Yankees Magazine: Bard's Tale

Leaning on his experience in a wide variety of roles, bench coach Josh Bard has been a key contributor to the Yankees’ recent success

October 16th, 2019
New York Yankees

Josh Bard has two objectives when he goes to work each day. The first is to support his manager. The second, which reinforces the first, is to take as much off his manager’s plate as possible. That’s the role of the bench coach, he says determinedly, and it’s especially true of the Yankees’ bench coach.

Bard’s outlook becomes evident in a variety of ways. Consider the subtly defensive language he uses to explain manager Aaron Boone’s all-consuming game-day schedule. “People have no idea,” he says, quickly detailing the skipper’s duties -- meetings with the front office, press conferences, discussions with trainers, lineup and roster decisions. “He’s only got so much time in the day.”

Or Bard’s informal job breakdown, in which the coach estimates that actual strategy accounts for only about 10 percent of his responsibilities. The rest is communicating with players and briefing Boone, synthesizing hours of preparation and game plans, taking care of the little things so his manager can focus on the big picture. His constant support even seeps into casual conversation. When he answers personal questions, Bard has an almost subconscious tendency to pivot away from an initial talking point and revert to his comfort zone: detailing and extolling Boone’s work. Ask him about the challenges of learning to scout when he worked for the Dodgers, and Bard will somehow reference Boone’s communication with his players. Ask Bard about his own interpersonal skills and, pretty soon, Bard is asserting that Boone is one of the three best managers in the league.

This is symptomatic of Bard’s racing, numerically driven mind. He’ll begin an answer, then start thinking of follow-up questions and change course. Curious about how the bullpen is being deployed this season? Well, Bard sees your question, begins a defense, then raises a tangent perspective. He pivots to the 1978 world champion Yankees, notes how many runs they scored that year (735), then counters with the Yankees’ 2018 run total (851). “You’ll get people commenting, ‘You strike out too much, you’re looking to walk, you’re looking to slug,’” Bard says. “At the end of the day, we played the same amount of games, and we’re scoring more runs. ... If your starters tend to go shorter, you prevent more runs.”

In other words, Bard is ready for your arguments, your theories, your concerns. This is the state of mind necessary to be a bench coach -- persistently questioning and anticipating, calculating multiple steps ahead. As Bard told FanGraphs last year, “I’m always looking at the game through a different lens than most. I’m hungry to learn. … I love trying to get better every day. That’s what fires me up.”

At the end of his second season as Yankees bench coach, Bard’s passion and intellect have made a sizable impact on the organization. Since Boone hired him, the 41-year-old former catcher has implemented unique analytical processes, been a positive life force in the clubhouse, and has undoubtedly become a devout champion of his manager, blending computed decisions and baseball instinct. “Typically, the great coach is somebody who is a grinder, trying to find those little cracks and those little advantages,” Bard says. It’s particularly true today.

Within the last decade, the bench coach has increasingly become a manager’s hip-companion, an analytics guru, a strategist and a player’s hype-man, multipurpose roles that Bard has spent years cultivating. From his time as a catcher to assisting the front office to managing bullpens, Bard has quickly and perceptively acquired a wealth of perspective and knowledge at various levels of a baseball operation. He’s the little-known, supportive resource that has helped fuel another memorable Yankees season.

“He’s worn a lot of hats for being a young man,” Boone says. “I think he’s got a really good, global, vast knowledge of all the inner workings of an organization. That’s invaluable to me.”


In 1975, Yankees manager Billy Martin added Yogi Berra to his coaching staff because he thought the former catcher could “communicate very well with the players.” Although bench coach might not yet have been part of the vernacular, Berra was effectively the era’s equivalent. “Yogi is going to be like my bumper with the players, with everybody,” Martin told The New York Times.

Not until the 1990s did the bench coach become standard issue in Major League dugouts. The role gained further recognition in the midst of the Yankees’ most recent dynasty, when manager Joe Torre brought in trusted companion Don Zimmer, whom Torre credited for pushing him to be more aggressive. As the game has progressed, the bench coach’s role has continued to expand, the manager has delegated more, and dugout strategy has become a joint effort. “I look at it as being very loyal,” says Lee Mazzilli, who served as Yankees bench coach for Torre in 2006. “The manager knows that he can count on you in good times and bad times -- that you’re there for him and believe in his philosophy.”

Following a two-year stint as Orioles manager, Mazzilli entered the role with a clear understanding of a manager’s daily workload and focus during games, and adjusted accordingly to his new position. “You really want to be the eyes and ears for your manager,” he says. If Torre was planning to use a pinch-hitter or considering a bullpen move for the next inning, Mazzilli was looking further ahead, projecting the opposing team’s counter moves or the infield’s depth, and presenting his suggestions. “You should never feel offended if he doesn’t want to use them or doesn’t agree with them. That’s how a good relationship works.”

Thirteen years later, Bard and Boone represent the changing, youthful complexion of baseball leadership. They’ve found their own chemistry and process -- blending baseball intuition with quantifiable player charts -- built around their communicative and evolving relationship with the front office. “When they acquire a player, they want us to put him in the best possible situation to succeed,” Bard says. “It’s about having those conversations.”

