At the suggestion of Red_Leader, we reached out to the Diamondbacks PR department to request an interview with Dave McKay. Since Dave is quite busy these days getting ready for the season, I was really appreciative of getting this opportunity and ample time to interview him.
As the First Base Coach, Dave is responsible for coaching the players on base running, and also serves as the outfield coach. Long a favorite of the Snakepit due to his work with baserunners and outfielders, areas the team has excelled in since he arrived, you can read Dave’s bio HERE
When you first meet him face to face, you realize he is an extremely fit 68 year old. He is also very humble and soft spoken, but very focused. I was also extremely impressed with his passion for teaching and his dedication to the players. He also exhibits a great deal of trust and open mindedness regarding the information that he gets from the Baseball Operations Analytics team. There were some questions where he couldn’t delve into a deep response, due to strategic and competitive advantage concerns. But even without a few of those “secret sauce” questions being answered, there is still a lot here to give insight to the process that goes into his work.
I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
JS: Because of the fact that we’re fans and we don’t generally have the on field perspective, the first question I’d like to ask is what recommendation would you give to fans as they watch the game, things to look for that you might not be looking at as the average fan?
DM: Oh yeah, nowadays things like shifts. You have these crazy shifts going on and are thinking “Why would you play this person this way and that person that way?” Well, it’s the information we get, on where these guys make contact and where balls land. Sometimes we’ll see the opposite will happen - someone will flare a ball where no one is. But it’s percentages: you play where this particular person the ball would land most of the time. And of course it all works off the pitcher too, how he’s going to pitch the batter.
JS: Do you find that internalizing the shift data and utilizing it in the game, are the players more receptive to it than they were a couple years ago ?
DM: Without a doubt. You show them the charts and you show them why… some players will just say “hey, put me wherever” but then there are others that want to know why… and when they do, you’re able to explain why you do things.
JS: Shift Charts have been around for a long time, but is there a major difference in the way you’re receiving the information these days compared to a few years ago, and has that been any kind of challenge for you?
DM: Years ago, you would work off what this player has done against YOU only, so you might have 2 years of balls hit and put in play against YOU. Whereas now, you can pull up his 70 at bats or last month (against everyone), which is more valuable because a guy changes over the years. The last 70 at bats, the last month, will probably better tell you where this guy is making most of his contact.
JS: What can you tell me about your daily routine and the things that you do to help yourself prepare and also the players:
DM: I’m getting older! I need to stay in shape and get to the ballpark early and get a good hour workout myself, then you start doing your homework. Being involved in base running, I like to get information on pitchers for that day, maybe look at video on them, and look into their moves, etc. (Hesitates…..) There’s more there - but I might be getting into the finer stuff that other guys aren’t looking into. So I want to be a little careful talking about just what I do look at!
And then of course you’ll have (positioning) charts , but they may not be lined up as far as how the pitcher is going to pitch to those particular guys. So I will spend some time with the pitching coach Mike Butcher, letting him know here’s what we are going to do with this guy. Maybe there’s an extreme there, here’s what we are gonna do with that guy. He might come back with, ”Well, we’re not gonna pitch him this way, we’re going to pitch him another way”. So that will change things and you certainly need that information instead of putting players where they shouldn’t be.
A big part of this is my job of positioning outfielders. During at bats, I want them to play the game. You watch and you see the swing, or you see somebody making an adjustment, or the guy is ahead in the count or behind in the count, I want YOU (the player) to make the adjustment. If you get a feel for something - and maybe it goes against the grain of how we are going to position this batter - if you have the right guy and he’s paying attention, playing the game, then I will usually lean more towards the outfielder playing the game rather than numbers.
JS: Do the hitters sometimes pick up what the fielders are doing and then anticipate the pitch that’s coming based on that:
DM: Oh sure, you see it in the shifts, you see the bunt down to 3rd base when there’s no 3rdbaseman,
JS: Well I’m thinking more like the guy in centerfield is shifting one way or the other based on how he thinks the pitchers going to pitch the batter inside/outside.
