A Conversation with Blue Jays MiLB Hitting Coach Matt Young

 

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At 5’8″/175, Blue Jays minor league hitting instructor Matt Young did not get a lot of attention in his draft year of 2004, even though he had put up very good numbers (.364/.476/.480, 43 steals, and 50 more walks than strikeouts) in his final year at New Mexico.

Atlanta decided to take a chance on Young, and he rewarded them by breaking camp with the big club in 2011, after seven minor league seasons.

Young wasn’t able to stick with the Braves, or in subsequent seasons with the Tigers, Cardinals, or Angels, but since his playing career ended,  he has become a highly respected hitting instructor. As a result, it wasn’t surprising when Blue Jays Farm Director Gil Kim, who has slowly and methodically rebuilt his minor league staff to include a number of coaches who have strong instructional and/or educational backgrounds, got in touch with Young prior to the 2017 season to guage his interest in working for the team.

Young spent last year with the Blue Jays Low A affiliate in Lansing, and we spent the better part of an hour talking about his background, philosophy of hitting, and several prospects he worked with last season.  In an email, Kim described Young as, “a cage rat who connects well with people.”

 

Plano, TX native Young did not, in his own words, “grow up affluent,” and was offered a number of partial scholarships his senior year of high school. He accepted a full ride from New Mexico, because he liked the coach (Mike Martinez, now HC at San Diego State), and he was impressed by the school’s business program.  Martinez, according to Young:

  …really recruited me hard. And you know I liked his ideas about baseball and how it should be played, and what his vision was for how I could help the program was, and that’s really how it took off more than anything.

Young was more than comfortable at UNM, and earned a number of accolades after his freshman season.  He was named a Collegiate Freshman All-American, All Mountain West Conference, and an academic all-conference, an honour he repeated his sophomore year.  By his junior year, he was solidly ensconsed at the top of the Lobos’ batting order, but despite slashing .381/.462/.567, Young did not attract a lot of attention from MLB scouts.  Maybe it was because he was considered on the small size for an Outfielder, or maybe it was a lack of pop (despite 25 extra base hits in 56 games), but Young was not on the prospect radar:

  You know my junior year was probably the best year I had in college, and had created some buzz, but when the draft came around it just didn’t happen. I don’t know what happened there. It’s one of those times of year where everybody gets excited about the draft, and I’m like, “meh.” It just didn’t happen for whatever reason. I have my own ideas – you know I’m not a big guy, and they had me in the Outfield.  You know for whatever reason it was, it didn’t happen and it was a blessing in disguise I guess, because the Braves signed me up that summer before I went back to school.

The Braves recognized potential versatility in Young, and skipped him all the way to full season ball (Low A Rome) after he signed.  The following year, Young began to spend some time in the infield, playing 25 games at 2B in addition to playing in the OF, and he reached AA by the end of his second season in 2006.  He repeated AA the following two seasons, but the Braves thought enough of him to send Young to the Arizona Fall League in 2008.  Young was not bitter about being passed over in the draft, and is grateful that MLB is more interested than performance than height now:

The good thing about baseball now is that they’re starting to see that guys like Alutve and Pedroia -he was actually in my draft year, so that was a little frustrating – can hit.

Young kept plugging, and was rewarded when the Braves placed him on the 40-man roster after the 2010 season.  In spring training, he was the last player to make the team, breaking camp with the Braves, which Young noted was a bit of a cause for celebration among the team’s farm department staff (many of whom were present when Young got the good news):

  It showed the development, taking a chance on an undrafted guy and allowing me to go out here, and then I guess that it was a shared win for their innovation, just the fact that I was able to make it.

Young admits that he all but, “blacked out,” when Manager Fredi Gonzalez told him he’d made the team.  But his loved ones were not taking calls when he tried to phone them:

  I went back inside and tried to call my girlfriend, who is my wife now – no answer, then I called my mom, no answer, call my dad – no answer.

He did, of course, eventually reach them, and Young made his MLB debut on April 3rd, 2011, pinch running for Chipper Jones in the 8th inning of an 11-2 loss to the Nationals.  Three days later, he made his first start, going 0-3 against Marco Estrada of the Brewers.  Cementing a future Blue Jays connection, he got his first MLB hit against Shaun Marcum in Milwaukee the next day.

