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The secret life of a bench coach

They’re more important than you think.

Toronto Blue Jays v Cleveland Indians - Game Two Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

What does a bench coach actually do? The title itself is incredibly vague. The duties of the pitching and hitting coach are self-explanatory. Does the bench coach make sure that every flavor of sunflower seeds is readily available in the dugout? Do they ensure that the Double Bubble gum barrel is filled to the brim? Are they in charge of assigning seats on the bench?

The real answer is none of those things. Bench coaches are the unsung heroes of the coaching staff because of their preparation and research of the opposing team. They can sometimes be the difference between winning and losing a game.

It’s 5:32 am in Ft. Myers, FL and Twins bench coach, Derek Shelton is on his way to the spring training facility. He gets there before anybody else and creates entirely separate schedules for each of player. For example, there’s a separate infielders schedule and pitchers schedule for that particular day. Depending on what they’re working, each group may not come in contact with each other for the entire day. The laminated color-coded sheet breaks down what each group of players is doing each minute of the day. Shelton has a meeting with manager, Rocco Baldelli to align with what he wants the team to focus on for that particular practice. After that, he leads a meeting around 8:30 am with the entire coaching staff to explain what he wants each coach to work on with their group of players. At 9:45 am, he addresses the entire team and lays out their specific schedules for the day. On the field, he instructs different spring training drills with players of all positions. After practice, he starts thinking about the next day’s schedule what he thinks Baldelli will want to focus on. From a distance, it may seem like Shelton just hangs out in the dugout giving fist bumps to players, but nothing could be further from truth.

Brad Mills, bench coach for the Cleveland Indians, has been around baseball for over 40 years working with teams like the Houston Astros, Montreal Expos, and Boston Red Sox. He’s a longtime friend of his manager, Terry Francona which is extremely important for his job. It’s imperative for a good bench coach to anticipate what the manager will need before it actually happens. The bench coach needs to know everything that’s currently going on with his team, and then some. He needs to be an excellent communicator because he often acts as the mediator between the manager and players. When Billy Martin was managing the Yankees in 1976, his volatile personality didn’t always mesh well with the players. That’s why Yogi Berra was placed in the dugout because he was a far better communicator with the players than Martin, who had a penchant for throwing haymakers at his own pitchers.

When it comes to in-game strategy, a good bench coach is always thinking right along with the manager, so he can recommend something or act as a sounding board for the manager to bounce ideas off of. Pitching and hitting coaches are responsible for specific facets of the team, but the bench coach is responsible for knowing everything. They need to know about certain types of swings for each hitter. They need to know how the opposing pitchers are going to attack your hitters and know how your guys have fared against a particular pitcher in the past. They must have all that data on-hand and ready to be shared at a moment’s notice, for every possible situation.

The bench coach must have a plethora of contingency plans about what could happen in a game and then be able to quickly execute them for the manager. Aside from the vast amount of preparation necessary for this job, it’s imperative that they are able to personally connect with all of the players on the team. If a player doesn’t respect the bench coach or think he’s prepared, he won’t buy into one of his suggestions late in the game that could help that player succeed. A bench coach needs to be able to point out a flaw in an opposing hitter’s swing and effectively communicate it to the pitcher, while simultaneously going over bunt defense strategy with the catcher.

So, what does a bench coach actually do? The answer: a lot.