Brenton Del Chiaro - 6/21/22
A Conversation with Brewers Hitting Coordinator Brenton Del Chiaro
Down on the Farm: can you talk about your background and how you got into coaching?
Del Chiaro: It’s an interesting story. I was playing in AAA in 2007, which was the last year that I played, and I had a unique opportunity to retire as a player and go to the big leagues to be a bullpen catcher. I was pretty much a backup my whole career so I saw this as probably the only opportunity I was going to get to make it to the big leagues. About a month and a half into the season I joined the big league club in Anaheim and became the bullpen catcher. After that season, I expressed my interest in getting into coaching. I was fortunate enough that were two hitting coach positions available in the Angels minor league system. I interviewed for it and in 2008 I became the hitting coach at our Rookie ball level in Orem, Utah. Unfortunately that league no longer exists, but that’s where I started. I played seven years of minor league baseball for the Angels and then coached nine seasons with the Angels. My last year being 2016. Then I spent the last six years with the Brewers, the first four years as the AZL Rookie hitting coach. I lived in Arizona, which provided me the opportunity to be at home with my son, who at the time was just one year old. I had done enough traveling, so at the time I wanted to stay at home and be a dad and a coach. I had that opportunity, which I'm super thankful for. Then I became the assistant hitting coordinator for two years and now I’m the hitting coordinator for the Brewers.
Down on the Farm: I think something most people don't understand is the role of the hitting coordinator, can you talk about the difference between a hitting coordinator and the role of the hitting coach at a specific affiliate?
Del Chiaro: A hitting coordinator is basically the head of the department, it's not a coaching position. The purpose of the role is to oversee our coaches to make sure our departmental initiatives are being implemented. Making sure the organizational initiatives are being implemented by our coaches and making sure that our coaches are making an impact on the players. Being a hitting coach, you're more in the trenches, you're the boots on the ground, you're the guy working with 13 players for 140 games and you're the one who's doing more of that nitty-gritty, daily, weekly monthly, work with our hitters and ensuring that what we’re asking them to do is being done and they're continuing to impact our players.
Down on the Farm: When you go to an affiliate what's the goal of your visit? What are you trying to accomplish?
Del Chiaro: My main goal, something that's always on my mind, is to not overstep. I look at it as being a guest and not a pest. Having been an affiliate hitting coach or manager for 14 seasons, the worst thing is when the coordinator would come in and upend everything or take over. Then after four days, just up and leave. My biggest goal when I go to an affiliate is just to be a neutral and supportive presence. Also, ask if there's anything I can do to help out or if there's any red flags that need to be addressed. Whether it's getting a player to buy-in to a certain move, a certain drill, or a certain concept, just to reinforce the coach and support the coach.
From an evaluation standpoint, I'm looking at relatability. How are the coaches relating to the players and how are the players relating to the coaches? Observing the environment, the culture that they’re creating on a daily basis. Do the players seem to enjoy coming to work everyday? It can be a daily grind, it's a mental and physical grind. At times, coming to work everyday can be exhausting. So the question is, are they creating a space for the player, no matter how they feel, so that they enjoy coming into work? Of course, are you implementing our departmental initiatives and goals? Are the players working on the right things? Do the players have a clear idea of what they need to work? Those are some of the main things that I’m focused on when I come into town.
Down on the Farm: You mentioned creating an environment that the players enjoy so that they feel like coming to work everyday is a positive experience, What's something that a hitting coach or a coordinator can do to promote an positive environment for the players?
Del Chiaro: Rule number one that we have, and this is not any kind of secret or confidential thing, we want the players to be themselves. We have found that when we create an environment where the player feels free to share their opinions, feels free to be creative, feels free to explore their own routines and their own movements, we've found that the buy-in when we ask them to do certain things becomes a lot easier. So instead of dictating what the practice plan is going to be or dictating what the player is going to do each day, we invite them to share their opinions. We invite them to be co-designers of their daily practice plan, but with them also understanding that there's certain parameters and guidelines we have to work within. We can't get completely off the rails, but asking them to be themselves and to be comfortable with who they are as a player -- we've found that collaborative discussions with the players has been critical. Why do you want to do this drill? Is it something that you just saw online or is there a specific reason behind it? When we have those discussions, players feel that they are partners in their own development. We've had a lot of buy-in and we've had some really cool and organic conversations that have come out of it at all levels. So that's the biggest thing — you don't want to take your normal routine and your 60 to 70 swing that day, you're a little tired? You're a little banged up? That's fine, just communicate with us so we know. That way the players don't feel like they have someone imposing their will on them. They are allowed to be themselves, it's a really cool and unique atmosphere that our coaches have created.
