Sunday Notes: Coaching Salaries on the Farm, Bullpen Scatalogy, Cards STEP, more

It’s become well-known that minor league players earn meager salaries. Little attention has been paid to the earnings of the instructors responsible for their development. They’re not getting rich either.

Salaries at the big league level are fairly generous. Some managers make seven figures. Hitting and pitching coaches are paid anywhere from $150,000 to $350,000, with a select few earning far more. Bench coaches earn between $150,000-$250,000. Third base coaches are around $130,000-$140,000. First base coaches are in the $100,000-$110,000 range. Bullpen coaches bring home roughly $90,000.

It’s a different story down on the farm.

Minor league coaches get paychecks year round – unlike minor league players — but that doesn’t mean the majority can afford to spend their winters on the golf course. One baseball lifer I talked to said he managed in the minors for over a decade and never made more than $42,000 a year. He worked camps and substitute taught in the off-season to help make ends meet. Others manage winter ball in Mexico or Venezuela to earn extra money.

Not everybody I spoke to would get specific with salaries, but a front office type told me his club pays minor league coaches and managers a minimum of $35,000. Another put that number at $30,000. Multiple sources estimated the high end to be in the $150,000-$175,00 range, with long-time managers and coordinators typically at the top of the pay scale.

Player development staff salaries vary by organization. One contact cited the Marlins as a team that pays poorly, and the Braves as one of the more generous. Qualifying that he doesn’t know the exact difference in dollars – he’s with another club – he said, “That’s why Miami has a lot of turnover and Atlanta doesn’t.”

Collusion is illegal, which means organizations can’t get together to share what they pay their minor-league instructors. According to one source, it still happens. As he put it, “Salaries are kept down in the minor leagues, because so many want to get in.”

A front office executive told me his club gets between 300 and 400 resumes per year for minor league positions. They come from high school and college coaches, former players, and instructors who didn’t get their contracts renewed.

Head coaches at elite college programs aren’t among those applying.

“Those guys aren’t clamoring to be minor league coaches,” said the exec. “An outstanding head coach at a major program is making upwards of half a million dollars a year. There’s no equivalent job in minor league baseball.”

Tampering is a punishable offense – a fine of up to $250,000 – so poaching coaches from other organizations has its hurdles. Formal permission is needed to speak to someone under contract with another club. It isn’t always granted, although protocol is to allow an employee to talk to a team that intends to offer him a promotion.

Coaches who are free agents are obviously fair game. They’re also easy to track. According to a farm director, teams typically make non-renewals public via a player development email list. There is also plenty of networking within the industry.

It’s not always necessary to change organizations in order to earn a higher salary. An outside offer might prompt your current club to renegotiate your contract, which is typically for one to three years with an annual raise of 3%.

A cultural change is another possibility. One coach told me he received “a great raise” when a new ownership group came in and made it a priority to attract and retain high-quality instructors.

In the opinion of one person I spoke with, “When it comes to instructors, you get what you pay for.” Another told me, “With as much as it costs to develop one player, you want to have the best teachers you can.”

Based on the feedback I received from 10 baseball insiders, some teams believe that more than others. Across the board, relatively few compensate their minor-league staff members as much as they might.

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Gary LaRocque wasn’t among those contributing to the above article, but I did talk to the St. Louis farm director earlier this week. Among the things we discussed was the invitation-only STEP camp (Spring Training Early Program) the club will run for 10 days beginning on the 28th of this month.

The Cardinals will have 155 minor league players in spring training – report dates are March 9 for pitchers and catchers and March 11 for all others — and 21 of them will attend the early-bird session. Several organizations have similar camps, with the number of invitees varying. Another farm director I spoke to said his club will have 40 on hand.

LaRocque told me he sits down with his staff and discusses which prospects would benefit the most.

“You could build a case that all of our players would benefit, but we don’t model it that way,” said LaRocque. “We bring in a combination of our younger players and a few of our upper-level players. Our STEP camp gives them a chance to be seen by our major league staff, which is part of our continuity.”

The younger players include recent draftees who rank among the organization’s top prospects. Rob Kaminsky will be there, as will Jack Flaherty, Magneuris Sierra, and Luke Weaver.

