Beth Woerner began coaching at Lebanon Valley College, an NCAA Division III school in Pennsylvania in August of 2021. She is believed to be the only full-time female baseball assistant coach in the NCAAs.
As you’ll read in our interview below, Beth’s comes to baseball with a fresh perspective, having not played it or softball in college. And a lot of her knowledge is self-taught. In her previous stop at University of Charleston, West Virginia she spent a lot of time coaching infield, so that was the focus of our discussion with her here. We also talked briefly about one of her other passions, coaching excellence in baserunning.
Follow Beth on Twitter at @beth_woerner
This is the latest article in a series in which we’ve interviewed a diverse group of coaches about teaching defensive excellence. To read the others in the series, including 2 others with female coaches, click here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Mark: Can you explain your playing background to me?
Beth: Sure. I haven’t played a ton. I didn’t play softball in college. I just graduated college and I found out about a women’s baseball league in the D.C./ Baltimore area called the Eastern Women’s Baseball Conference. So I started playing with them about 6 or 7 years ago, just for fun. I’m not very good at playing baseball, but because of that, I started to figure out, started to research. How do I get better at this? How do I make this play? How do I not mess up so much? Which is pretty much what coaching is, is figuring out how do we get better? How do we make fewer mistakes?
Mark: So what was the research that you did?
Beth: It started out with just like really simple stuff, like how to field a ground ball, what footwork should I use? But then I started just watching the game differently, seeing the little things that happen that you may not think about when you’re just watching for fun. I’m starting to notice a lot of little things, little specifics in the footwork, specifics in the way that people throw.
So that was sort of where I started. I played pretty much everywhere, second base, outfield, pitched a little bit, caught a little bit in the women’s league, which is a great opportunity.
It’s not as extensive as a lot of other coaches, but I think there’s a lot of value in it.
Mark: What does defensive excellence mean to you?
Beth: I think defensive excellence is just being able to be the best player that the player can possibly be, whether that is making all the routine plays or making routine plays and some excellent plays. But I think that is extremely individual on the player.
Mark: Okay, so who were the players you watched that most influenced you in trying to get to that point yourself?
Beth: My brother played third base as a kid, so I’ve watched a lot of good infielders play. One of my favorite players is Andrelton Simmons. Watching him play defense is a lot of, a lot of fun. He’s really good and makes really excellent plays all the time, was always locked into the game. So those are probably a few people there.
Mark: Who are the people that have influenced you as a coach?
Beth: All the ones that have encouraged me to continue coaching. Some of those people are the coach I currently work for, which is Jonas Fester here at Lebanon Valley College. He was a great infielder himself.
We have a lot of conversations about good defense and how to be a better coach, not just on defense, but in general. And I owe him a lot of credit for everything that I’ve done. And then also the coaches that I worked with at the University of Charleston under Robbie Britt, who is now at Eastern Michigan, and Pablo Cabrera, who’s now with the Red Sox.
Pablo and I worked together as infield coaches together at Charleston and we learned a lot together. I’m sure some of the stuff that I’ll talk about here in a minute is stuff that he and I worked on together and came up with together.
He played infield in college and was a very good infielder and I had a background in teaching but didn’t know that much about infield. So we came from two very different backgrounds and worked together to create the way that we both think about infield now.
|About Beth Woerner|
|– Full-time assistant baseball coach, Lebanon Valley College (NCAA Division III)|
|– One of few women working in college baseball coaching|
|– Experience comes from playing in adult baseball leagues|
|– Graduate of James Madison University|
Mark: What’s an example of something you work on with players now?
Beth: It’s hard to say because it’s different with every player. Every player is working on different little things. But I think one of my favorite things to teach and to work on with players is the infield prep step, which is whatever the player is doing before the pitch. I think it’s fun because every player is a little bit different in what they feel.
And it’s really about what they feel. Matching that to what they’re actually doing, so there’s creativity required to become good at it. That’s true of all parts of the fielding a ground ball and making a play. There’s little things that players can do to maximize what they’re good at and limit their weaknesses.
Mark: Okay, can you pick out a player and go into the specifics with his prep step?
Beth: I love working with third basemen.
One of our third basemen last year, he was working with his prep step and he was a little bit early, which means that he wasn’t reacting as quickly as he could because he was heavy on his feet at the point when he was making the decision to move, once he knew where the ball was going.
So we worked with him and it was a lot of fun because every now and then he would say, hey, I’m still a little off. Can we check in? And then we would work with some video and check in where he was at and then he could work on it in his drills once he knew that he was a little late and needed an adjustment.
Beth: When I first got to Lebanon Valley, I wasn’t really sure how the team was gonna treat me and he accepted me as somebody who could help him get better right away. So that was a pretty special moment for me as a young coach that this player wants to get better and wants to use all of his resources … which is me, to get better.
Mark: What else have you discovered in working with players?
Beth: This is true for all coaches—some players connect with you better and some don’t, but I think most players, once they realize that this person wants to help me get better, they’re going to do what they feel like they need to in order to get better.
Sometimes you don’t necessarily have to have the closest connection with every single player because they’ll teach each other what you teach them.