DM: Yeah, you would. A couple years ago we put a crazy shift on DJ LeMahieu and we had no left fielder at all. The reason being, he hadn’t pulled one fastball on the left side of second base. He hit a homerun a couple days before, but that was a curveball. So we thought, throw fastball, a lot of fastballs, if we just doubled up in right field and kept our centerfielder in center, we took the whole right side of the field away... He sees the shift and realizes we have no left fielder. I’m a little nervous about it, thinking he could pull a ball down the left field line and run forever. And that’s what he was trying to do: came out of his game trying to pull the ball. So, yeah. He looks out and sees that, tries to counter it - and it didn’t work for him, it changed his stroke.
He ended up going back to what he used to do. He was tough because you couldn’t just play shallow in right, because he could hit the ball over your head, and then he’d hit that soft little line drive (when the fielder played normal depth). So he’s gonna get his hits regardless going to the right side. I’m sure that’s what somebody told him: “Hey, stop playing into this thing and start doing the things that make you hit .300”
JS: Can you talk about the role of analytics and how you approach the game? Such as if you use them to confirm your instincts to identify new strategies such as the Lemahieu shift, or any particular ones you’ve found more valuable. Is there anything new that has come into the game that has had a bigger impact for you?
DM: I can’t think of any one glaring thing, sometimes things will just pop up where I’ll need some information, because they can pull up anything for you. I don’t know where to go get it, but we have the people that do, so I would use the analytics that way. I’m certainly using it a lot more than I’ve ever used it in the past. The years I was with St. Louis, we hardly used any of that stuff. It’s a big edge.
JS: A hot topic of conversation has been Ketel Marte’s transition to the outfield, which from my eye looks like it’s going really well. Can you tell us about some of the things that you might have done to help him make the transition . You somewhat famously helped Alfonso Soriano with a similar transition, and I was just wondering if you can draw any parallels to that:
DM As a matter of fact I used Soriano as an example to him. I explained it’s just like a routine ground ball: you field that exact same routine ground ball 5 different ways, so let’s just focus on one way of fielding that ground ball. Let’s go back to square one and have perfect mechanics on that one ground ball (and then apply that to the outfield).
First off all, the people upstairs, Mike [Hazen] and team, it was their suggestion that he play centerfield. I wasn’t sure. They seemed to be. As I got out there working with him, I realized they knew him a lot better than I did, because this guy is pretty gifted. Although even if you are pretty gifted sometimes it doesn’t pan out.
We let him know, don’t try to show everybody that you can play centerfield. Don’t try to throw everyone out or show everyone you are going to try to make every play, just think about positioning and think about hitting the cutoff man. Don’t try to make things happen. He is really good at buying in to that, and realized “I’m just going to make sure I catch the ball and make sure I don’t leave it on the ground.” It’s more important hitting the cutoff man than trying to throw people out. Don’t assume a double, go hard after the ball. Don’t jog after the ball and all of a sudden the batter turns it into a triple. You may only get 3-5 balls a day, so go get it, get it back in to an infielder, and your job is done.
He’s getting great jumps on balls. We back him up a little bit so he’s able to find the wall sooner. There wasn’t anything he really had problems with. He really works on it too. During batting practice he plays balls off the bat. He’ll work in those first two or three steps, or else he’ll run a ball down. He works at it. He wants to be good at it. He is showing every sign of being an outstanding centerfielder.
JS: From my observations, he seems like going going back on the ball, using his speed to go get a ball in the gap that’s come a little quicker for him than coming in on the ball. I kind of get that sense a little bit. Maybe 3-4 times, I think I saw his first step was a little frozen on the blooper in front of him.
DM: That’s kind of understandable. You tell him the ball that will be hit is the ball that’s gonna drive in runs. So you put a lot more importance on catching that ball behind you than the ball in front. That’s the guy drives in runs. Runs score when balls get over your head. We have to make sure we can get to those balls and catch those balls. The balls in front they kind of set the table. But now if you have a big run on 2ndor 3rd, we may play in at that point, just because percentages will say the batter may hit a ball more shallow than deep (in that situation). But overall, we have them really thinking hard about getting balls behind you.
