Sometimes in sports, there’s a figure behind the scenes responsible for guiding players to new heights.
That is the case with Arizona State’s baseball team, which has received a significant boost this season from the arrival of new volunteer assistant coach Michael Earley. A former professional player himself, Earley brings his own teaching style to Tempe and has already proven himself as a valuable addition to the Sun Devils’ coaching staff.
Like most of the other members on ASU’s staff, Earley was with head coach Tracy Smith at Indiana University. However, rather than coaching alongside him, like fellow ASU assistant Ben Greenspan, Earley’s journey started as a player under Smith. After donning the crimson and cream with the Hoosiers, Earley later played minor league baseball for five seasons in the White Sox organization.
Earley said that without the relationship he built with Smith, he more than likely would not be coaching at ASU and Smith said his extensive familiarity with Earley allowed him to recognize that he fits well as a coach because of his personality.
“He’s a tough guy, he’s a good guy, family guy,” Smith said. “He always played with a little something to him. He’s got that quiet confidence piece. He’s not that far removed from playing, so there is that piece of it too, that he can relate really, really well to guys just to say ‘hey, here is what I’ve gone through recently’ and maybe be able to help communicate some of that stuff. Bridge that gap would be a safe way to say it.”
Earley’s coaching style is greatly influenced from his playing days with the Hoosiers under Smith from 2008-2010. With experienced gained from playing under Smith, Earley has seen exactly how the head coach approaches his job from the player’s perspective.
“It helps a lot because you know what he expects and demands out of the guys, and at the same time I’ve seen first hand what he demands out of the coaches,” Earley said. “Everyone does things differently and it really is an advantage to know what makes him operate and what he thinks.”
While the reach of Earley’s tutelage has spread to the entirety of the offense, a few players have reaped certain benefits the new assistant coach brings to the table.
Take Zach Cerbo. The senior catcher has stuck around despite limited playing time during his first three seasons at ASU. With his time on the field escalating this season, Cerbo has applied some of Earley’s principles for his final go-around with the Sun Devils.
“Coach Earley is one of those guys that played under Skip, he knows the Skip era, so it was one of those things where he knew exactly what we were dealing with, he knew exactly how players react to him, how they cope with everything,” Cerbo said. “He’s always there for you. If you need extra work, he’s always here for extra work. He loves being at the field and helping us.”
It all came together for Cerbo during a three-game series against Long Beach State in early March. The senior went 5-for-10 with a double, home run, and three runs batted in.
Cerbo credited the breakout to a tip Earley pointed out shortly before the series began.
“Just shortening up my stride a little bit and squaring off,” Cerbo said. “He just helped me with my timing and helped me see the ball a little better.”
For shortstop Jeremy McCuin, hitting hasn’t coming easily during his sophomore season, but it’s hard to dispute the fact that he has improved in 2017.
After ASU completed a sweep of Northwestern during Opening Weekend, McCuin went out of his way to name Earley as someone that has helped him become a better hitter.
“In games he’s always seeing stuff and he comes up to me in between at-bats and he’s like ‘you’re gliding’ either that or ‘you’re rushing yourself, just get your timing down,’ McCuin said. “It’s little things like that which will make me a better hitter.”
McCuin also added that Earley helps him do drills that allow him to stay on his back leg during his swing and make better contact.
For Earley, his style is simple. He isn’t going to teach any completely new techniques. Instead, he is just going to apply what he has learned throughout his experience in professional baseball and hope that the Sun Devils’ players soak up the coaching points.
“I just hope they get better, to be honest,” Earley said. “That’s all I can really ask for. I hope they enjoy their time here. I’m not trying to reinvent anything, so I just hope I prepare them for here and for the next level too and they can carry on and have a good base for when they leave here.”
Perhaps the player who has benefitted the most from the addition of Earley to the coaching staff has been junior outfielder Ryan Lillard. Lillard struggled to find playing time due to injuries during his first two seasons with the Sun Devils, but has finally seized an opportunity, and Earley has played a pivotal role in helping Lillard become a better player.
Not only has Earley helped him at the plate, but in the outfield as well.
“He has definitely improved my defense in the outfield a lot, just because he played out there for years in the pros and he is a good guy to have around,” Lillard said. “I think that part of my game has stepped up a lot because of him.”
Because of Earley’s youth, Lillard thinks of him as more of a friend who coaches rather than simply a coach and has become more comfortable and confident at the plate.
“Hitting, you can’t throw a blanket on and give everyone the same thing to keep them warm,” Earley said. “If I see something I’ll suggest it to them. If they like it, great, if they don’t, we will try something else. More than anything, inject confidence in them, that’s the biggest thing.”
If you see a patient approach from freshman outfielder Hunter Bishop in games, that can also be attributed to Earley. A former free swinger in high school, Earley refined Bishop’s approach to allow him to wait for his pitch.
The Sun Devils’ offensive production has been even more spread out than in years past, and a lot of that is because of the strides made by a plethora of players.
Smith praised his assistant’s versatile ability to mesh with any player regardless of the circumstances.
“I think to me that is his strength; to find the unique quality in each guy and work with them and not just say here’s the only way to do it,” Smith said. “He’s really patient; he’s a player’s coach.”
Even though ASU scored just one run in three games this past weekend against Oregon State, the Sun Devils’ struggles appeared to have more to do with dominant Beaver pitcher rather than lackluster hitting.
Earley doesn’t plan on changing his coaching approach despite occasional struggles, and he hopes that a solid season with the Sun Devils will turn into something bigger in the future.
“This is what I want to do,” Earley said. “Obviously I wanted to play in the big leagues, that didn’t work out, so my second biggest thing was I wanted to coach in college and try to help other guys reach that level. I love it out here, I hope I’m here for a long time.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Earley is the only member of ASU's coaching staff who played under Smith at Indiana. Assistant coach Ben Greenspan also played for Smith for two seasons with the Hoosiers.