The Manager’s Perspective: Josh Bard on Process and the Distillation of Data

To date, Josh Bard’s managerial experience consists of a single game. In early September, he assumed that role while Aaron Boone was serving a one-game suspension. Don’t expect it to represent the end of his time in that capacity for a big-league team.

Currently in his first season as Boone’s bench coach with the New York Yankees, Bard is viewed by many as a future MLB manager. And for good reason. The 40-year-old former journeyman catcher has long been lauded for his interpersonal skills, and he’s been honing his analytics chops for years. Prior to joining the Yankees, the Texas Tech product spent five seasons in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, initially as a special assistant to the general manager. More recently, he served as the forward-thinking NL West club’s bullpen coach in 2016 and 2017.

Where will Bard be employed in the years to come and in what capacity? Multiple teams will be interviewing managerial candidates this offseason, and Bard’s name is certainly being bandied about in front offices. While he’s happy in New York, other opportunities surely await.

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Josh Bard: “My biggest role as bench coach is being a translator from the analytics group down to the dugout. I’m making sure that all the information we have is distilled down to the simplest way to understand it, not only for the staff, but also the players. My role is more pregame. It’s postgame review. What can we do better?

“Zac Fieroh is one of our analytics guys, and he’s with us every day. I give Brian Cashman and Michael Fishman, and that whole group, a lot of credit. They really pushed for him to be in there, and he’s done an awesome, awesome job.

“It’s funny. When you look at Oakland, or at L.A., or at Tampa, you think they’re these analytics juggernauts. That’s the perception. They are very good at it — don’t get me wrong — but when you look at us, that’s not really the perception. Well, when I came here from L.A., the information here is as good, if not better, than anywhere I’ve been.

“I think here and [the Dodgers] are similar. I think that New York admired the way L.A. does their delivery system, as far as getting the information to the players. One of the things we talk about all the time is, ‘If you give a pitcher information and it doesn’t get to the rubber, it doesn’t matter.’ Our job is to distill it down, and to translate it, so that the player can understand it. That way he’s clear-minded when he goes out there to perform.

“There are 20 different levels of… we start with a scouting report that looks like this. We see things that work well and things that don’t work well, and we edit to level two, to level three, and so on. By the 20th time you feel like you’ve gotten all of the kinks out. It’s fun to be in an industry where you’re kind of at the forefront of getting this information — information that’s been there — down to the field.

“Lets look at Tampa. Some people say they’re really courageous, and some people say they’re crazy. What they’ve done, because of their roster, is say, ‘OK, how can we get our starter to face the best hitters less, and our relievers to face them more?’ I think that’s a really smart way to do it.

“There are rosters out there, like ours, where you have four really good starting pitchers. We’re going to pick our spots to do that, like we did the other day in Tampa. We had our first ‘opener’ and it worked out great. But with a Luis Severino or Masahiro Tanaka, you don’t need to go with an opener. It’s not that they have to start, it’s more that they’re good at getting both right-handers and left-handers out. There’s not really a huge split there. It’s about matchups. It’s about matchups with the hitting, with the defense, with the pitching. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to give our players the most room for error.

“This is the way I look at it: in 1940, football had student body right and student body left. Today, you’re not going look at offenses and go, ‘These guys are crazy throwing the ball all over the place.’ Teams are simply trying to score points within the rules. We have a set of rules, and we’re saying, ‘OK, a starting pitcher faces 20 batters. If we can cut that number down to 17 — he only faces the batters we want him to face — and we have relievers face those other three or four, we’re creating matchup leverage.’ Why wouldn’t we want to do that? That’s the rational thought.

“But again, you have to pick and choose your spots. The reality is, you play 162 games in 180 days, and sometimes your bullpen is beat up. Sometimes you need your starter to roll a little longer. But you will see it more and more, that even good starters will begin to ‘start’ fewer games than they used to.

“Joe Q Fan, who loves the game, is trying to learn this as it goes. I don’t blame him for being frustrated. Fans want their teams to play well, and they’re trying to understand what’s happening out there. But do you know what? Five years from now, it will be commonplace.

“I think differently than I once did. At the same time, I was a player who had limitations skill-wise — I was more of a grinder, a thinker, a game-caller — so I was always looking for an advantage. And I was willing to take a chance to get that advantage. I’d look at tendencies. In a numbers game, the math wins. That’s a fact. The numbers are what the numbers are.

“Our job — and think is where Boonie has done a tremendous job — is to balance ‘math wins’ with the fact that players aren’t robots. They need to have grit. They need to be able to fight through discomfort. That’s why Boonie is going to be great. And I think he’s already shown that. We’ve been able to do a lot of special things. We’ve also learned a lot of lessons. When you’re willing to look at the things you’ve done well and all the things you’ve done poorly, and adjust those over time… that’s the way it should be.

“Boonie looks at a ton of data. He’s extremely intelligent. He remembers everything. He’s ultra-prepared. Philosophically, we’re on the same page, but there’s the yin and the yang. There are times where I would maybe go more towards the data and he would go less, and there are times where I’d go less and he’d go more. There’s been a really good balance. We have mutual respect, and it comes with an understanding of the role of the bench coach. I’m an advisor. At the end of the day, he’s the boss. I’m going to support what he thinks is best once that decision is made. He’s right a lot.

