This is a regular in-season and off-season premium piece on the site where I along with other site writers sit down with a coach in the Indians minor league system and really break down and discuss several players on the roster and talk about some of the philosophies surrounding the development of players.
In this week’s edition of “Coach’s Corner” I had a chance to sit down with Short-A Mahoning Valley hitting coach Justin Toole. He’s been in the organization for some time, first as a player for several years and as a first time coach this past season, so he brings a lot of experience and perspective.
As always, these pieces are in a Q&A format in order to provide the raw uncut comments from the manager or coach.
Q: This was your first season as a coach. How did the transition go for you? Do you miss playing?
Justin Toole (JT): I absolutely love coaching. My whole life everyone has always said I would coach at some point; it was just a matter of when that time would come. I had an opportunity in the offseason to get this opportunity and it was one I didn’t want to pass up and then look back and regret later. It was everything I could have hoped for. This organization has meant so much for me as they gave me the opportunity to play. I think I have a unique perspective just playing for everyone in the organization and knowing the front office [at the minor league parks] and how they run things and the way they think and the way things work. Hopefully I can relate to the players to help them move up and ultimately achieve their dreams of making it to the big leagues.
Q: Interestingly, you were a player under manager Edwin Rodriguez for a few seasons and this season you were a part of his coaching staff. What was that like to be on the coaching side with him?
JT: I did, I played for Edwin in Carolina and then I played for him in Akron. That is a cool story there. Having him as a coach and knowing what he expects out of his players, and then being able to coach with him and understanding that made for such an easy transition just because you don’t have to learn a whole new set of rules. You don’t have to figure out what a guy expects from his players as you already know that. I think that definitely helped me in the transition not only with him but just everyone else in the organization as well.
Q: Outfielder Andrew Calica hit the ground running and had a great showing at Mahoning Valley (40 G, .388 AVG, 1.060 OPS) before moving onto Low-A Lake County the last few weeks of the season (10 G, .359 AVG, .918 OPS). How was his transition to pro ball?
JT: As you could see, he hit the ground running. He is a guy that finished his college career on a high note playing in Omaha. When you talk to him you just see him light up about how much he enjoyed that opportunity. Just coming here I think he was excited to get going. He put together good at bats every day. He was a guy that would grind out at bats – I think he led the league in hit by pitches. Whatever he could do to get on he would do whether it was putting the ball in play, taking a walk or getting hit by a pitch and things like that. He is definitely a grinder and fits in well with what this organization likes. As you could tell by the season he had, he kept the excitement and energy from Omaha into his pro season.
Q: What do you like about Calica the most?
JT: Just his mentality. Every single guy on this team was absolutely a blast to work with just because they showed up to the field every day and couldn’t wait to get into the cage – and he was no exception to that. He was one of the first in the cage and tried to get his routine down. His consistency speaks for itself if you look at his performance across the season. It is that work ethic and mentality. You can bring guys along and work with different tools and things and try to improve mechanics, but that mental mindset is kind of something that is developed as they grow and when you get here you either have it or you don’t and he has it.
Q: Outfielder Todd Isaacs had a breakout year (44 G, .333 AVG, .898 OPS) though didn’t get as much time in the field as he may have liked because of all the outfielders on the roster. What sparked his breakout?
JT: He has all of the stuff you want out of a player,. He has the explosiveness, he has the strength and he has the speed. It is just a matter of him putting it all together. When you get to know Todd he is very excitable and very energetic and gives it his best and all every time. Sometimes as a baseball player you have to take a step back and play under more control. I think definitely at the plate this year he did a much better job taking more controlled swings and taking swings at better pitches. Obviously, he still has that excitableness inside of him to where he will chase pitches at times, but more than anything, it was about getting a confidence and mindset to go out there and compete and not try to do too much and I think that helped him.
Q: Is honing in on his discipline and developing his approach two things Isaacs needs to concentrate on moving forward?
JT: Absolutely. More than anything it is just understanding that baseball is different from a game like football when you can go 100 MPH. Baseball is kind of more a controlled sport where you have to take controlled but strong swings. That is what he did when he went on a tear in the middle of the season was he was under control swinging at good pitches. I think, too, that when you take hard swings and try to crush the ball sometimes your mechanics fall apart. The biggest thing with that is your head starts to move. When your head starts to move it is hard to see the ball. I think he did a better job of that this year keeping his head still and being able to see the ball - and that helped him with his results.
Q: Outfielder Mitch Longo is a new player who was picked up in the early rounds of the draft this year. After a slow start, he really came on and had a solid first season (38 G, .307 AVG, .758 AVG). What did you think of his first pro season?
JT: Mitch is a guy who will out work anyone. He is always in the cage and wants to get better and asks good questions. Obviously, being a Cleveland kid he is a huge Indians fan so it means the world to him to be here. That passion and enthusiasm he has is good to see. He is not afraid to work. He is a guy we are excited about. He can swing the bat. He is a strong kid and can run a little bit. It is definitely a cool opportunity for him being from Cleveland and getting drafted by the Indians.
Q: Is there anything that stands out about Longo?
JT: He rolled his ankle early in the season and missed a couple of weeks so he was not able to get into that groove he maybe would have liked. But he definitely looks like someone who can run pretty well and his swing is exciting from the left side of the plate. He has shown the ability to drive it a little bit and run, so he has that combination to run and hit with a little bit of power.
Q: Catcher Gavin Collins is another player who started slow but picked things up the final month or so of the season (48 G, .260 AVG, .666 OPS). What kind of progress did he make over the course of his first pro season?
JT: He did well. As he started to get comfortable and understand how things were going and what pitchers were trying to do to him, he started to take off. He has been a guy who is consistent with hard contact to the middle of the field. I think he is a strong kid with the potential to develop into some power. He did a good job here of consistently showing he could put up big swings on the ball. The biggest thing did was being more on time with the pitcher.
Q: What does Collins need to do to have that power potential show more consistently?
JT: He is a strong kid. They say with hitting that power is the last thing to come. Obviously, the biggest thing for a lot of the new guys out of the draft and the college guys is they played a long season. They started in January and finished in September, so some of those guys were tired. That first pro season is a matter of figuring out the professional game, figuring out your team, adjusting to the pitching, the schedule and all that stuff, and going into the offseason with that knowledge to come into spring training a better player. I think that first year is a wildcard where you don’t know what to expect from guys as they sometimes show up in spring training the next year as totally different guys being able to get an offseason in, so I wouldn’t worry about his power as his swing was good. He was one of our most consistent guys in terms of hard contact and driving the ball to the middle of the field.
Q: Infielder Erlin Cerda finished the last week of the season at Low-A Lake County but spent most of the year at Mahoning Valley and hit a combined .228 with a .634 OPS in 66 games this season. As a lesser known player in the system, can you provide some insight into what kind of player he is?
JT: Cerda is a guy who is a leader type who brings a lot of energy. In extended he was one of the first guys who stood out to me with his energy and communication. He always talked to his teammates and moved guys around and was a leader on the field. He came here and kind of took off. He made the All Star game and hit a home run there and I think was the MVP as well. He just did a good job of taking good swings and not trying to do too much. Just going out there and being aggressive and it worked for him. He is not a big kid but he is strong. He just does a good job of helping guys out and is a leader. He can play mostly second and third, but has the ability to move to different positions.