Cedar Rapids Kernels hitting coach Tommy Watkins knows his way around a minor league field, having spent parts of 11 seasons as a player in the Minnesota Twins minor league system. Toward the end of the 2007 season, he got to live the dream of every player who ever put on a minor league uniform when he was called up to the Big Leagues by the Twins.
Since 2009, Watkins has been coaching in the Twins minor league organization and this season is his fourth as the hitting coach for the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League (the first three coming with the Twins’ then-affiliate, the Beloit Snappers).
Watkins recently sat down and talked about his role with the Kernels and more.
Jim Crikket: This is the first year in Cedar Rapids for you and the team after spending a few years in Beloit. How do you feel things are going here?
Tommy Watkins: Things are going great here. The people are amazing, just like the people in Beloit were pretty amazing. But things have jumped off here pretty well.
The facility is one of the best in the league, especially in our division. In the other division, you’ve got a lot of the newer parks, but we’ve got one of the best parks in our division and we get a lot of Twins fans, which is fun.
For me, the (batting) cage is right outside the clubhouse so if the guys want to get some extra work, we can go right out and get right to it. It’s been fun.
JC: Describe the work you do as the hitting coach. I’ve been told the organization puts a plan together for all the players in the minor leagues. How do you go about implementing that plan with the hitters?
Watkins: Everybody’s different. We have a hit plan that we stick to throughout the organization, but each guy is different with the drills they like to do or things they need to work on. So, like I said, we’ve got a hit plan over the whole minor leagues. Bill Springman (Twins Minor League Hitting Coordinator) put that together for everybody. And then we go through and we get individual hit plans for each guy.
JC: That sounds like a lot of work.
Watkins: It’s a lot of work, but I’m only dealing with twelve or thirteen guys at a time, so it’s not too bad.
JC: I understand the Twins have implemented some kind of “balance” program for the players in Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers. A program Jim Dwyer (the hitting coach for the Fort Myers Miracle, the next level up the Twins organizational chain) recommended. How’s that going?
Watkins: I think it’s good. The guys all take it pretty serious. I just think it’s training your brain. Just like we go out and take BP every day, they get on that balance board to train their brain. It helps with a lot of things, concentration being one of them I think, for me. I’ve even heard a couple guys talk about getting on it to help their golf game to focus and train your brain.
Jimmy (Dwyer), he got in to it big time last year. Just to see the guys do those exercises, he saw a change in their on-field stuff. It’s just like anything, you’ve got to train your body and you’ve got to use your brain to play and I think it helps you focus more.
We’ve even had guys in the dugout doing it during Batting Practice.
JC: I’ve heard that you sometimes serve as a translator for some of the guys from Latin America. I’d think it must be tough as a coach to communicate with players that don’t speak English. Are you bilingual?
Watkins: I like to call it Spanglish. It’s not really Spanish. It’s English mixed with Spanish. All of our guys speak (English) enough. The Twins do a good job of giving the guys classes during spring training and instructional league.
I went down to the Dominican and we had an English teacher down there. So, the Twins do a really good job of trying to help these guys learn English. I think it’s a big part of development and making it to the Big Leagues is learning how to speak the language.
The Twins gave me Rosetta Stone in Spanish. I’ll use it on the bus. It’s pretty good. But I think you learn a lot more by actually dealing with people and talking to people.
JC: During a game, fans can see you motioning to players in the field, moving them around some. Do you have particular in-game responsibilities?
Watkins: I think me and Jake (manager Jake Mauer), we work together on moving the defense around, depending on the batter, depending on the pitcher. We keep a book on what they (opponents) do, so it kind of helps us plan for how we play them defensively. That’s one of the things I do with defense.
When it’s late in a game, we’ll play a guy back in “no doubles,” I’ll let them know that. Or throwing the ball to the cutoff man or whatnot. Just those kind of details.
Hitting wise, I just try to watch their at-bats and see if I can help them out with anything. With approach or maybe a swing they took. A lot of times just trying to see what they were thinking and just get some feedback from them.
The guys are good to work with, all of them. We just talk a lot about approach. I ask them what they see and tell them what I see and try to fix whatever it may be.
JC: Do you get video of your hitters’ at-bats to review with them?
Watkins: We get video of a couple guys every night. Maybe we’ve got a lefty pitching (against us) and we’ll get all the right handed hitters that day. We’ll put it on the video and guys can go back there and take a look at it, analyze it. I have my iPad and sometimes I like to get video on that. They’ve got the video any time they need it. I think they also send it out within the organization so they can see it, too.
JC: You made it to the Major Leagues for a bit as a player with the Twins. Now you’re in your next career as a coach. Is it your goal to work your way back up to that level?
Watkins: I love the coaching part of it and coaching in the Big Leagues is a goal of mine. That’s what I want to shoot for, whether it be managing, coaching third base, first base, whatever it may be. I would love to have a chance to get up there and coach in the Big Leagues.
JC: Just as an observer, the guys seem to really like working with you. It’s got to be easier to coach a guy that you have some sort of rapport with.
Watkins: Yeah it is. We’ve got a bunch of good guys on the team and they get along with each other just as well as they get along with the staff.
JC: They see how you turned Byron Buxton from a nobody in to a prospect like that. It really gives you instant credibility, right? (question posed with a smile and tongue firmly in cheek)
Watkins: (Laughing) Yeah, yeah, right.
JC: That has to give your resume a pretty good shot. “I was Byron Buxton’s hitting coach.”
Watkins: I thank him. He might be able to help me out a lot!
No, but Buxton’s got tremendous talent, as everyone can see. You know, I just tried not to mess him up. When he left, I was like “alright, good.” I was joking with Jim, “hey, Dwyer, don’t mess him up.”
He was a fun guy to watch, man. Easy to coach. You’d suggest something to him, he’d listen and try to work on it. What was good about him was that he could apply it.
A couple times, he’d go 0 for 2 and he’d say, “what am I doing?” I’d say, “you’re alright, you’re OK.” Then the next two he’d hit right up the middle by the pitcher.
I just try to keep all the guys happy and just try to make them feel comfortable. I think that’s the biggest thing. Being comfortable, confident and just trusting in your ability.