“Keep your eye on the ball” is one of baseball’s oldest adages. According to John Russell, it doesn’t apply to managers and coaches. The Baltimore Orioles bench coach and his professional brethren have responsibilities that go beyond watching the flight of the cowhide sphere.
Russell, who skippered the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to joining Buck Showalter’s staff in 2011, expounded on the subject during a mid-June visit to Fenway Park.
Russell on watching the game: “I think different managers do different things, but you run little checklists in your mind. First, there’s a lot of preparation involved before the game begins. Once it does, you obviously keep an eye on your pitcher. But one of the biggest things — we talk to young managers about this when they first start out — is that you don’t want to be caught following the baseball. When the ball is hit, you don’t want to just lock in on it. If you do, you’re going to miss a lot.
“A manager is responsible for the whole team. You want to make sure your guys are going to the right positions. Is your pitcher going to the right spot to back up? Is your catcher going where he needs to go? If you just lock in on the baseball, you’re basically seeing two and a half guys in one area. You’re maybe seeing your shortstop in your peripheral, and two of your outfielders. If an infielder comes in and asks if he was in the right cutoff spot, and you can’t answer him, that means you were caught watching the ball.
“At the major-league level, players know where they need to go, but there are situations where you need to reemphasize. Sometimes you need to recreate. With speed on the bases, maybe we need do it this way? But what you worked on in spring training, what you talked about in advance meetings — is everybody executing correctly for the situation at hand? You want to create an atmosphere where your players know they’re doing everything the right way.
“As a coach, your responsibility is your area. An infield coach watches the infielders, an outfield coach will pay attention to the outfielders. As a catching coach, I’ll pay more attention to the catcher. A manager’s scope is a lot bigger. For him, it’s the whole field. When I say you can’t follow the ball, that doesn’t mean you’re not watching it. It’s more that want to see a bigger picture.
“I’m the bench coach, so I do more than watch the catcher. Buck is a great game manager and he follows a lot. Having been around him for as long as I have, I know what he likes to look for. I know certain things I can help him with, or ask him about. I also know our catchers well enough that it takes one quick glance to know they’re in the right spot, then I can start looking around the field with Buck. If Buck sees something he wants to discuss with me, I need to have an idea of what he’s talking about.
“Kirb (Wayne Kirby) will make sure, depending on the hitter and the pitcher, that our outfielders are positioned correctly. Bobby (Dickerson) will make sure our infielders are in the right spots, that we’re shifting correctly. I’ll watch the catcher. With a man on base, he’ll look over and I’ll give him signs about whether we’ll throw over or pitch out. With runners on first and third, I’ll let him know if we’re going to throw through or not. The manager will give the bunt plays. Each coach has a responsibility and that’s what he focuses on in a game.
“A perfect example of needing to watch the catcher happened last night. When teams shift against Boston, the runner at first hasn’t been sliding (into second). He’s been taking off toward third, because you don’t have anybody there. The third baseman is in short right field and the shortstop has to cover second. I’ve reminded Matt (Wieters) that if a ground ball is hit, he has to bust over to third. On a ball hit to the right side, a pitcher’s first instinct is to head to first, so there’s no way he can stop and get over there in time. It has to be the catcher, and once I see Matt break that way, I can watch the rest of the play develop.
“As coaches, we need to stay focused. You can’t be reactive; you have to be proactive. Buck says it really well: ‘I’m not paranoid; I try to be prepared.’ A lot more preparation and observation go into a game than most fans realize. We’re not just sitting back and watching. If we were, we’d be missing a lot.”
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 December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.