Young could not ask for a better mentor than Jones, who was in the penultimate year of a Hall of Fame career:

  He really went out of his way to to try to help the rookies out when it came to preparing for a game, for a pitcher, what to expect in this city, where to go for dinner. I don’t know enough superlatives that I could use to describe how how nice he was and outgoing he was.
  Young’s time with the Braves was to be short-lived, however.  Before April was over, he found himself back in AAA.  After a two-week stint with the Braves in June, he was returned to the minors, and was DFA’d after the season.  Trials with Detroit, St Louis, and L.A. resulted in only 5 more MLB games for Young before he called it quits in 2013:
  And then in 2013 I was with the Angels, had a really good camp, but didn’t make the team, and was pretty much hurt all year.  I called my wife from Vegas, where we’re playing, I woke up that morning and it took like three or four minutes to get from my bed to the bathroom, because I had just run into a wall the night before. I called her and said, “I’m done. This is it, I can’t do this anymore.”
   He jokes that the Angels must have overhead his call, because he was released two days later.
   Looking back on his career, Young admits that when given the chance, he didn’t make the most of it, putting together a .190/.254/.224 slash over 25 MLB games:
I wasn’t a very good big league hitter – really, I wasn’t good at the role that I was asked to do. I wanted to be good at it. I just for one reason or another wasn’t good at itI had a good stretch in 2011 when I played every day. But you know it is what it is, and I got back up with Detroit the next year. And again just wasn’t good at the role.
  Still, he has no regrets, giving his career all that he could:
   Honestly, once I was done playing, I’ve never really wanted to go back. I was just too beat up – I needed as much every day give too much myself every day to play. And it just wasn’t fun for me anymore. So after that, once 2013 was over I was very, very happy coming home and being a husband.

 

 

So, Young headed back home, and the business major (Young is nine hours short of a double major, and has plans to finish his degree) settled into a career selling insurance.  Being his own boss gave him the time to help a buddy who asked him help coach a team of 18 year olds.  At first, Young was fine with that, as long as it didn’t take up too much of his time:

  I went out for one day, coached 1st for two innings, and said ‘I can’t watch this anymore, I’m coaching 3rd.'”

At that point, he knew that there was no going back:

   I looked in the mirror, and said I’ve got a lot of stuff that guys like Chipper Jones taught me. I can share, I can give that information to the next generation and it was kind of selfish in my eyes I guess for me not at least give it a try, to go out there and say look, this isn’t about me. This is about this guy who’s going to be in the Hall of Fame taught me this.

Young soon took over Managing Top Prospect Academy, a baseball training facility in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which soon put him on a path to the Blue Jays.  Kim, who took over the reigns of the Blue Jays farm system as their first-ever Director of Player Development prior to the 2016 season, had been using his extensive network of contacts to gradually revamp the team’s minor league instructional staff.  He was looking for coaches with extensive coaching, teaching, and sport science experience, and who reflected the make-up of the players in the system:

   We aim to provide these players with the best resources possible, and that very much includes the people that these players will work with and learn with.  We’re a diverse and multi-cultural game.  We have players in this organization from different backgrounds and from all over the world, so it’s an advantage to also build a diverse and multi-cultural staff as well.

With trust and personal relationships being an important factor in putting a staff together, Kim relied on his extensive network of contacts to seek out potential candidates.  It was that word-of-mouth web that led him to get in touch with Young:

I was working with Tyler Coolbaugh, whose dad Scott Coolbaugh was a hitting coach with the Orioles…they’re from the Dallas area. I was working with Tyler who just who was drafted by the Orioles.….. Gil and Scott knew each other from Texas. Gil got my number from Scott, and he reached out and called me, and I went through the interview process and then got hired.

