Inside Pitch Magazine, November/December 2023

The Hot Corner: Freddy Hilliard Jr.

Upholding Standards

By Barrett Snyder

Freddy Hilliard Jr. in the outfield Freddy Hilliard Jr. is currently the head coach of Malvern Preparatory School in Malvern, Pennsylvania. During his 13-year tenure, the Friars have amassed a 362-85 (.810) record that includes 10 conference titles, seven state championships, and three state-runner ups. His team has been recognized with a national ranking in the top 50 eight times—a Pennsylvania state record. Ten of Hilliard’s players have gone on to be drafted into professional baseball and over 80 have gone on to play collegiate baseball, 50 of whom played Division I.

Inside Pitch: Other than the five “tools,” what are the factors that separate good from great players in your program? 

Freddy Hilliard Jr.: The “great” players don’t see themselves as great; they see themselves as unfinished products with a constant pursuit to continue getting better. We’ve seen a consistent influx of young, highly skilled players join our program, but those who truly shine are typically the ones with a mindset that acknowledges they haven’t reached their desired level of excellence just yet. The truly great ones want to be pushed, developed, challenged, and not only expect to fail, but see failure as the ultimate opportunity for growth. They refuse to be influenced by external distractions and avoid becoming complacent, and they consistently explore various avenues to gain a competitive advantage, consistently striving for improvement in their physical, mental, and athletic aspects.

IP: Despite Malvern always having been a run-scoring machine, your program is actually more well-known for its baserunning and base stealing. Why is that? 

FH: Due to our challenging schedule and the elite pitchers we face, it is not realistic to “slug” your way to a victory every game. Therefore, we have to find ways to manufacture runs. We emphasize the significance of baserunning just as much as pitching, hitting, and defense, ensuring that our players fully embrace this mindset. Baserunning is a daily staple in our practice plans, and it must be if you want your players to understand how pivotal it is and if you want to make it another weapon in your arsenal. We’ve even established a dedicated baserunning coordinator, my assistant Alex Melconian, to further emphasize its importance, and all of our coaches are well versed in our philosophies and techniques used.

I give a lot of credit to former collegiate coach and current New York Yankees baserunning coordinator Matt Talarico. I made a concerted effort to incorporate his system into our practices and game strategies at Malvern, and we saw immediate results, breaking the school record for stolen bases in three consecutive seasons. Besides the valuable guidance from Coach Talarico, I believe that the key to a successful baserunning team lies in eliminating the fear of running and granting your players autonomy throughout the process. As a coach, this entails letting go of control and having faith in your players, trusting that you’ve adequately prepared them. I rarely give our players the steal sign, but we give them all green lights, and they are free to run at will, rather than being forced to.  
IP: What are some drills or ideas you can share when it comes to developing infielders? 

FH: I believe a distinguishing factor between exceptional infielders and others is their deep passion for the craft. Great hitters love to hit, and great fielders truly relish the art of fielding. I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of talented infielders come through our program, but I’m even more blessed that they love to put in the necessary time to improve their defense through drill work and ground balls.

Exposing players to a wide range of ground ball variations equips them better for success. Consequently, we employ hitting drills and machines to provide our players with diverse ground balls, encompassing varying speeds, spins, and angles. 

And while physical tools are important, the best infielders have outstanding footwork, instincts, and vision. A fielder becomes a great fielder because they get themselves in the optimal position to field the ball efficiently and get the right hop. Mastering the ability to gauge the speed, spin and depth of a ball as it comes off the bat is crucial for an infielder’s success. 

IP: How do you develop that piece? 

FH: I consistently stress the significance of developing an internal sense of timing and understanding precisely how much time is available to deliver the ball to first base once it’s hit. Simply put: use a stopwatch! You’re not always going to have time to shuffle and make a throw from your most comfortable arm slot, and the pressure of that stopwatch forces infielders to adapt, be athletes and find whatever means necessary to improvise and make a play.

IP: How have you evolved as a coach since you first took over at Malvern? 

FH: I genuinely believe that players are less focused on your knowledge and more concerned about the depth of your care and commitment. Cultivating relationships is now the most important component of coaching to me. I try to be genuine with them, be myself, and refrain from acting how a coach “is supposed to act.” I want my players to truly know me and see me as a person and not the guy who controls the lineup card. Early on in my coaching career, I struggled to comprehend that these kids have other things on their plate. They’re never going to be thinking about baseball every hour of every day like we do. Once I learned to embrace this reality, I began to develop better relationships. 

I have also gotten away from “sugarcoating,” which I initially thought I needed to use as a protective mechanism. However, kids are more resilient than we may think, and while they may not like hearing what you have to say, they will recognize honesty, and have more respect for you in the long run.

Early in my career, I insisted on having my fingerprints on every component of our program. I’ve learned this is not the best approach, and I eventually started giving my staff greater autonomy and control over certain aspects of the program. Keep in mind, this is all a work in progress. I am by no means perfect, and I still seek to improve my communication skills and remain fully transparent with my players. 

IP: What have you found to be the most efficient method to deal with parents? 

FH: I pride myself on leading with empathy and reminding myself that parents really just care for and love their children, as they should, and want the very best for them. I explain to them that I am a parent as well, I sympathize with where they are coming from, but I also reiterate that it is my responsibility to do what’s best for the team. Being up-front with parents about our standards before the season even begins has proven to be an efficient strategy for me over the years. 

I know some coaches attempt to insulate themselves from having conversations with parents about playing time or their child’s experience and I don’t agree with that. I understand that while we communicate a lot with our players, they’re still teenagers and getting them to relay our conversations at home is easier said than done. I’m always available to meet with parents to address any concerns or questions they may have, provided my player/their son is also present.

IP: Are there any strategies over the years you have employed to ensure your players understand the significance of accountability both on and off the field? 

FH: Accountability has remained a pillar of our program. We don’t enforce “rules,” we uphold standards. I firmly believe that standards are more comprehensive than rules and compel players to take greater accountability for their actions. Every year prior to the start of the season, we have team meetings where we review our core values, how they are to be demonstrated, and the consequences that will ensue should they be violated. 

IP: How have your players made you a better coach? 

FH: These kids teach me something every day. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to serve as a coach at an institution like Malvern Prep. My players serve as a powerful reminder of the deep care they have for one another, and while I’d love to claim full credit for this, our baseball program is merely a reflection of a broader ethos. It originates at home, in the classroom, on campus, and eventually extends to the diamond, where I strive to uphold and reinforce these values and principles. My time here rekindled my understanding of what “support,” “selflessness,” and “brotherhood” genuinely mean. It’s inspiring to witness the kind of individuals they are, especially at such a young age and it motivates me to strive to be the best person, mentor, and role model I can possibly be. 
Barrett Snyder, CSCS, holds a M.S. in Sports Management and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Drexel University. He is currently enrolled at West Chester University studying Exercise Science with a concentration in Sports Psychology.

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