Just a few short months after her second season as a minor league hitting coach with the New York Yankees, Rachel Balkovec was introduced as the manager of the Tampa Tarpons, the New York Yankees’ Low-A affiliate, becoming the first woman in the history of professional baseball to hold such a title.
Such a move has been in the making for women in baseball and for Balkovec personally, who in many ways is already overqualified for the position: experience as a pro hitting coach, two master’s degrees (she studied biomechanics in the Netherlands and sport administration at LSU), an appointment with the Netherlands national softball and baseball programs, research in eye tracking at Driveline, seven seasons in pro ball as a strength and conditioning coach, and GA/intern posts with the St. Louis Cardinals, LSU, Los Tigres Del Licey Beisbol, the Chicago White Sox, Arizona State University and EXOS.
The Omaha native is a former NCAA Division I softball catcher and has special interest in organizational culture and behavioral psychology.
Inside Pitch: What lessons did your parents instill in you growing up that you continue to implement today?
My parents grew up relatively poor and were both the first to go to college in their families. They set my sisters and I up for success by making us each get jobs when we were 14. We had to make our own money, pay for our own material possessions, and earn everything we received. They also made it known that at the end of the day, whatever we wanted in life was entirely up to us and the work ethic we put forth. This is a lesson, a mindset, that I carry with me every day, whether it is my job, my personal life, or even my own ambitions. Anything is possible with work.
IP: Did your love for baseball grow out of your love for softball?
Not really…I was very fortunate to be included in the first generation of women who were able to watch women’s sports on television, so softball was on TV often. And while the origins of my ability to work in baseball came from softball, baseball was never on my radar until I went to the University of New Mexico and several of my friends on the baseball team got drafted. As I kept in touch with them I began to understand the onion which is professional baseball. So it wasn’t the sport itself that fueled my desire to work in professional baseball, it was actually the journey of the minor league baseball player: coming to terms with an organization, extended bus rides, limited access to weight rooms, pregame hot dogs, and many other everyday struggles that accompany minor leaguers. Pro baseball is such a unique business to me; it’s a never-ending jigsaw puzzle to solve.
IP: How did you get into coaching specifically?
I was an average softball player who really found solace and an ideal means to contribute in the weight room. That was my place to shine, work hard, and earn the respect of my teammates and coaches, which ultimately turned into a passion and later a career. I had phenomenal strength coaches over the years who showed me what it meant to be a true coach, as opposed to just blowing a whistle and counting reps. I think it should be noted that people are under the impression that there’s this big separation between being a hitting coach and being a strength coach, but there really isn’t––it’s just coaching applied to different settings.
Being a hitting coach came to fruition when I was introduced to [Yankees’ hitting coach] Dillon Lawson. Dillon took me under his wing, and I soon found myself partaking in hitting meetings, reading articles, and having extended conservations that helped fuel my interest in hitting. Dillon also set me on my path to go back to school to earn my second master’s degree, in addition to guiding me towards doing my own research on eye-tracking for hitters.
IP: You mentioned the distinction-–or lack thereof in reality-–between being a strength coach and a hitting coach. Is there one you enjoyed more than the other?
I am different than most coaches in the sense that I don’t really ‘love’ the weight room or hitting in the way other people talk about it; I just simply love coaching. I want to be the best coach I could be, work with the smartest people in the sport, and continuing to develop the skill and ‘art of coaching,’ as they say. I didn’t see my job as a ‘hitting coach’ much differently than I saw my job as a ‘strength and conditioning coach.’ Being able to do both has allowed me to bridge the gap towards my eventual position of choice, which is general manager. Becoming an on-field coach consists of more player evaluations and understanding player acquisitions, both of which are prerequisite skills for a general manager to possess.
IP: If you could change one thing about Minor League Baseball and how it operates, what change would you implement?
With no restrictions, in a perfect world, I would pay MiLB players a year-round salary, while putting an enormous amount of effort into improving the transition for Latin American players from their home countries here to the United States. I believe there needs to be a strong emphasis on developing the players as human beings and allowing them to finish their academic pursuits while they continue their playing career. Along those same lines, I would ensure each player is able to participate in an offseason internship, which would give them the chance to explore potential career options upon the conclusion of their journey on the field.
Since the time I entered professional baseball just ten years ago, all of those things have evolved and gotten extensively better, so it may not be appropriate to say I would ‘change’ anything about MiLB, I would simply make sure those elements continued to improve.
IP: Should amateur hitters begin focusing their attention on developing specific tools that may be more appealing pro scouts? Or is there something to be said for hitters who routinely get on base by hitting singles and the occasional double?