Ketel’s step back is fine. There was just one ball coming in on it, that he realized he let the infielder take it and he should have called it. We talked about that, and now he realizes he needs to get that ball. Whenever you have an infielder coming back, you just can’t go in comfortably thinking that this guy’s gonna get the ball. You have to go in hard with the idea only that if you can’t get there then you let him take it - otherwise you have to, ESPECIALLY with the guy on 3rd base tagging up. There was really just one ball that he didn’t catch, that he probably could have if he was more aggressive coming in.
JS: Shifting to baserunning a little bit, the DBacks are known as a pretty good baserunning team, and I think a lot of the work that you’ve done has had a lot to do with that. There are players, some no longer here, that turned themselves into really good base stealers, but overall base stealing has become less and less part of the game. Do you think that trend will continue, or do you think that is somewhere the DBacks may try to zig while everyone else is zagging ?
DM: The thing I explain to the players is you don’t have to be base stealers to be a great baserunning team. You go hard, you take advantage of their mistakes, By going hard you create mistakes, and so we could be a very good baserunning team, stealing no bases. But if the opportunity is there we will take it. There are teams out there that don’t steal as much as others and teams out there that don’t believe in it. I like to think we are a team that pays attention to the opportunity and that we can take the base. We like to be 100% (aggressive) as much as we can, but we can’t always. I wouldn’t say we are gonna back off or push. Even when we stole some bases, a couple of years back, we weren’t trying to lead the league in stolen bases. We were just trying to take advantage of opportunities that the pitcher was going to give us.
JS: It’s fun to watch. I’m a little bit of an old timer myself, I kind of miss that aspect of the game, we like to see everybody moving out there. I wish there were more stealing in the game, it’s fun. Even though I’m an analytics guy and I know the analytics don’t necessarily point to that being a big plus, but it is fun to watch.
DM: We had Goldy that one year he stole 32, but then the next year we picked up JD Martinez and he was hitting after Goldy. The way he was swinging the bat you didn’t want guys to get thrown out with Martinez coming up. And then there is the thought of pacing some guys and saving their legs, so we pay attention to all that.
JS: I’d like to ask you about the Canadien Hall of Fame. Did they have an actual induction ceremony:
DM: Yeah, it was pretty special. It’s in St. Mary’s Ontario. They have a HOF there and a museum, and it was a special day. I really enjoyed it and was very happy to be a part of being inducted. That all comes down to longevity, not what I did in the game. I haven’t played in the game in so long. You know we’ve been in some world series (as a coach) so I guess they thought that was enough to be inducted. But it certainly wasn’t because of the numbers I put up as a player!
JS: On behalf of our website I want you to know that we are really happy that you’re here, and we recognize the excellence of the contributions that you make to this team.
DM: I appreciate that. They’ve got some good people in this organization. Joel Youngblood, he spends a lot of time with the baserunners in the minor league . So we have got together, and it’s really helpful to have him and I on the same page and have him know what you teach. And this is an organization that pays a lot of attention to a lot of that (internal communication)
(Collects thoughts as he thinks about the players he teaches)
I think I need these guys more than they need me. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve been real fortunate to be a part of three world champions. The one thing I will never have that they will have is the opportunity to play in a World Series. I’ve never played in a World Series, and I’d trade all three of those to be able to play in one.
JS: Of the 3 World Series titles you were able to participate in as a coach, was the first time around the most thrilling, or was there one of them the experience was much different than the other ?
DM: That’s a good question, because there is something special about all of them. The first one obviously, because it’s your first World Series - yeah, that’s real special. But the second one in ‘06 we beat Detroit, we did that with 6 rookies and 6 (previously) released players. That was real special watching these released players wrap around this World Series trophy with big smiles, when just a month or two ago they had their hearts ripped out of their chest thinking nobody wants them. We picked them up and they found something they could help us with. And then, of course, the last one in 2011: Tony [La Russa] was retiring from baseball, and what a way to go out. So all three of them were pretty special.
JS: The ‘06 team, that was interesting what you just said about the released players. What a lot of people remember about that team was that they came back from a lot of injuries. I guess that’s why you play all 162 because you never know whats going to happen if you get to the dance.
DM: That’s what I always tell people: get there. It’s not always the best team that wins it. Sometimes I think of that (Cardinals) team, there are two of them we should have won and two of them we probably shouldn’t have won.