This is the 12th interview in our series of articles on coaching defensive excellence the last two years, likely our final one for 2023.
This season, we’ve talked to people from a few different nationalities, three female coaches working with male and female baseball players, and the head of a baseball academy focused specifically on defense. You can find the full series here.
This week we talk to Tucker Frawley. He’s the Twins minor league infield and catching coordinator. Tucker played one year in the pros and then went into coaching. Prior to joining the Twins he was the associate head coach at Yale. One of Tucker’s focal points, which you’ll read about here, is integrating data into coaching.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Mark: What does defensive excellence mean to you and how do you go about teaching it?
Tucker: Defensive excellence is constantly trying to perform at a level that is an elite clip relative to our peers and I think that over the course of the last several years, that bar may have changed.
What my offseason job is to do a whole bunch of research to ensure that we have MLB-level benchmarks that our minor leaguers are in tune with for every part of their game. I want them to know when they’re within an MLB spectrum in any of the tools or KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that we want them to highlight and hone in their training.
I want them to know when they’re at an MLB average in each of those areas. And we ultimately want to get to a point where we can get them to an elite level in each of those areas. Now, obviously getting to an elite level in all of them is a tall order, but they’re still just good north stars of sorts for us to try to follow and pursue.
At the very least, I want to give them consistent knowledge of results from month to month and make sure that they understand just how they’re performing relative to the average MLB player and the MLB spectrum as a whole.
Mark: Can you explain this using a specific example?
Tucker: The best example I can give is arm strength.
I use the term KPI. Another word for it, is just the tools that we want to own in each of our players. So, let’s use arm strength as an example for a tool that we’ve highlighted as a high-level KPI for an infielder, or a really important tool for an infielder.
A really simple way of going about this is going on Baseball Savant or any of the other great resources out there and getting a sense of what that MLB spectrum is. And I think we highlighted for shortstops that the best arm velo was around 98 miles an hour, Oneil Cruz. But on the low end of that spectrum is a guy like Dansby Swanson, who gets it up as high as 83 or 84. And both those guys are phenomenal defenders, very good shortstops. It’s a healthy thing to remind guys, if we have guys that are outside of that range, let’s say they’re only able to get their arm strength up to 81 or 82, they now have a good sense of just how much more improvement they need to be considered MLB caliber.
I think the average MLB arm strength, the average top velo that shortstops show is about 86 miles an hour, and that’s one that we hold every single one of our shortstops to. That’s again just a KPI, a tool of sorts that we’re constantly trying to gauge our monthly performance with, both in practice and in games.
Mark: Ok, so how do you go about teaching technique?
Tucker: Technique-wise, I want to make sure that everything, every technique that we are stressing, it still comes back to something objective. The best way for me to explain this is, there’s a lot of infielders out there, both at the college and pro level, that aesthetically look phenomenal.
They are smooth, they have great arm actions, they’re what we prototypically want to see out of an infielder. But when you actually pay attention to how often they catch it, and how accurately they throw it, they are the furthest thing from an efficient infielder.
From an infield standpoint, I want us to chase aesthetics less, and efficiency more, and I often equate things to hitting, where there are just some hitters who have a knack of consistently finding the barrel and hitting the ball hard, and when they’re able to do that, there’s usually some freedom that the hitting coaches give them.
I think as an infield coach, we need to just hit pause on a lot of the aesthetics that we’ve been accustomed to wanting to see out of our infielders. And if it comes back to something objective, that we know is ultimately going to help them make more plays and collect more outs, then I am all for that.
To use a catcher analogy and not just focus solely on infield: Blocking is a really good topic where we have an emotional attachment to a ball that hits the dirt and squares us up in the chest and the catcher recovers and keeps the guy from moving on to the next base. When in reality, if we just pick that clean or our depth is good enough where we don’t even have to pick it, it’s in a sense just as efficient as the ball that we were accustomed to calling an actual block.
Mark: Can you give an example of what it’s like to teach someone who’s a visual learner versus someone who is not? Maybe walk us through the different learners you deal with and how you talk to them.
Tucker: All of us have learned some things through conversation. We’ve learned other things through visual aids. And what I try to do is equip myself with that whole gamut, that whole buffet of things and what ultimately sticks is going to be completely unique to the topic at hand and what clicks for that player.
So for some guys, showing them an actual visual of what it means to throw from different slots and the role that posture plays in impacting that slot and the role that their feet play in impacting that posture. Sometimes seeing video is a great thing. Sometimes using still shots is a great thing.
Sometimes it’s getting them up on their feet and putting their bodies in that posture with our hands and helping them hold positions and feel exactly what we want them to feel like. We’ve done it all with guys, some of which has clicked, and if it hasn’t, we’ve moved on to the next one and we’ve tried the next-best thing.