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Perusing the Baseball America Prospect Handbook – my favorite book-style print publication – I came across a compelling comment about Cardinals catcher Carson Kelly. The 20-year-old converted third baseman committed 13 passed balls last year, and a speculative reason was “Kelly’s eyes tending to stop tracking pitches late in the zone, creating a vulnerability on late movement.”

Gary LaRocque wasn’t able to provide specifics on that particular issue, saying only that Kelly made great progress as a first-year catcher, and the team is extremely pleased with him. Wanting to learn more – at least in a general sense – I got in touch with Rob Leary, who was a catching instructor before becoming the bench coach in Miami.

“I don’t know the kid, but as a theme, that report could be 100% dead on,” Leary told me. “If a hitter moves his head slightly, it decreases his chances of squaring up a pitch. It’s the same with catching. If you don’t follow the ball all the way, especially those last 10-15 feet, you’re less likely to receive it well. If a pitch has action, and you don’t track it all the way, you might clank it or blow your thumb up. You’re certainly not going to frame it to make it look nice for the umpire.”

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Dwight Smith, Jr. dabbled at something new in the Arizona Fall League. The Blue Jays outfield prospect took ground balls at second base, a position he’d never played before. The 22-year-old saw time at shortstop as a youth, but hadn’t played the infield since he was 14.

Smith told me a position switch isn’t in the offing; the organization simply suggested he add to his defensive arsenal. The son of former Cubs outfielder Dwight Smith, Sr. was on board with the idea, saying he’s open to anything that helps get him to the big leagues. He’s got a solid shot. Smith hit .284/.363/.453 in high-A Dunedin, and is ranked the No. 14 prospect in the Toronto system.

I asked Smith if it’s hard to adapt to an unfamiliar spot.

“Everything is more fast-paced than it is in the outfield,” said Smith. “So it is different, but hard? Not much. If I keep working at it, I’ll adjust. Turning double plays, cut-offs, knowing where to go with the ball — a lot of it is getting that time clock in your head.”

Internal time clocks are important when a runner is bearing down, spikes high, in your rear-view mirror. I asked Smith if he was familiar with a former outfielder who shares his surname, and also dabbled at turning double plays. The player in question is a good lesson in self-protection.

Reggie Smith – this is a great trivia question – started at second base on opening day for the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox. A 22-year-old rookie at the time, Reggie had been drafted as a shortstop but converted to the outfield in the minors. Filling in for Boston’s regular second baseman, who was out with an injury, Smith barely escaped a handful of takeout slides. A week later he was back in the outfield, never to see action at second base again.

Dwight hadn’t heard of Reggie, but the cautionary tale struck a cord.

“I’m not afraid of contact, but I definitely need to protect myself,” said the youngster. “I need to be able to get rid of the ball and get out of the way. I don’t want to get killed out there.”

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The bottle has killed many careers. For every Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth who was able to carouse to his heart’s content and still perform at a high level, many more are beaten down by the brewers. I recently asked Ryan Cameron, who pitched 10 minor-league seasons, if he saw players compromise their dreams by downing too many tall boys.

“I saw it all the time,” said Cameron.“The tough thing about minor league baseball is that it’s essentially a big fraternity packed into a tin can that drives around all summer long. You’re in low-level hotels, often in forgotten towns, and what are you going to do? Guys start going out, and that can turn into five, six, seven nights a week.

“For the most part, teams try to look the other way. They’re not trying to catch you. But when it’s spring training and you’re coming in at 6:30 in the morning, and guys reek like booze, they’re just not going to get their work done.

“Guys will try to trick themselves. I’ve heard guys say they pitch better when they’re hung over, because they seem to focus better. It’s almost like the story of an addict. They try to convince themselves that what they’re doing is OK, that they can handle it. (Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady says he goes to bed at 8:30, and credits that for his longevity. You can probably count on one hand how many baseball players go to bed at a reasonable hour. You become a creature of the night, and like my mom says, nothing good happens after midnight.”

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Last season I struck up a conversation with Darren O’Day on the subject of bullpen usage and leverage. Thanks in part to Chris Davis, his Orioles teammate, it turned into an entertaining exchange.