“We do matchup grids. We have different stuff we look through when we do our bullpen meetings, before the games, on how we’re going to attack hitters. We’re really aligned, although there might be a time in the fourth inning where I’ll say, ‘What do you think of this?’ and he’ll say, ‘Not yet.’ And that’s what’s going to be really fun about not only the Wild Card, but moving forward. The leverage in the first inning is just as important as the leverage in the ninth inning.

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘You can’t turn the Titanic on a dime.’ In this industry, it takes time for people to understand that. It’s taken me time to understand that. But the game is changing. Teams that were analytically sound 15 years ago had a tremendous advantage. That distance is getting closer. Now there are certain teams that are maybe a little ahead of the curve, and there are certain teams that are maybe a little behind.

“Baseball is a constantly evolving organism, so [where it comes to managers] I don’t think you can make a blanket statement about new-school and old-school. You have to look at each individual manager and his communication style. Do you need to challenge players to do the right thing and to take care of the details? Absolutely. And there are a lot of ways you can do that. ‘My way or the highway’ is a foolish way to look at it. What you want is, ‘As an organization, let’s do it the best way.’

“People throw out the term ‘process’ all the time — it’s kind of a cheap word — but process is undefeated. I really believe that. Teams with better players typically have success, but at the end of the day, the process itself doesn’t change. It’s constantly being looked at and improved, but I see it as having the information, delivering that information, being able to execute it, and being able to review it. Rinse and repeat.

“It’s still a player’s game. Our job is to put them in the best possible situation to succeed. You have to get buy-in. If players are convicted to something, they’re going to do it better. The information is good, so we have to say, ‘Hey, man. You’re doing this, and if you did this, you’d have more room for error.’ When a player buys in and has success… that’s what makes our job fun.

“The communication part, especially with some of the young Latin players… it’s been unfair the way we’ve treated them at times. We’ve tried to give them less information when we should be bringing them along the same way — and speaking it in their language. Some of the smartest players I ever played with in my career were Latin players.

“Involving them in the process, and getting feedback from them… these guys are culturally trying to figure it out as they come over to the States. Trying to put myself in their shoes — if I were a young player going from here to Latin America — there would be a lot of intimidation and languages deficiencies on my part. Right now I speak enough Spanish to get along. I wouldn’t say I’m fluent, but I can speak it. And kudos to Major League Baseball. Now we have a translator on every team, so we have the delivery system.

“A lot of the information we do is based on colors, or squares, or painting a picture for the players. That’s a universal language. I like using the term ‘distilling,’ because we want to cut out all the fluff and give them the good stuff. Again, it’s how do we implement the information guys need — all of the guys — in order to play their best? It’s not about knowing the most stuff. It’s about knowing the right stuff to help you perform.

“Translating information is the separator. And that’s not just in the analytics world. It’s in the biomechanics world, as well. Let’s say you have a player who is in the last couple years of his deal. He’s on a huge contract and underperforming. Let’s not just discard this guy. Let’s figure out a way to help him play better. It might be a swing change. It might be a physical change. This game is littered with players who were, in scouting terms, a Role 4 and they made a swing change and now they’re a Role 7. It’s our job to identify how we can make a player the best he can be. That’s an organizational thing.

“I’m a kinesiology major from college. I’m always looking at the game through a different lens than most. I’m hungry to learn. My father was a learner. He has six earned degree and was a professor. He’a very smart man. Me… I love trying to get better every day. That’s what fires me up.”

We hoped you liked reading The Manager’s Perspective: Josh Bard on Process and the Distillation of Data 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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Wow, this is a sensational interview. I’m absolutely blown away by two pieces.

1) “‘If you give a pitcher information and it doesn’t get to the rubber, it doesn’t matter.’ Our job is to distill it down, and to translate it, so that the player can understand it.”

The amount of time Bard comes back to the communication aspect is phenomenal. He gets it. You can have all the analytics that FanGraphs has and more, but if you can’t communicate it to your players in a meaningful way, it’s all for naught. Speaking as a professional Data Scientist, it takes people in my field a LONG time to understand this point and the fact that Bard (+ Yankees) recognize it is huge.

2) “young Latin players… it’s been unfair the way we’ve treated them at times. Trying to put myself in their shoes — if I were a young player going from here to Latin America — there would be a lot of intimidation and languages deficiencies on my part”

Exceptional honesty by Bard. Rarely do you see someone both admit to non-US players receiving sub-par treatment AND express empathy as to why there’s a gap and what that must feel like. Baseball truly needs more people thinking about this gap and taking steps to bridge it.

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

+1 to both of these, but I especially had to stop and think about the point about Latin players. He’s so right. We’re focusing more and more on giving players information to optimize their game. That’s a hard communication problem, and then we add a language barrier?

Much respect to translators, but any translator will tell you it’s not like not needing a translator. Information gets lost in transmission, and maybe more importantly in listening — what they took and didn’t take, because it’s going to be an ongoing conversation.

And even more than the information, a translator stands in the way of personal rapport, hearing the unspoken along with the spoken.

[Edit: and the cultural gap on top of the language gap, you can’t really translate across.]

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

Bard didn’t go into this, but I expect communication barriers are an even bigger deal for coaching and development of minor leaguers, than for optimizing major leaguers.