 

 

In the process of talking to numerous players and coaches who have been in the game for some time, one common theme emerges:  today’s players are different, and more of a challenge to coach than players of a previous era.  Some suggest social media is the culprit, but Young agrees that a different approach is needed when working with millenial prospects:

  I think it’s it’s changed. This group now, the attention span is definitely shorter……. and in order to coach somebody like that,  you have to almost evolve and really get with them, and coach with them instead of coaching at them. I think coming up playing, a lot of coaches coached at you – they told you what to do. It didn’t matter what you thought or felt.….. And I think that’s the way it’s changed is that players want to know that they’re actually important instead of I’m just this guy, and you are telling me what to do.

Young describes his approach to coaching as being equal parts instructor and mentor:

    I think it’s extremely important to build that relationship with the player. Anybody – another player, another coach, boss wife, anybody, if you can build that relationship and really get the trust and get on their level where it’s just open communication, I think you’re able to reach them more and they’re going to feel more comfortable and actually give it a try, what you say or trust you when you tell them, and give them constructive criticism. And that starts when they’re really young.

     The key, according to Young, is to keep things as positive as you can:
   I think that part of what has helped me is during the lessons with kids that are 10/11/12 is, you’ve got to get them to trust you and buy in. Otherwise you’re going to lose them, you’re going to lose their attention, so you have to find a way to always keep them engaged and then be be positive as much as you can. I always try to keep that positivity because, especially in baseball, we play play 140 games, you play every day and you’re going to get beat down. I mean Vlad was the best hitter in Minor League Baseball, and he he still failed, what 62% of the time.
   A very quick check of Google reveals that there is no shortage of hitting philosophies – “how to hit a baseball,” gets about 15 pages of results.  For Young, his personal philosophy is much more simple and succinct:
   My approach on hitting is….approach. I know the mechanics, and when you get to a certain level everybody knows their mechanics. I’m an approach guy. I think that the biggest thing you can do is give a guy a plan or make them verbalize their plan as a hitting coach. I think that they’re one and the same….I think you have to be able to do both. And mine is legitimately hit the ball, and make as loud a noise as you can. Just hit the ball hard.
     I want you to think low line drive/high line drive . And don’t worry about your mechanics at all and just hit it. And let’s get in a positive count. Let’s attack pitches that we can hit. You know we want to put aggressive swings on the baseball, not defensive swings, and attack, attack, attack, and have an idea of who you are. You know Kevin Smith is not Ryan Noda, you know, they’re different types of hitters. So they’re going to have to play two different games, and have two different ideas.
     And he uses Smith, who used a new approach to make a quantum leap in his prospect status last year, which resulted in reaching #91 on Baseball America‘s Top 100 today, as a prime example of the importance of approach:

  I think that’s what helped Smitty a bunch this year…. he changed his idea, his approach. And mechanics followed. But you know when we talk we never really talked mechanics.….it was approach. And what are you trying to do when you’re in the box, and to his credit he absolutely crushed.……

He changed his idea and did exactly what he was trying to execute. I think that’s just a testament to Kevin and selling out on this new plan that we came up with. He said to himself, “This is what I’m going to do I don’t care how I do it but I’m going to accomplish this.”
   Being aggressive early in the count, according to Young, is the key:
  I want our guys to hit the first fastball they see that they can drive. If it’s an off-speed pitch and if they recognize i,t to drive it .….. I’m not just swinging, I’m trying to do damage. And I want to look for a pitch that I can drive: fastball, change up, slider, curve ball, it doesn’t matter. If I can drive that pitch I’m going to try and put my best swing on the ball every time I swing. That’s that’s one of the things I try to hammer into the younger hitters – in order to change, we want to swing, but are we swinging to swing, or are we putting our best swing on the ball? I know that in a 140 game season, we’re not going to put our best swing on every time. But if that’s our mindset, then we don’t get cheated. It’s not about hitting homers every time, it’s just my best swing.
    One thing all the new hires Kim made is their familiarity and comfort level with analytics, but in talking to Young, you hear a little bit of old school in his voice when asked if he’s a big launch angle/exit velo guy:

  I think they are important, (but)I think that they’re both results…….

I hate that term, “lauch angle guy,” because I don’t think that’s a real term, it’s like saying I’m a batting average guy. They’re both results – since launch angle is a result, how do you get there?  The way I teach it, I’m more interested in the attack angle . Launch angle is the end result, but how are you going to get there? If you try to teach that end result, I think that’s where guys are getting lost and getting in trouble and I think that that’s why in Major League Baseball we had more strikeouts than hits this year. Guys are trying to teach that end result instead of teaching the process on how to make that happen.