Down on the Farm: What's something that you do to identify a hitter strengths and weaknesses? How does this inform your approach?
Del Chiaro: We have conversations with the players, typically during spring training or when the group gets to the affiliate. One-on-one conversations, typically they start with -- what do you want to work on? What do you think you need to do? So we can hear what the player really wants. We stay in contact with our players in the offseason, but most players train at a private facility or at the school they attended in the past. Many work with coaches they've known for a long time. No matter how much guidance we provide, at the end of the day, they're going to work on the things they want to work on in the offseason. We want to hear what they’ve been working on in the offseason — so at the start of the year we offer some of our internal findings to them, and ask — Does this match with what you want to do? Do you understand why we want you to work on this? How can we blend what the player thinks is important with our plan? For the most part those conversations have been productive, very easy. The players says — oh I can do both? That's great. The player feels empowered, as opposed to us saying — this is what you're gonna do without any conversation. That's the approach where you see more pushback. Typically, it’s a co-designed plan, so that they're very involved in their development. We share our opinions, they share theirs, and we try to find a healthy blend.
Down on the Farm: Over the last few years we've seen a change in the talent and the stuff of pitchers, but also the way they attack hitters. How has this change affected the way hitting is taught and developed in the minor leagues?
Del Chiaro: That's a great question. I've seen some things, as far as pitching goes, that have been mind blowing the last few years. I grew up in that traditional baseball coaching world, where it was — establish the fastball, pitch off of the fastball. I went to Carolina (Mudcats), which is our low affiliate, and I was astonished to see how many breaking balls were thrown. Especially out of arms that were touching 94 to 96. They’ve got a 96 mph fastball and they’re only using it 30% of the time. So I think what we've done is we're adjusting with the trends. You obviously need to learn how to hit the fastball. You need to have fastball timing, but when a guy is predominantly breaking ball and hard stuff late, we need to be able to adapt. I think that's the thing that my staff has done well, adapt to the pitching.
How do we practice like the game? How do we set up a practice environment that will set up a player for success for what they'll see in the game? Whether that’s working on adjustability and timing. Changing the tempo of our feeds or the pitch types. Typically what we've done is, early work is oriented towards individual needs of the player and batting practice is oriented towards that starter for the night. If a guy has a low release point or is heavy on a certain pitch type, maybe we’ll focus more on that pitch type. That way they're prepared for what they're going to see on a nightly basis.
Down on the Farm: In recent years there’s been a trend in moving away from coach thrown batting practice to using high velocity pitching machines and machines that can mimic different pitch types. Can you talk about the difference between using machines versus traditional batting practice and how you use both of these approaches?
Del Chiaro: We've set up a really great training environment, where the traditional batting practice arm at 55 to 60 miles an hour has become more of a treat. It happens very rarely at most of our levels. A lot of our batting practice will be pitching machines at high velocity or different angles or we’ll use duel machines. We’ll also do what we call “dead arm” which is traditional coaches throwing batting practice with a slider machine. We try to tunnel it off the arm’s release point. You’re trying to match the pitcher profile. We’ll do those things to the point that when we do traditional batting practice, the players are asking — what's wrong? So we’ve shifted the perspective and our players now look at it like it’s the norm. It's obviously become more acceptable throughout baseball to train off of high velocity machines and to make training more game-like versus a feel good experience. Our hitting coaches, our staff, have tremendous feel for these moments. Sometimes if they feel like the team is beat up or they need an easier day, or just need to have some fun, they'll go to more traditional BP. For the most part, though, batting practice has become challenging and competitive and the players, to their credit, have been very receptive and open to it.
Down on the Farm: Does the approach for batting practice change depending on the level of the player?
Del Chiaro: Most of our batting practice is game prep. I think from the approach standpoint, our AAA team mirrors our big league team. We want to mirror that experience. They might not do as much on the field, but what most people don't see is the challenging practice that's going on in the cages behind the scenes. In AAA it's usually dual machines or some sort of velo machine. We're trying to mimic the big league level at AAA. We've done a really good job of redefining what success is off of a machine — if we're succeeding 80% to 90% of the time in batting practice the batting practice is too easy. We've had open discussions with our players about swinging and missing in batting practice on a challenging machine. If we're failing more than we're succeeding in those environments, then we’re prepared to compete in the game and in theory the game becomes easier than practice. If you're surprised to see something in the game, then we haven't done a good job preparing you to compete that night. Batting practice sessions shouldn’t just be feel good home run derby. Hitting off of a tee, a stationary baseball, that doesn't translate or transfer into the game. We’re trying to redefine what success is in the training environment.
