PHOENIX — Tony Perezchica has been coaching third base for the Arizona Diamondbacks since 2017.
“This year I think I've gotten more guys thrown out at home plate,” he said a day before the team hosted its first World Series game since 2001. The once-110-loss team is finally good (enough), and now they’re peaking in outs at the plate?
“But at the same time,” he continued, “have scored more runs on closer plays. So we have to attack — we have to attack. That's kind of, like, the model of what we do now. We just can't be thrown out by 30 feet. If it's a close play — bang, bang — hey, sometimes you gotta take those chances.”
The Diamondbacks’ astonishing run from final seed to Fall Classic has shone a spotlight on their dynamic, small-ball style of play. The sac bunts, the stolen bases, the value of fighting for every 90-foot increment from batter’s box to home plate. The most important of which, of course, is the last one.
'You're going to be told that you're the worst ever'
With more and more trips around the bases these days coming in the form of a perfunctory post-home-run trot, third-base coaches can start to seem like well-placed hype men — the recipients of a celebratory high-five before the final stretch. And that’s if they seem like anything at all. A good third-base coach can go unnoticed for long stretches of the season.
“The best thing a third-base coach can do is hopefully be invisible for the game,” Texas Rangers third-base coach Tony Beasley said. “If they notice you at all, it's going to be for a negative reason.”
But under the magnifying glass that is October baseball — when runs are at a premium and every loss is dissected for signs of institutional failure — third-base coaches can suddenly seem like the difference-makers. Or, perhaps we should say: They’re suddenly recognized as the difference-makers they always are. The D-backs’ modus operandi might be especially open to Perezchica’s influence, but all third-base coaches in the postseason are making split-second decisions that could eventually determine whether a team takes home a trophy or a nagging sense of what-if?
It certainly seems like a lot of pressure, yet they all claim to relish it. If anything, the adrenaline is the best part of the gig. For people who once played baseball, the opportunity to serve as a pivot point between outs and runs is a source of passion — even if it means allowing yourself to be the potential fall guy.
“Everybody's supposed to be safe, and they're all supposed to score, and that's impossible,” said Dusty Wathan, the third-base coach for the Philadelphia Phillies. He admitted that at the beginning of the team’s pennant-winning postseason run last year, after a decade-long playoff drought, he felt the press — “maybe a little bit” — but he has since mastered the zen of the third-base coach.
“So you're going to get guys thrown out and you're going to be told that you're the worst ever. It's just like being a player, though — you're going to strike out sometimes, you're going to hit a home run sometimes.”
Said Beasley: “My job is to go out there and still just make the decision that I feel comfortable with and live with it. If I can’t take that, or any other third-base coach can’t take that, you definitely can’t coach third base at this level and in big situations.”
Or, as Atlanta Braves third-base coach and former Rangers manager Ron Washington put it: “You either got to make your decision and live with it, or you make your decision and die with it. And if you worried about making a decision, you're never gonna make the right decision.”
So what makes a good third-base coach?
“Tough skin,” Beasley said, “because you're going to get second-guessed no matter what.”
'Sometimes you just gotta take a shot'
From their woefully suboptimal vantage along the line, third-base coaches are constantly evaluating the situation that could be about to unfold. If a ball is put in play with a runner or runners on, they have a few seconds to weigh the factors.
“I think all of us really focus on game situations: where we are in the lineup, who's pitching, the outfield arms, where the ball is hit,” Wathan said.
“First thing, I'm making certain that the base runner makes sure he does what he has to do, to give me a chance to make a call,” Washington said.
Gary Pettis, third-base coach for the Houston Astros, expounded 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've got the right break on the ball and when they haven't. And I think sometimes that's the hardest part — because sometimes there's a ball that's hit, and just looking at the position of where the ball is, you would think that a runner should score, but he didn't get the right read. If the fielder is going to catch the ball before the runner gets to third base, depending on the outfield arm, then it's probably a good time to put up the stop sign.”
“Knowing my guys, that’s the main thing,” Beasley said. “Where they are and how they came to you. He’s got energy, he can finish, and it’s a 50/50 play: take a shot. Say he’s coming to you laboring: OK, that last 90 is not going to be good.”
Beasley explained that you have to know which players — on which days — can turn up the speed if the coach urges them around the corner.
“Marcus [Semien] has a finishing gear. Leody Taveras has a finishing gear,” he said. “I can’t do that with Jonah Heim. I can't do that with Nate Lowe, Mitch Garver. They don’t have that extra gear. Whatever they come to you with, that’s what they have.”
Across the diamond in this World Series, Perezchica is pushing all his Arizona players.
“I've been blessed to have guys that can run. It really puts the pressure on the guys on the defensive side for the other team,” he said. “And when you have guys that can do that, it's fun to watch.”
“Sometimes you just gotta take a shot because the pitcher is nasty, and you’re not going to get back-to-back hits,” Beasley said.
'You’re still a player'
And if, as a third-base coach, you think you’ve done all that correctly and still something goes wrong — the runner is out at the plate, or he stops at third on a play when he could have scored — well, that’s when you go and study the tape. So you can be better next time.
“I'll get a high-home view of it,” Beasley said, “because I don’t have that view when I’m out there.”
“I study tape only when I wonder if I should have sent a runner,” Pettis said.
“All of them,” Perezchica said of what he rewatches, “because I need to see if I see what I saw during game time, in that instinctual minute.”
Wathan and the Phillies take it a step further. The team built what he calls a “second-guess” model to quantify after the fact the chances of a runner scoring on a play — and what that means relative to the game state. Using that, he studies 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 kind of analyze what happened in the game, then you're not doing yourself any good,” he said.
At that point, it’s too late to save yourself from the social media screengrabs and sportstalk slo-mo recaps of exactly where you went wrong. There’s very little glory in coaching third. Unlike pitching coaches or hitting coaches — or even the defensive work that many of them coach as well — their impact is not reflected in how players evolve and excel. But to them, the rush comes from something purer.
“I tell everybody: It’s the closest thing to playing when you’re coaching,” Wathan said. “You’re on the field. You feel the crowd. You feel the energy. You're making a decision on what could or could not help win a ballgame.”
“You're still playing,” Perezchica said. “Even though we're 50-plus years old, we’re still there — because you're on the field, and you're having to react to everything. So you’re still a player.”
“You in the action,” Washington said. “And that’s where you want to be: in the action.”