    Instead, Young prefers to focus on the process:
  I’m just very process oriented – let’s suck it up and go 0-4 for tonight, and then go 10 for our next 20 over the next five days. Let’s get back into what makes us good, and what makes us successful and if we say well you’re launch angle sucks then all they’re going to think about is that result. Instead of saying OK, let’s break this down, your launch angle’s bad,your exit velo is bad – why? Then let’s go back at the beginning and then really see that maybe you were attacking the ball the wrong way and that’s what’s causing us to to have end results that we don’t want.
    During our conversation, I brought up the fact that in an earlier conversation with Hunter Mense, (who like Young was new to the organization last year, and was recently promoted from New Hampshire hitting coach to minor league hitting co-ordinator) that Mense talked about teaching hitting balls over the Outfielder’s heads.  Young agreed with the importance of that concept , but he suggested that such an approach maybe would not have worked so well for him when he played, and it maybe is geared more to a Cavan Biggio than to one of his Lansing charges last year:
  Reggie Pruitt His game is going to be more of a low line drive game, and when he thinks low line drive and he misses up, he’s got a chance to hit it out of the park, which is what he did in August. Yes. But if he tries like he tends to do sometimes to hit it over the outfielder’s head, that’s when he gets in trouble.
   Talked then turned to more of the players he worked with at Lansing in 2018.  Smith, Young says, could be a 25 HR hitter one day.  Young could not say enough about the 2017 4th rounder:
   It was just special to do what he did in Lansing and then go up to the Florida State League and continue it. I think that there was going to be some regression regardless, but he’s a learner. I think that‘s the main thing in mentoring and coaching players: Kevin wants to learn, he wants to get better and he’s not going to let anybody stop him from learning, and I think when we learn as people, coaches, hitters, pitchers the more we learn, the better we’re going to be at what we do. I think that that kind of defines Smitty more than anything – he’s a learner. And that makes him a good leader and makes a good baseball player and makes him a good person. And you know all those things, all those good deeds you can say about him. You know that was that was kind of a big thing. That’s big takeaway and I’m excited to see him in spring training, and he’s actually coming to Dallas I guess a week or so after Winterfest. I’m just excited to see what he can do because I think again he’s another gut that‘s special and has an opportunity to do some really cool things.
When I told Young that I consider Ryan Noda (whose 109 Bases on Balls led all minor league baseball, and his .434 OBP was second among full season qualifiers) one of the most intriguing prospects in all of minor league baseball, Young agreed, and admitted that it was difficult at first to get Noda to change his see-lots-of-pitches mindset:
  Ryan and I battled a lot this year and – battled I think maybe is a strong word, but we had some long talks this year. I felt like early in the year he was looking to walk instead of earning his walks, and I think that everybody in baseball saw what happened when Ryan was aggressive early. That happened in June. When June hit, we made a deal: You’re going to be a little more aggressive instead of instead of as selective and passive as he was.
   That change in approach paid off for Noda:
  We all saw it – he hit .340 (actually .350) with 9 Homers that month. I think it’s a very mature hitter. I really like what he does with a bat to the ball when he puts bat on a ball. I think he could be a little bit more aggressive – he and I have talked about it. A positive part of it is that the relationship we were able to build in Lansing, and if he’s in Dunedin this year, we’re going to be able to build on it for him, and hopefully he doesn’t have a two month stretch at the beginning of the year like he did last year (Noda hit .233 in April, .178 in May) and if he can come out of the gates hot, who knows how far he could go?
     Chavez Young was the only player in all of MiLB to record 50 extra base hits and 40 stolen bases this year, and along with Smith was one of the prospects who made the most progress in the system.  A few weeks ago, Young and Bo Bichette were in a Home Run derby in Young’s native Bahamas, and Young the hitter launched a pair of bombs right-handed – from pitches thrown by Young the hitting coach.    It’s only a matter of time before Chavez taps into that power, according to Matt:
