Cubs role a chance for Folden to break barriers

November 25th, 2019

CHICAGO -- Rachel Folden learned how to swing a baseball bat first. As a kid in California, she played Little League with the boys and the sport became her world. When she got older and moved into softball, she felt the pressure to leave her first love behind.

Folden was told -- like many girls -- that baseball and softball do not overlap.

"It always used to irritate me when I would go to some field or a softball practice," Folden said, "and everyone would tell me that, 'Oh no, that's a baseball swing. You've got to swing like a softball player.'"

Earlier this month, Folden met with Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and other high-ranking parties within the team's front office. The interview alone was evidence that the idea that baseball and softball are to be kept separate conceptually is outdated. A swing is a swing, and the Cubs feel Folden can help develop hitters.

It turned out that Folden did not have to leave her first love behind. While she has made a career out of both playing and coaching softball, Folden has also done consulting in the baseball world over the years, too. She understands the science behind a swing, evolving as an instructor as more technology and data has impacted the industry.

Still, as Folden met with Epstein and Hoyer, she wanted to be sure the Cubs were not just doing this for the optics. They wanted to hire her for a hitting lab and coaching role on the Minor League side, but Folden needed to hear that this was all about her credentials and nothing more.

"I did ask that question, actually," Folden said. "I asked, 'How committed is the organization?' I didn't want to be a canary, right? I didn't want to be this check upon a diversity-hire box. I didn't want to be that. Very, very early on through the interview process, that question was squashed immediately.

"It was, 'We need to get better. We believe you can help us get better. And that's the end of that conversation.' And that was exactly what I needed to hear."

On Friday, the Cubs announced the hiring of Folden as a lead hitting lab tech and fourth coach for Rookie League Mesa. On the same day, The New York Times reported that the Yankees have hired Rachel Balkovec -- also with a background in softball -- as a roving Minor League hitting coach. Folden said maybe all that old talk about softball swings being different than baseball swings can stop now.

"Physics are physics," she said with a laugh. "You can't argue with data and you can't argue with science. I think, hopefully, with these two hires, we can put that argument to rest."

The Cubs will have Folden take part in a coaching course -- along with a group of new hires -- in early December before having her attend the Winter Meetings in San Diego. After that, Folden will head out to Arizona to get to work, beginning with the team's winter instructional league and then into Spring Training. That is where Folden will settle into her role in the Cubs' hitting lab.

Justin Stone, the Cubs' new director of hitting, made Folden his first hire after getting to know her over the past few years through his work at Elite Baseball Training. Beyond the lab work, Folden will serve as an on-field hitting coach for the Arizona League teams during the year, while also visiting other affiliates throughout the year with Stone.

"It'll just get an outside lens on the entire organization," Stone explained, "and she'll help me with testing, writing reports, almost be an assistant coordinator type when she's roving with me during those times."

Following her collegiate career at Marshall, Folden starred in the National Pro Fastpitch League from 2008-12 (her .584 career slugging percentage ranks fifth all-time). She moved into coaching as an assistant at Valparaiso University from '09-10 and then founded Folden Fastpitch in '10. There, she has specialized in data-driven baseball and softball instruction.

A little over two years ago, though, Folden felt she was failing as a coach. She was not seeing the progress she hoped for in her athletes and went to work on finding the issue. Folden said she ultimately had to take a hard look in the mirror, realize some traditional training methods were not working and decided to seek out other experts in her field for ideas.

"That was everything," Folden said. "That was a big moment. My go-to was always just to put my head down and do it myself. And the moment I started reaching out and asking for help, and asking for peoples' opinions and talking with people, just more of a collaborative feel, the moment I started to do that is when my entire world changed."

It was around two years ago when Folden met with Stone and Travis Kerber -- an instructor at Elite Baseball Training -- over breakfast. Stone was interested in having Elite move into softball instruction, too. Folden expressed that she was also interested in helping on the baseball side of things. The immediate acceptance of that idea forged a friendship and partnership.

That was also the moment when Folden felt working in professional baseball was no longer a pipe dream. It was a realistic goal.

"It was like, 'This is actually a possibility,'" Folden said. "I've always been intrigued by that idea of working in baseball. I joke with everybody that baseball was my first love and softball was my second."

Even before the Cubs hired Stone to oversee the hitting side of their farm system, he had Folden in mind for a job no matter which team hired him.

"This was important to me," Stone said. "When I was talking about her with other people, I was like, 'Not only do I think she's going to excel in this job, she very well could be a coordinator somewhere in a couple years.' So I have an extreme amount of confidence in what she's going to bring."

That confidence helped lead to Folden's chance to meet with Epstein and Hoyer, and to continue breaking down barriers for women in baseball.

"It's not lost on me how important this is as an opportunity," Folden said. "That part is important to me, and I'm not going to take that lightly."