While Mazzilli’s game preparation included statistical information and reports from advance scouts, he notes the advantage -- and arguably the complexity -- that bench coaches have today when it comes to advanced metrics and video technology. Still, he says, the goal is about translating the data as effectively as possible. “Everyone has the same numbers; it’s how you implement those numbers into the game,” Mazzilli says.

Bard shares the same philosophy. The information might be different, and more plentiful, but it means nothing if it can’t be communicated. Evaluate each team’s analytics department, he says, and there might be a 5–10 percent variance in the information teams have accumulated. “The team that is 20 games back has great information,” Bard says. “The information difference is not that big -- it’s the implementation of the information.”

Bard and Boone have 22 combined years of service time as big league players, giving them a strong grasp of what’s important to share with hitters and pitchers. Their guiding principle: “If we were players, would we have wanted to know this?” Once the game begins, Boone can then lean on Bard for suggestions, for support in the dugout and for the necessary player conversations that instill confidence and better execution.

“When you’re down in the dugout, the game moves very fast,” Mazzilli says. “If you’re prepared, then you have a leg up. If you’re not prepared, it’s going to go right by you.”


New York Yankees

Stephen Fife couldn’t find his command. The two-seam fastball that had gotten him to Triple-A Albuquerque wasn’t sinking, and opposing hitters had taken advantage. In four starts to begin the 2012 season, the Dodgers’ farmhand had allowed 13 walks and 18 earned runs in just 161⁄3 innings. Nothing seemed to be working. Soon, Josh Bard called him out -- or, as Fife puts it, “He sat me down and lit me up.”

“You’re on the 40-man roster, but if you keep this up you’re going to be the first guy cut,” Bard told Fife during their next bullpen session in New Orleans. By this point, Bard’s playing career was nearing the finish line. The backup catcher was really a Sherpa, guiding his teammates toward baseball’s summit. Bard provided a blunt assessment -- he could afford to be honest -- and picked apart Fife’s mechanics and grips. “It was the closest I’ve ever come to crying on a professional baseball field,” remembers Fife, who was already regretting his start to the year. “He wasn’t cussing or swearing or berating me, but he said, ‘What you’re doing is not good enough,’ plain and simple.”

Bard’s tone quickly turned supportive. He suggested Fife switch back to a four-seam fastball and preached keeping the ball low in the zone, offering him a variety of suggestions to attack the problem. “We talked about sequencing, how to get the ball down, and different ways to do it,” Fife says. Their bullpen session now had purpose, and he quickly gained Bard’s trust. Fife’s four-seamers began to cut and move in ways his two-seamers hadn’t. A few nights later, Fife had his sharpest outing of the year, spinning six scoreless innings, surrendering two hits and two walks. Two months later, the Dodgers promoted Fife to the big leagues, where he stayed parts of three years. Fife doesn’t mince words: Bard altered the course of his career. “His support was honesty up front, and then he was behind me the whole rest of the year,” Fife says. “He really was.”

Bard’s personality and approach haven’t changed with the Yankees. He supports and encourages both his manager and players -- but doesn’t sugarcoat things. “I think I’m definitely an acquired taste because I don’t really have a filter,” Bard says. “But I know this: Unequivocally, when I talk to a player or an office person, I’m always trying to take the attitude of, ‘What can I do to make that person better?’”

This is not a quick-fix mentality. Bard has seen the negative consequences of selfish coaches who put their egos ahead of real solutions in the dugout. “You can kind of smell out when a coach wants to get something from you, or when he wants to really help you,” he says. That means having difficult conversations with players and putting honesty ahead of hurt feelings in order to build equity with them. It’s something Boone has handled well, Bard believes, and why the team has bought into his leadership. “Guys start to see that this guy’s not full of crap,” Bard says. “Like, ‘He really, really wants to help me’ -- and then the trust follows.”

Aaron Judge, like many of his teammates, has benefited from Bard’s presence in 2019. “Especially in a long season, where there’s a lot of ups and downs, and you’re failing for most of it,” Judge says, “he just brings that positive aspect.” Left-hander J.A. Happ, who spends the majority of games watching from the dugout, is a close witness. “He has a lot of quick little conversations with guys, and sometimes that’s needed. We’re all human.”

Fife has another, similar anecdote, this time about accountability. In the midst of Dodgers Spring Training, and then later in Albuquerque, he recalls Bard’s “extreme” attention to detail -- even during warm-ups. “It’s not OK to miss my glove when we’re playing catch,” Fife remembers Bard saying. “It’s not OK to just hit me in the torso.” Bard, of course, was making a bigger point. Plenty of pitchers can impress in the Minor Leagues and then crumble on the biggest stage. Professional hitters don’t swing through thigh-high fastballs like Double-A prospects do. “It’s just taking that extreme ownership,” Fife says. “Being able to say, ‘That wasn’t good enough,’ and trying to make the appropriate adjustment.”