Using Goose Gossage as an example, I suggested teams should be more willing to use their best reliever prior to the ninth, and for multiple innings. O’Day buys the logic, but only to a point. In his eyes, “A lot of it is hedging your bets,” because a manager doesn’t want to have to answer for not having his best guy in the game at the end.

Then the submariner got scatalogically philosophical.

“Every game is a pie,” said O’Day. “It just depends on how you’re going to split it up. That’s especially true when that pie is made out of sh__. Who is going to eat the sh__ when you’re getting beat bad?

Chris Davis, sitting nearby, couldn’t let that pass without comment. “He’s going to be a pitching coach someday,” interjected Davis.”He’s going to be a pitching philosopher.”

“Davis, you’re going to have to eat the sh__ today,” responded O’Day. “Go out there and throw four innings.”

Turning serious again, the University of Florida graduate – his degree is in agricultural and life sciences – said “Sometimes you need a guy to go three innings when you’re down, and it’s not going to be Goose Gossage.”

Gossage was obviously too good for garbage time, but he did throw 100 relief innings four times. In two other seasons he went 90-plus. I asked O’Day if there’s any reason relievers couldn’t handle the same workload now.

“Throwing 90-100 innings out of the bullpen is pretty challenging,” answered O’Day. “Is it harder compared to 30 years ago? Here’s the conundrum: How can you measure the quality of the game then and the quality of the game now? Today, the focus is on throwing your best for the shortest period of time. I also think the quality of hitters has gotten better.”

I countered by saying hitters would say pitchers have gotten better.

“That’s chicken-or-egg,” responded O’Day. “Pitchers are throwing harder now, and they’re throwing max effort. I bet Gossage didn’t throw as hard as he could for three innings. I bet he saved a little bit.”

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Colleagues sometimes agree to disagree. That happened this earlier this week, when Mike Petriello and I had a brief back-and-forth on Twitter. Referring to a Jeff Sullivan piece on Ben Revere, Mike called outfield assists “a hilariously useless stat.”

I responded that no stat is useless when taken into context. Delving into “Kill the win” territory, I said I’d rather know Denny McLain won 31 games in 1968, than not know. Mike responded by saying he’d rather not know, and couldn’t even tell me how many wins Clayton Kershaw had last year.

I continued the conversation by saying Bob Gibson’s 1968 record (22-9) says a lot about his league in that particular season. Gibson had a 1.12 ERA, and in my opinion the juxtaposition is meaningful from a historical standpoint. Mike countered with, “Assigning a team stat to an individual is worse than useless, it’s misleading.”

Mike is an excellent writer and analyst, and I understand what he was saying. I still disagree with his overall premise. My stance is that baseball doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and you’re not going to be misled if you have all of the information. I feel it’s best to know all of the numbers, and assign value accordingly.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Big Ed Walsh – baseball’s all-time leader in FIP – went 40-15 in 1908. The White Sox legend led the American League with 464 innings pitched and had a 1.42 ERA. In 1910, Walsh went 18-20 with an AL-best 1.27 ERA.

In 1954, Bob Grim of the New York Yankees went 20-6 while throwing 199 innings. Of the five 20-game winners to throw fewer than 200 innings, Grim is the only one who did so before 2002.

Mark Buerhle has faced 12,878 batters, the most among active pitchers.

Eddie Collins is the all-time leader in sacrifice hits, with 512. The Hall of Fame second baseman had a ,333/.424/.428 slash line.

Happy first anniversary FanGraphs Sunday Notes. This column debuted on February 16, 2014. As is often said, time flies when you’re having fun.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Coaching Salaries on the Farm, Bullpen Scatalogy, Cards STEP, more 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 December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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LHPSU
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LHPSU

Chris Davis did famously eat the sh__ once and loved it.

As far as minor league coaching salaries are concerned, I wonder if it might be a factor that the best coaches get promoted to the upper levels and MLB, hence not reflecting in an increase in minor league coaching salary.

That said, it’s still baffling that teams don’t spend more on these lower-level expenses. $1M is going to do a lot more in getting (or retaining) minor league coaching than it will in the free agent market. There’s a saying in education that you want your best teachers in kindergarten and elementary school; I don’t know why that shouldn’t be true for baseball as well.