  He does have more pop than he showed (8 HRs) this year. I think he‘s got an opportunity to hit double digits – 10 to 15. You know again, it’s one of those things where Chavy is a little different because he’s got two swings – his right-handed and his left-handed swing. He probably has more pop right handed, but is a better hitter right now left handed , because if you think about it he has about twice or three times as many ABs left handed than right handed. …….There’s nothing with Chavez that I dislike……. just keep growing and keep being who he is, keep every day improving, and trying to prove yourself because I know that that’s being a thirty-ninth rounder playing with a chip on your shoulder, that’s what really helps him be the best player he can be.
    Brock Lundquist was a 6th round pick in 2017, and I had a chance to have eyes on him toward the end of his first pro season with Vancouver.  What I saw was a long swing that didn’t seem to connect a lot.  What I didn’t see was a tired player with a hand injury.  Lundquist was a different hitter this season, and he was one of the hottest hitters in the Florida State League (.337/.401/.483) for July and August.  Young believes the key to Lundquist’s success this year was due to health and some adjustments:
  Near the end of his time with us, Brock was just really starting to feel better after he had (off-season) hand surgery, so I think he was still weak early. And it took about a month for him to really feel that strength in the hand again, and once he did did the swing I think shortened up a little bit, contact got better, and he got more aggressive. He was another pleasant surprise. I think I saw the same thing you did – a long swing, pull heavy, and he was definitely pull heavy in Lansing, but the swing shortened up tremendously from April to May, and May to June. And then when he got to Dunedin it was like a laser show all over the field.
   Samad Taylor is a player a lot of prospect hunters really like.  I have to be honest – I’m somewhat on the fence about him;  he did not stand out to me in looks at the Lugnuts this year, but there’s no doubt about the athleticism, and 32 Doubles in his first full season suggest some future power.  Young’s not on the fence about Taylor at all:
   I think there’s so much in there, and he’s got to find a way to channel and harness it, and make himself the best he can be because he is. Yeah. He’s also special – he’s just he’s a fun guy to coach. And hopefully we have him in Dunedin this year.
  When Blue Jays instructor Tim Raines visited Lansing this summer, Young describes Taylor as being attached to the Hall of Famer at the hip.  Taylor and Raines were out on the field every day, with Taylor doing his best to soak up the baserunning instruction the former Expo great was giving him.  Young also feels that Taylor was robbed of the minor league version of the Gold Glove – Taylor went almost three months between errors, in well over 200 chances.
   Early in the New Year, the Blue Jays announced a number of moves with their minor league staff, including a move to Dunedin for Young.  Sending him to the FSL makes a lot of sense – Young can continue his work with many of the players he had at Lansing. He’s looking forward to more than avoiding another potential cold Midwest League spring:
  I’m excited. I think that I can only hope the relationships that you build through a full season of baseball…. to be able to continue to cultivate those, and have a sense of familiarity with these hitters and these guys I think is a good thing. I don’t think it‘s feasible to think that’s going to happen every year. Hitters have to learn to take instruction and be coachable with other coaches. But for these guys and for me to be able to move with them and spend another year with these guys or half a year hopefully for some of them…..It’s exciting. I think it can only be can only lead to good things.

 

 

Talking to Blue Jays MiLB staff is truly an enjoyable and insightful experience.  They may toil in anonymity, but they are vital cogs in the development process.  Jason Parks, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, now the Director of Pro Scouting for the Diamondbacks, once wrote about the need for harmony of message among the affiliates’ coaching staffs”

 In order for the process to work, a team’s development staff, from the front office to the on-field personnel, have to maintain a united front…..You can’t teach a player to play baseball (your brand of baseball) with a chorus of voices singing different songs at different times for different reasons.

    They may vary slightly in their philosophies, but the coaching staff I’ve spoken to have all been on the same page about the importance of character, work ethic, and patience.  Being aggressive early in the count has been the message hitters from the Dominican Summer League all the way up to AAA have heard.

It’s no coincidence that in the space of less than four years, the Blue Jays farm system has become one of the best in the game.  Scouting, sport science, analytics, and the player development staff have all played integral parts in that rise.

 

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