The Manager’s Perspective: Derek Shelton on Managerial Philosophy

Derek Shelton is a bit of an outlier in this series. Unlike the 11 subjects who preceded him, he isn’t currently a manager. Shelton is the bench coach in Minnesota, and outside of filling in for two games while Paul Molitor was in Cooperstown last month, he’s never been in that role at the highest level. His only full-time managerial experience is in A-ball, from 2000-2002 in the New York Yankees organization.

That may change. Shelton would like to manage in the big leagues some day, and he’s on a path to do. After serving as the hitting coach for the Cleveland Indians from 2005-2009, and the Tampa Bay Rays from 2010-2016, the 49-year-old former catcher spent last season as the quality control coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. A multi-faceted job, it segued well into the bench coach position that he now holds.

What type of manager will Shelton be if he’s able to take that next step? He did his best to answer that question when the Twins visited Fenway Park a few weeks ago.


Derek Shelton: “First and foremost, the game is about the players. It’s about communication and how you interact with them. With the way the game has changed, particularly in terms of all the information that’s available, you have to make sure you’re communicating what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to do it. You want an open dialogue with not only your staff, but also with the players.

“I would hope that [having a good understanding of analytics] would be a plus. I worked in Cleveland, at the forefront of analytics, with Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti. Then I had the opportunity to work for the Rays, who are obviously not afraid to look outside the box on anything. And one thing the Rays do a very good job of — especially between their major league coaching staff and the front office — is having a very open dialogue. There’s kind of a no-ego relationship where you’re free to ask questions.

“I learned a lot there from different people in their front office. I spent a lot of time talking to Peter Bendix, who helps run their analytics department. I think having that background, and then knowing that there’s also a human side to the game… I think it’s a misconception that teams use analytics and that’s the only way they do things. It’s not just how you use the information, it’s how you present it to the players. Some like more, and some like less, and you learn that by building relationships.

“You have to manage to your personnel. The type of team you have will kind of dictate how you play, but putting guys in motion, whether it’s through a hit-and-run, or on 3-1 or 3-2 counts… I’m a fan of that. I would prefer a team that has athletes. And if you have guys who are multi-positional, you have flexibility to make moves within the game. So the construction of the roster is important to how you run the game, but in terms of general philosophy, movement and athleticism, and flexibility, would be ideal.

“In terms of hitting, the way the game has changed… everybody looks at hitting a little bit different. But I think that when you’re constructing a lineup, you have to make sure you have different kinds of swings, and different kinds of people. You need to have variety. You don’t want to be a team that relies solely on home runs, because there are going to be stretches where you don’t hit home runs. You need to be able to find other ways to create runs.

“I look at it not just as hitting, but rather as team offense. For instance, what are you doing on the bases? An important thing for any offense is getting to third base with less than two outs as much as possible. It’s not just a function of, ‘Hey, we’re going to focus on hitting.’ It’s more about focusing on how you’re going to score runs.

“Analytically, we’ve said that one-two are the good spots in the order, and I think we’ve all seen the number of times that the two-hole hitter comes up in a crucial situation. A great example is what we’ve done here with Eddie Rosario. He’s been in the two-hole and has continued to have big at-bats.

“I don’t know that I buy into the idea that where guys hit in the order doesn’t matter. I worked for a guy who was the master of adjusting his lineups, Joe Maddon, in Tampa. I do think there is some flow to the lineup. There’s flow to guys knowing where they’re going to hit, and when they’re going to hit. But I also think that when you’re building daily matchups, you’re trying to put yourself in the best situation to win games.

“The hitting end is something I have a lot of experience with, but being in Toronto, where I wasn’t specifically focused on hitting, helped broaden that out. Same here, in this position with the Twins. I’ve had a lot of conversations with Paul and Derek [Falvey] about other parts of the game, particularly pitching.

“Usage is changing a lot. Some of that comes with what your organizational philosophy is going to be, and some of it comes down to who you have — who your starting pitchers are and who your bullpen guys are. Having guys who can get both right-handed and left-handed hitters out, especially left-handers who can get right-handers out, makes your bullpen a lot more functional.

“I think the closer pitching the ninth inning is extremely important. If you’ve got a guy who you’ve set in that role, especially if he’s established in that role, it makes it a lot easier. If you’re building a bullpen and don’t have somebody set in that role, it’s a little more challenging. Personally, I would like someone in that role, someone I knew would pitch the ninth.

“At the same time, I don’t think you can be averse to using your closer in high-leverage situations prior to the ninth inning. But whether it’s the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning, you try to leverage the right people into that job. It’s about matchups. Sometimes I think we get stuck into, ‘OK, this guy pitches the seventh and this guy pitches the eighth.’ But maybe it’s the sixth inning and we need to get multiple left-handers out, and our left-hander is our seventh-inning guy. You probably want to pitch him in that leverage situation. It’s about evaluating the individual situation and picking the best people to attack that situation.

“Something like the Rays using ‘an opener’ is going to be an organizational thing. From the top down you’re going to talk about that. And again, it also comes down to what your personnel is. Right now, the Rays have created a situation with their bullpen, with the people they’re able to bring up and down, where they’re able to do that. The resiliency of the arms you have plays into it, too. They have a lot of kids who throws back-to-back days, and multiple innings, and they’ve brought them up through the organization being able to do that.

“Any relationship with your front office should be an open dialogue. We know that the decisions are going to be made up there, and they should be made up there, but the open dialogue of how we’re going to do things, why we’re going to do things, what the roster is going to look like — the synergy that happens there, the dynamic, is where you see the best organizations. There’s a free flow of conversation, and never a situation where the front office asks a why-did-this-happen question and you have to be defensive. Or you ask a question and they have to be defensive. What you want is an open dialogue where you can bounce ideas off of each other.

“For someone in a managerial role, or even a coaching role, if you don’t have a growth mindset, if you’re not open to different thoughts… I think back to when I became a hitting coach in 2005, and what my thoughts were then, compared to what they were in 2016. There was a lot of growth. If you’re in a leadership role, you have to continue to learn, and that includes having a willingness to go outside your own box. If you don’t, you won’t be making yourself the best coach, or the best manager, that you’re capable of being.

“The person I’ve taken the most from over the years is probably Joe Maddon. He does the most things that are maybe a little unorthodox. He was the first person who really pushed me to be outside my box in the way I thought about different things. The guy I’m most like is probably Kevin Cash. I think our personalities are very similar.

“I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of different guys. I was around Eric Wedge, who is extremely intense. Joe is laid back and extremely outside the box. I was with Kevin when he started managing and saw how open he was to learning. And being with John Gibbons last year… a lot of people perceive him as being the most laid back human being alive, but he’s also a person who has never missed a pitch. He’s on top of everything. And now I’m with Molly, who instinctually is probably the best baseball guy I’ve ever been around. I’ve had a varied mix, and that goes back to the growth mindset. You have to open your mind, grow, and take things from everybody.”

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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