Down on the Farm: You hear a lot about having a two-strike approach, are there other count specific approaches players should prepare for?
Del Chiaro: This is just my opinion, not the organizations opinion, but no. Our goal with is we want the hitter to swing the bat fast with the intent to do damage, regardless of the count. We know that in two-strike counts you may need to be more accurate with your barrel, but when you put the ball in-play we don't want to be manipulating the bat just to make weak or soft contact. We want you to have the intent to drive the baseball, it doesn't matter what count it is, you need to have the intent to do damage. Obviously with the two-strike count we need to be more accurate with the barrel and you need to be be able to put the ball in-play, but put the ball in-play aggressively and ideally put the ball in-play in the air.
Down on the Farm: Earlier, you mentioned swinging at strikes and finding a good pitch to hit, can plate discipline and swing decisions be taught or trained?
Del Chiaro: I think that's an ongoing discussion throughout baseball. We’re starting to see things like virtual reality come into play, things that are trying to simulate game reps. How can we get more game-like reps in order to mentally prepare for what they're going to see in the game? So I think it can trained to some degree. We utilize HitTrax quite a bit at some levels, where we can get the visual feedback immediately. Or even standing in a bullpen and tracking pitches using Trackman to provide you with feedback to confirm what you're seeing.
I think the more that we can get in live batting practice sessions, where a pitcher needs to throw a live batting practice versus just a regular bullpen and getting those game reps, that can reinforce it. Those are training methods to reinforce swing decisions. Looking in certain zones while using the HitTrax to get that immediate feedback. So I think it can be trained, I just don't think the training itself transfers as fast as people would want to see it. It’s just continuing to get the mental and visual representation of certain pitch types in certain zones is critical. It takes time.
Down on the Farm: Are there any concepts that you understood or thought were fundamental when you were playing that you've changed your mind about?
Del Chiaro: I think the explosion of technology, the focus on data analytics and sports psychology, has changed things quite a bit. I look back on when I was a very young coach and how internal I was with my coaching, it was all mechanical. All I had was a stopwatch and a video camera. There were no bat sensors, no HitTrax, no bio-mechanical breakdowns of the swing. It was a very internal thing for me and for my philosophy of coaching. We’ve shifted more to external cues versus internal cues, that's been the biggest adjustment that I've had to make as a coach, something that I've been open to and very excited to learn about. I was taught to hit low line drives to the back of the net through the cage. When you stand back and conceptualizing what that looks like on the field — that's a one hopper to the shortstop. It’s not anybody’s fault. We didn't know, and so shifting from internal cues and internal mechanical thought processes to more external thought processes and cues. Focusing more on how players learn the skill. How do they acquire the skill. That's been the biggest adjustment.
Down on the Farm: Can you think of someone you played with who would have benefited from some of the newer technologies and approaches to player development?
Del Chiaro: There's a handful of guys that I played with, Casey Kotchman is one who comes to mind. First round pick for us, talked about being a low line drive hitter. I think now we have a firm grasp of exit velocity and launch angle. I think the discussion of a launch angle swing is starting to cease and people are starting to understand that's just the result of how you hit the ball. A lot of the hitters I was drafted with, Dallas McPherson with the Angels, I played with with Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli. We used to talk about how Mike Napoli had incredible opposite field power, but looking back at his batted-ball profile, Mike Napoli was successful because he drove the ball in the air. If we understood a little bit more the metrics and had the data, all the players would have benefited from knowing more. I was never a great hitter, and I’m not sure if I would've been a better hitter or not, but I think the approach to understanding that getting the ball in the air and hitting the ball hard and squaring it up is going to provide more value than hitting the ball on the ground, I think a lot of guys would benefitted from knowing more.
Down on the Farm: Let’s transition to some Brewers specific questions. Joey Wiemer is hitting to .276 with a .350 on base percentage, and slugging .535 so far this year, he's pretty much hit everywhere he's gone, what continues to make him successful?
