PHOENIX – Tony Perezchica has coached third base for the Arizona Diamondbacks since 2017.
“This year I think we’ve thrown out more players at home,” he said a day before the team hosted its first World Series game since 2001. The team that once suffered 110 defeats is finally good (enough) and Now Are you reaching the plate in outs?
“But at the same time,” he continued, “we scored more runs on closer plays.” So we have to attack – us must Attack. That’s kind of the model of what we’re doing now. We just can’t get kicked out by 30 feet. If it’s a close game – bang, bang – hey, sometimes you have to take advantage of these chances.”
The Diamondbacks’ amazing run from the bottom seed to the Fall Classic has put their dynamic small-ball style of play in the spotlight. The sac bunts, the stolen bases, the value of fighting for every 90-foot step from the batter’s box to home plate. The most important of these is of course the last.
With more and more trips around the bases these days taking the form of a perfunctory post-home run rut, third base coaches can seem like well-placed hype men – stretching the recipients of a celebratory high-five before the final out. And that’s if they seem to be anything at all. A good third base coach can go unnoticed for long stretches of the season.
“Hopefully the best thing a third base coach can do is be invisible during the game,” said Texas Rangers third base coach Tony Beasley. “If they notice you at all, it’s for a negative reason.”
But under the microscope of October baseball — when runs are at a premium and every loss is scrutinized for signs of institutional failure — third base coaches can suddenly seem like the difference makers. Or perhaps we should say: they are suddenly recognized as the difference makers they always were. The D-backs’ approach may be particularly susceptible to Perezchica’s influence, but all third-base coaches in the postseason make split-second decisions that could ultimately determine whether a team takes home a trophy or a has a torturous feeling about it what if?
It certainly seems like a lot of pressure, but everyone claims they enjoy it. If anything, the adrenaline is the best part. For people who have ever played baseball, the opportunity to act as a fulcrum between outs and runs is a source of passion – even if it means allowing yourself to be a potential scapegoat.
“Everyone’s supposed to be safe and everyone’s supposed to be scoring, and that’s impossible,” said Dusty Wathan, the Philadelphia Phillies’ third base coach. He admitted he felt the press — “maybe a little bit” — early in the team’s winning postseason run last year, after a decade-long playoff drought, but he’s had the third-base coach’s zen since then mastered.
“So you’re going to have guys thrown out and you’re going to be told you’re the worst ever. But it’s like a player – sometimes you hit, sometimes you hit a home run.”
Beasley said: “My job is to go out there and still make the decision that I’m comfortable with and live with it. If I can’t take it or any other third base coach can’t take it, then you definitely can’t coach third base at this level and in big situations.”
Or as Ron Washington, the Atlanta Braves’ third base coach and former Rangers manager, put it: “Either you have to make your decision and live with it, or you make your decision and die with it.” And if you’re worried To make a decision, you will never make the right decision.”
So what makes a good third base coach?
“Tough skin,” Beasley said, “because you’re definitely going to be doubted.”
From their woefully suboptimal perspective, third base coaches are constantly assessing the situation that might unfold. When a ball is put into play with one or more runners, they have a few seconds to weigh the factors.
“I think we all really focus on game situations: where we are in the lineup, who is throwing, the outfield arms, where the ball is being hit,” Wathan said.
“The first thing I do is make sure the baserunner makes sure he does what he needs to do to give me a chance to make a call,” Washington said.
Houston Astros third base coach Gary Pettis explained further. “You have to know the speed of your runners. And then you have to rely on their instincts and be able to recognize when they have the right kick on the ball and when they don’t. And I think sometimes that’s the hardest part – because sometimes a ball gets hit, and if you just look at the position the ball is in, you might think a runner should score, but he doesn’t have it right understood. Depending on the outfield arm, if the fielder catches the ball before the runner reaches third base, it is probably a good time to put up the stop sign.”
“The most important thing is that I know my guys,” Beasley said. “Where they are and how they came to you. He has energy, he can finish, and it’s a 50/50 game: take a shot. Say he comes to you in contractions – OK, the last 90 won’t be good.”
Beasley explained that it’s important to know which players – on which days – can push the tempo when the coach pushes them around the corner.
“Marcus [Semien] has a finishing device. “Leody Taveras has finishing equipment,” he said. “I can’t do that with Jonah Heim. I can’t do that with Nate Lowe and Mitch Garver. They don’t have that extra equipment. Whatever they bring to you, that’s what they have.”
Across the diamond in this World Series, Perezchica urges all of his Arizona players.
“I was lucky to have people who can walk. That really puts pressure on the other team’s defensive guys,” he said. “And when you have people who can do that, it’s fun to watch.”
“Sometimes you just have to take a shot because the shooter is evil and you’re not going to get two hits in a row,” Beasley said.
And if you, as a third base coach, think you’ve done all this right and something still goes wrong – the runner is out at the plate, or he stops on a play at third base when he could have scored – then it’s like that if you go and study the tape. So that you can be better next time.
“I’m going to see it from above,” Beasley said, “because I don’t get that view when I’m out there.”
“I just study the tape when I wonder if I should have sent a runner,” Pettis said.
“Everything,” Perezchica said, “because I have to see if I see what I saw during the game, in that instinctive minute.”
Wathan and the Phillies are taking things a step further. The team developed a so-called “second rate” model to retrospectively quantify a runner’s chances of scoring on a play – and what that means in relation to the score. He uses this to study every call he has made.
“The good and the bad – the ones that get thrown out, the ones that are safe – because if you don’t go back and analyze what happened in the game, then you’re not doing yourself any good,” he said.
At this point, it’s too late to save yourself from the social media screenshots and sports talk slow-motion recaps of exactly where you went wrong. There is very little glory in coaching third base. Unlike pitching or hitting coaches – or even the defensive work, which many of them also coach – their influence is not reflected in how players develop and excel. But for her, the rush comes from something purer.
“I tell everyone, this is the closest thing to playing as a coach,” Wathan said. “You’re on the field. You feel the crowd. You feel the energy. They make a decision about what can and cannot help win a ballgame.”
“You’re still playing,” Perezchica said. “Even though we are over 50 years old, we are still here – because you are on the field and have to react to everything. So you’re still a player.”
“They’re deployed,” Washington said. “And that’s where you want to be: right in the middle of the action.”