But even just using that as an example, throwing from different slots and when to use it. We’ve tried to show our guys in a number of different teaching points and teaching aids to hopefully make sure that we’re not leaving anyone behind who may be in the minority in terms of how they’re learning it.
Mark: What’s the hardest thing to teach a pro at the various positions that you’re teaching them?
Tucker: The drop step is the hardest thing. When we basically look at balls within 10 feet of infielders and the ones that they actually kick that are still really high probability, they’re the rockets that hit the infield dirt first.
So that low line drive, if their feet don’t gain any or lose any ground, it eats them up. Now, they may have good enough hands where they’re able to stab at it and get it.
The guys that are able to work backwards, lose ground, and actually create an easier-to-handle hop, those are the ones that make it look easy. But, when we bring that over to the practice setting, it is the hardest thing to replicate.
You’re talking about balls that are rockets, so if you’re using real balls you’re putting them in harm’s way.
Second, if they know it’s coming, it is so much different than developing the reaction that comes with that play. So, we’ve tried everything under the moon but I have not felt like we’ve really nailed any drill series that really hones that ability to read a low line drive, give ground, and make it basically a long hop that’s a lot easier to handle than when your feet just kind of stay put.
That is far and away something that applies to every one of the four infield positions that I have not been able to crack the code on.
Mark: What’s the most fun thing to teach?
Tucker: The most fun thing to teach is actually showing these guys what separates the below-average infielder from the average and the above-average from the average.
We use a football analogy a lot where it’s like we’re an NFL kicker offered 30 kicks a day, about the same number of ground balls that we usually get as infielders. And we asked them how they would kick, and some guys will reference the fact that the most frequent kick is an extra point after a touchdown.
But when you actually look at field goal kickers, even the worst field goal kicker in the NFL misses that one once a season. It’s basically automatic for guys in the NFL, and it’s the 40-yarders, the 50s, the 60s, the kicking it from the hash marks, or in inclement weather, that ultimately separates the best from the average.
And, for us as infielders, it’s teaching them that the more rangy plays, the ones that force them to field with one hand, or their backhand, or when they’re pressed for time, those are the separator plays.
On the pro side, it’s really difficult to really squeeze that into a weekly work week, where these guys are forced to play every night. But it forces us to be creative, it forces us to be really cognizant of our workloads, and when we’re squeezing those types of drill packages in, and how we do it. But once that lightbulb goes off in their head that the routine ground ball isn’t going to be the thing that separates me from my peers in the big leagues, then it’s fun to talk about how we’re going to attack things with them from there.
Mark: Is there a player for whom you could point to and say, wow, that guy did a really good job of learning how to play defense.
Tucker: Edouard Julien. A guy that, early on in his career, it was a huge question mark where his defense would ultimately lead him.
Anyone who watches him, I don’t think anyone would consider him for a Gold Glove right now. But, if you knew where Eddie was three or four years ago, even if you knew where he was at the beginning of this season, he’s a rising star because of his work ethic.
He’s taken all the talking points that we’ve had relative to those separator areas that we mentioned earlier, and the drills and what they mean. He has been as much of a student as anyone we’ve had. He’s the poster child for what a really good, purposeful training plan can do for you. And I really hope that people see that even years down the road, because again, he’s a rising star. He’s getting better every single month, let alone every single year.
And he’s the first guy that comes to mind
Mark: If you were gonna give a blanket piece of advice to adults coaching kids with regards to defense and I’m talking kids of Little League age, what would you say?
Tucker: Yeah, my son’s actually 10, so that’s a great question.
I have a very healthy viewpoint right now because I have that 10-year-old, I’m able to see big leaguers, and everything in between. For my son, my No. 1 goal with him, no matter whether I’m the one coaching him, or he’s playing a game for someone else is making sure he’s having enough fun to want to be back out there the next time.
In terms of the actual technique it’s pretty darn similar to the way I practice with our minor leaguers. Now, the speed at which we go, I try to match it up with the speed of his game. But the tools that we’re asking him to use in terms of dealing with two hands, and one hand, backhand and being able to throw on the run and range to his left and right, it’s all the same stuff. It’s just done on a smaller field with balls that aren’t hit as hard, and with a lot more encouragement and pleasantries along the way.
He’s a catcher right now and I want him to be able to receive from all stances and understand how important blocking is in addition to receiving and throwing, since he’s at a level where those things mean that much more.
And then as he grows up, hopefully that skill set he learns to apply it in a way that is a little bit more in line with whatever level he’s playing and whatever coach he’s playing for. But, it’s super similar. So the biggest advice is just make sure that the speed of the game is matched up with what those kids see at whatever level they find themselves in.