can I get back to being good again?’ When you see that guys can do that, you know they have a chance to play.

“You also have the guys like [Manny] Machado and [Jonathan] Schoop. Guys like that are no-brainers. You look at them and you know where they’re going. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. You watch him play, and he’s got a skillset that’s pretty amazing. That’s a pretty easy one. Juan Soto for us. I had a short [10] days with him and you knew where he was going. You could just tell.

“Soto is a pretty amazing kid. Every day that he came to the park he was on a mission. I played with guys in the big leagues who didn’t prepare like he does. To see a kid who was 19 years old do that… he knew where he was going. Now, when I see him on TV, he’s engaged with the hitting coach. He’s engaged during the game. He’s not messing around. You can see what he wants to be. He wants to be a star. He’s got that ‘it’ factor, and you can’t teach that.

“Every player you have is important. The biggest thing I learned playing for [Ron Gardenhire] — what he taught me about managing — is that you have to make every player on your team feel like they can win. When I was a bench player, Gardy would put me in a big game. That’s what I try to do here. My hands are a little tied in that certain guys have to play all the time, but Gardy taught me that you have to utilize everybody on your team, and you have to make them feel they’re in there because they can help you win.

“It worked for us in Minnesota. We had a group of guys who believed in each other. We played some really good baseball and played some meaningful games. We were in the playoffs as a not-very-big-market team, and a big reason is that Gardy made sure we were ready to play every day. It was the same way with [Tom Kelly]. TK’s motto was, ‘Be ready for the first pitch.’ That didn’t mean the first pitch of your at-bat, it meant the first pitch of the game. That’s one of the things we teach. If you’re not prepared when the game starts, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

“That’s the biggest thing I learned from Gardy: to be loose but also ready to play. I’ve taken a lot of stuff from a lot of different coaches and managers, but he — and TK, as well — made me have a different respect for the game. I try to pass that along to the players I’m working with here, with the Washington Nationals.”

We hoped you liked reading The Manager’s Perspective: Matt LeCroy on Mentoring in the Minors by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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mike sixel
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mike sixel

Good stuff! Thanks to Matt.