Del Chiaro: His belief in himself. His aggressiveness. I talked earlier about the fact that we let players be themselves and Joey has embraced that, and really appreciated that we haven't tried to adjust his swing, haven't tried to tweak anything. We've let him be himself. Obviously within the guidelines of what we need him to do, but Joey's belief and intent when he swings the bat is incredible. His ability to adjust and adapt to certain pitch types is incredible. I'm not gonna compare him to anyone else, but when you watch how he can hit the brakes and his energy transfers into the swing —at some point he stops, and energy transfers up through the swing so that when he hits the brakes, it's incredible to watch the chain reaction of his swing transform. He also, for the most part, swings at strike. Is he going to chase a little bit, yeah, but for the most part he swings at strikes. The other thing that people don't realize is how smart he is as a hitter. He's not going up there just taking those aggressive swings blindly, he has a plan. I've witnessed him verbalize it, I've witnessed him execute it. That's the thing that people can't see — his execution of the game plan is incredible and he's very diligent about that and that's something that's led to his success everywhere he's gone.
Down on the Farm: Garrett Mitchell, who the Brewers took in the first round of the 2020 draft, is repeating AA this year. What sort of adjustments is he trying to make this season?
Del Chiaro: It's continuing to be healthy and available. That’s probably the biggest thing for him. Continuing to adjust to professional baseball and then continuing to understand we need him, with his skill set, to continue driving the ball in the air. Beating the ball into the ground is not conducive to having success. Even though he is a plus runner, he needs to continue utilizing his skill set and expand upon that versus being comfortable with just who he is as a hitter right now. That's something that he worked very hard on in the off-season. Unfortunately, he's a little banged up right now and has missed some time, but he continues to hit the ball harder than he has before his injury. The ball was on the ground a little bit more than we would've liked, but the things that I saw from him was understanding the pitches that he can handle in the strike zone, what pitches to attack. Having open discussions about the way he attacks certain pitches or certain pitchers and how they attack him. Getting him to understand more of that in-game chess match and be able to adjust from a at-bat to at-bat.
Down on the Farm: Jackson Chourio, an 18-year-old outfielder from Venezuela, has gotten off to an amazing start this year. I'm wondering, when you watch him what catches your eye?
Del Chiaro: Strike zone discipline at such a young age. Watching him control the zone, for the most part. I mean, obviously he’s 18, so we’re going to see some bumps in the road, but for the most part he stays in the strike zone. Just the damage he does on all pitch types, whether it's up in the strike zone or down in the strike zone. In or off the plate. He just has incredible plate coverage and the ability to get the barrel to the baseball for being that young. He had another triple the other night and it was off the top of the wall. I'll be honest, the walls in the Carolina League are much higher than anywhere else, he could easily have 12 or 13 home runs right now. The amount of balls I've seen him hit off the top of the walls, which would have been home runs in any other ballpark, is incredible. His ability at a young age to stay in the strike zone and get the barrel to the baseball. It’s been fun to watch.
Down on the Farm: Sal Frelick, who was the Brewers first round pick last year, started the year in High-A but was recently promoted to AA. What do you think the biggest challenge will be for him as he progresses to higher levels?
Del Chiaro: Look at Sal and the things that he's doing well. He hits the ball hard and he continues to tap into his power potential and understand what he can do as a hitter from a damage profile. Sal is a guy who has an aggressive approach and who has an aggressive mindset. It’s continuing to get him to believe in that. I actually had a previous conversation with him where he was mentally struggling with the idea that he needed to walk more. When younger players who are new to professional baseball start thinking that, it starts to lead to more of a passive approach. I told Sal my perspective on it is, take the walks when the opportunity presents itself. 3-1 or a non-competitive pitch off the plate, take your walk. But for the most part, I want you to be aggressive in the strike zone. He needs to continue to learn the pitches that he can handle and where his damage comes and hunt those areas of the zone. That will be the next step. He’s hitting the ball harder than he did last year, he's making more contact than he did last year. So it's understanding how to refine what you do well. Start looking in those areas instead of trying to cover all areas of the strike zone and use your aggressiveness in that area. I think once you start to understand that and realize that, you're going to see a lot more power and a lot more damage from him in games.
Down on the Farm: What player in the Brewers organization has made the most progress as a hitter?
Del Chiaro: Oh man, that's a really good question. We've seen Tristen Lutz make a lot of progress this year. I’ve really enjoyed watching him develop. I think he’s starting to come into his own and understand who he is as a hitter. Obviously Jackson Chourio burst onto the scene. There's a guy that's kind of snuck up on people. Tristan Peters. That's a guy that's probably under the radar for a lot of people. I've been very pleased with his ability fly under the radar and have the year that he's having.