It’s really cool they’re taking what you’ve taught them and applying it. And not only applying it, but helping other people also learn how to do those things better.
Mark: Did your experience with him get you credibility with everybody else?
Beth: Yeah, younger players, sometimes don’t even know how to interact with coaches in general. Once they see this is how this player, who they trust, trusts me and is working with their coach, it’s a model for them on how to communicate with a coach.
Mark: What’s the hardest part about teaching defense?
Beth: I think the hardest part and the coolest part are the same answer. Every single player is different. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.
Everyone feels the way their body moves, the way they do things differently. Everyone understands the game differently. So that makes it difficult because every single player is a new challenge. That makes it a lot of fun because you’re always trying to work with that player and figure it out.
Hey, this is exactly what you’re feeling. This is exactly what you’re doing. This is how we can get better. There’s no formula or special secret sauce to getting a player better because everyone is different and has different experiences.
Mark: Okay. How have you used technology and data in your coaching?
Beth: We’re a Division III school, so we don’t have as many resources as some of the other programs. But we do still use a lot of information, and we still use the research that other teams and organizations do to inform decisions.
And for the defense specifically, we will track some things. We’ll track the plays that our players are making. We’re actually in the process of figuring out how we want to do that this year. And then we use that as feedback for our players.
Mark: You have a master’s in strategic leadership. How does that come in handy in coaching?
Beth: We talked about leadership in all different kinds of organizations and how things are organized for leaders. Knowing how leaders work is helpful in knowing that I want to do things how this leader does them or don’t want to do things how this leader does them.
Vault leads aren't new but teaching them is an art.
Teaching vault leads is a challenge because everyone understands timing a little bit differently, each pitcher looks different, and each person moves differently.
Vault leads can make everyone a base stealer. https://t.co/4pSZUKDXba
— Beth Woerner (@beth_woerner) April 11, 2023
Mark: I know you also teach baserunning, and you just did a talk on it at Saberseminar, and I saw the tweet that you sent after Ken Rosenthal wrote about vault leads.
So, why don’t you give us the perspective on the vault lead from the baserunner’s side, and then how you would stop it defensively from a pitcher, catcher, fielder combo?
Beth: The vault lead give you an advantage when a pitcher’s quicker, has a quicker delivery. It helps you to get a better jump and our players who have a good feel of it, they actually have an easy time getting back to the base no matter what part of the vault they’re in. That’s the difficult part – that it’s easier for a pitcher to catch you off-balance.
I think the players who are very good at it and understand the way that it’s supposed to work in terms of timing are able to easily implement the vault leads.
It also is useful against the left-handed pitcher because you might have a hard time getting a good jump. Vault leads are difficult because it requires a lot of creativity on the player’s part to know exactly what they’re able to do and how to do it and know exactly where they are in space at those points where there may be more risk involved in getting that vault jump.
Our players really enjoyed learning how to do them. We’ll play some development games that don’t count towards anything, but both teams are just there to get better.
One of our players who isn’t really a base stealer was like, ‘Hey coach, I’m just going to try a vault lead. I want to see what happens.’ He stole the base and came back to me and said that was the best jump he ever got in his life. ‘I felt like I got there so fast and was running so fast.’
The benefit of it is it’s able to give you a little extra momentum, just like if you’re driving and you come to a stoplight, you stop all the way at the stoplight, it’s going to take you longer to keep going. But if you keep rolling just a little bit, it’s going to be easier to accelerate once the light turns green.
It’s the same kind of concept, but with running. If a full vault isn’t comfortable, maybe we can do half vault, or maybe we can do a walking lead, or some kind of other lead that gets that momentum without having to do the full vault.
Players love getting creative. They get to make it their own, how they want to do the vault.
And then, on the defending it side, it’s a lot of fun here at practice, actually, when we practice it. Because the pitchers, they really want to pick off runners, especially some of our faster runners who are able to get further off the base.
So we’ll get competitive in practice and have pickoff practices where the base runners are practicing getting their leads and the pitchers are practicing pickoffs to see how much momentum they can get, how far off the base, and the pitchers are working on mixing up their timings.
Having a different delivery, maybe a slightly higher leg kick or a slightly lower leg kick. There’s all kinds of different things to to hold the runners.
And what’s cool about practicing it with our pitchers is that sometimes, hey, I can tell that you’re gonna pick off because you turn your head a different way when you’re picking off, and we’ll tell our pitchers that so that they can get even better.
Mark: What are your aspirations as a coach? Long term?
Beth: This is a tough question because I really don’t know and I debate it with myself all the time. I love college baseball when I first started, my original dream was to work in the big leagues like everyone else.
I think I will likely end up doing quite a few different things in the future, but I definitely want to stay working with players and I want to keep working with the best players that I can.
Mark: Last question: Is there any point that you wanted to make that I didn’t give you a chance to make?
Beth: I love working with the players and I love getting creative with players to help them learn what they’re able to do and how to be the best player they can be. The creativity piece is a lot of fun.
Anybody can coach. Even if you don’t know every single little thing there is to know about baseball, you’ll figure it out.