While that answer is certainly a combination of both, the simplest way I would answer it is this: gain weight. Make sure you’re in the weight room a minimum of three times a week, year-round, in order to develop the necessary physical capabilities to hit the ball hard. At the same time we obviously understand that hitting the ball in the first place, just making contact, is just as essential to on-field success, so you have to spend time there too. Learn how to make contact, develop a proper approach, and enhance your pitch recognition skills.
While there may be value in training the athlete to hit the ball an extended distance, it is important to keep in mind that the velocity and pitch shapes a high school player sees is drastically different than a traditional BP fastball. Hitting is not home run derby.
IP: What’s your advice to how do young coaches can develop their niche and break into such a crowded industry?
Every employer is looking for unique abilities. At this present moment in the sport, speaking Spanish is highly sought after; any resume that includes speaking Spanish will double or even triple in value. Even if your experience in baseball is minimal, you are still more than twice as likely to be considered for the job if you speak Spanish.
The ability to comprehend data is also incredibly appealing to professional organizations. Individuals who have a computer science background or who are able to use coding languages are going to be valued higher. Those qualities are useful across multiple industries, and professional baseball is no exception. Another one of those is to go learn from the best. If that means going to a prominent university, a private performance institute or a pro organization to be an unpaid intern, that’s going to carry more weight than you simply coaching for ten years at a place that has not been successful, even if you’re sleeping on a couch and eating ramen noodles for six months.
IP: Coaches have a tremendous amount of technology at their disposal today to help aid in their hitter’s performance. While this certainly has its multiple benefits, some coaches may be concerned that “information overload” may occur. Have you found a way to balance the tech with the ‘feel’ component?
I believe that players are a lot more flexible than we give them credit for when it comes to information and data retention. Players today are all about ‘numbers,’ consistently wanting to see their statistics, so I think they’re a lot more receptive to the data than we give them credit for. Sometimes we even cast the players as the ones who are refusing this modern technology and the data that encompasses it, but in reality, it is simply too much information for the coach to handle. Coaches must take a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are putting limitations on the players. While there is a time and a place to present the information, I do not believe there is a limitation on how much the players can learn, and how much information they can take in and retain if it presented properly.
IP: Biggest misconceptions you initially had about hitting? Has your philosophy shifted in recent years?
One of the benefits I experienced when I transitioned into hitting was the fact that I was such a blank slate. Even four years ago I could not have told you what my hitting philosophy was. While I began to garner a tremendous amount of information on hitting during my time with the Astros, it was not until I got to Driveline and began doing my own research on eye-tracking, learning about the visual system, the mechanisms of the brain and cognitive function during hitting that I really began to form my own personal hitting philosophy.
While I had something that I thought would work as a college player, we now have so many tools to objectively measure what’s going on with the body and brain, so what I used to think and ‘how I did it’ is irrelevant. That’s typically true of the majority of the belief systems that we have, they mold and change over the years. It was a huge benefit for me not to have to ‘unlearn’ anything.
IP: What’s one thing coaches can start doing, or stop doing, today?
If they aren’t already doing it, is educating the players by way of having ‘classroom sessions,’ either before or after practice. With the Yankees, we have classroom sessions every single day. Using whatever available time you can utilize during the day, even if it’s five minutes, is essential to begin providing your players educational opportunities, even from the youngest of ages.
I would also encourage coaches to talk less during practice and within the drill settings. We’ve have all been in a situation where we have said too much, instead of challenging ourselves to say as few words as possible and rely solely on the drill and the training environment to ‘do the talking.’ Examples could include forcing them to use a heavy bat, putting up a barrier to force their swing in a different direction, or setting up screens force them to hit to a target. This is referred to as a “Constraints-Led Approach,” which has been proved to be more valuable than words when it comes to coaching. Words are never as strong as the environment when it comes to making a physical change. In short, talk less, prepare more, and empower the athletes with education.
IP: Changes that need to be made at the youth level when it comes to ensuring quality player development?
Simply allowing and even encouraging the athlete to play more sports. In addition, I would encourage the athletes during middle school to begin getting into the habit of going to the weight room and understanding how it can improve performance. If the athlete begins creating this habit at a young age they will be more likely to maintain this habit as they get older. I understand it can be insanely difficult to play multiple sports if you are playing competitive baseball, but I do believe there enough well-respected individuals screaming at the top of their lungs to play different sports already. It helps you become a better athlete when you do eventually step back on the diamond.