Throughout that 2012 season, his last as a player, Bard never received a call-up. He struggled with a bad hip and primarily mentored prospect Tim Federowicz, the next catcher in line to earn a promotion. “I think Josh knew the writing was on the wall,” Fife says. “He started doing a little bit more of the managing stuff. His body was ready to be done squatting down for nine innings a game. His hips and his back -- it was ugly at times -- but he’s a strong-willed man.” Bard officially retired in September once the season was finished, but the year in Triple-A had provided him the opportunity to explore coaching -- manager Lorenzo Bundy had let Bard take over his duties during the final game of the regular season -- and think more about his future in baseball.

Two weeks later, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti invited Bard to his office and asked how he’d like to spend life after playing. Colletti had noticed Bard throughout the year as the catcher offered advice, tinkered with younger players such as Fife and found success. Bard was interested in all of it -- he wanted to be on the field, wanted to scout, wanted to sit in front office meetings, wanted to know what happens at the winter meetings. Colletti ultimately made him a special advisor to the front office, allowing Bard the freedom to roam.

Bard spent 2013 in a player development role, sometimes wearing a uniform and reporting to the front office, which was quickly growing into a forward-thinking juggernaut. “Some of those roles where guys play golf and kiss babies and shake hands, there’s nothing wrong with that, but that wasn’t what I was,” Bard says. A year later, Colletti proposed something new. If Bard was serious about working behind the scenes, he needed to start scouting, filing player reports and building a new vocabulary. “There were a lot of days in Huntsville, Alabama, on a Tuesday where you’re going, ‘What am I doing right here?’” Bard says. “I talked to a lot of guys in the game that I really trusted, and they said you really should write 1,000 reports -- that’s how you get good at it.”

By the end of 2015, Bard had earned a strong reputation within the organization. The Dodgers appreciated his preparation, dating back to his playing days, and during the postseason asked him to take a break from scouting Minor Leaguers and analyze the big league team’s pitcher usage, in-game scenarios and other ground-level processes. “It really recharged me,” says Bard, who missed directly impacting the next game. “That’s a fun feeling.” That offseason, the Dodgers named Bard bullpen coach, allowing him to work more closely with manager Dave Roberts, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and the catchers, implementing game plans and melding his front office perspective. “I was really fortunate to be with (Dodgers president of baseball operations) Andrew Friedman and learn the analytical side of it,” Bard says. “With the experience of a player and the analytical part, all of those things go into my head.”

When Boone hired Bard to be the Yankees bench coach following the 2017 season, many assumed the decision stemmed from their brief time as teammates with the Indians in 2005. That familiarity helped, sure, but Boone, a TV and radio analyst for eight years, had noticed the advanced metrics departments the Dodgers had implemented within their organization. He knew it was similar to what general manager Brian Cashman and assistant general manager Michael Fishman had been building in New York. “I think that he wanted to use my experience as far as connecting the front office and analytics with our process,” Bard says.

That was apparent from the first interview, says Fishman, who notes that Bard didn’t waste any time adjusting to his new team. Starting in January, the bench coach spent a lot of time in the New York offices designing new reports to provide to the players and talking through processes of how the Boone-led Yankees wanted to do things. Bard’s immediate contribution manifested in catcher wristbands, filled with pitcher and opposing hitter data, which he and the Yankees’ quantitative analysts spent weeks designing and refining. Effectively, Fishman says, the goal is to take their computer-generated heat map imagery -- overlays of pitcher strengths and hitter weaknesses -- and condense it into an armband for in-game usage.

Bard, who works primarily on run prevention, offers an example of his innovation: If Pitcher X’s strength is throwing the ball at the top of the zone and Hitter Y is bad at hitting the top of the zone, “We want to overlay those things,” he says. Bard clarifies that he and pitching coach Larry Rothschild will never ask a pitcher to move away from his strengths -- if an opposing hitter provides a poor matchup, they’ll just go to the bullpen and regain the advantage. “As much as we can simplify the information, and then input it in a way with reference materials that catchers and pitchers can look at and have their cheat sheet, it’s going to be a benefit,” Fishman says.

The front office heat map simulations also give Bard an easier time distilling information for players, some of whom can spend hours watching video without many takeaways. “There’s a time when you have to build that trust in a player to go, ‘Dude, I know that you feel better watching seven hours of video, but you can hit a button and get a lot more information,’” Bard says.

So far, it has been effective. Catcher , still adjusting to Bard’s methods, likes the process and gives credit to Bard and the front office for implementing a consistent delivery system for the information he needs. “It was introduced last year a little bit, and Gary [Sánchez] and I wore it all this year,” Romine says. “It’s given across in a way that’s easily read in the game, and it’s easy to apply.”

Not everyone processes information the same way, though, and this is where Bard’s playing experience kicks in. He and the coaching staff asked director of mental conditioning Chad Bohling to conduct tests on players to determine if they were visual, auditory or kinetic learners. “As coaches, we didn’t want to get frustrated,” Bard says. “We have two different wristbands -- one for Gary and one for [Romine] -- because they see and learn differently.” Bard and Fishman communicate consistently throughout the season, exchanging notes on specific scenarios that come up during games. Once the foundation and preparation are complete, all that’s left is execution. “You can have the best plan with the best players, and sometimes you don’t execute,” Bard says. “But we can live with execution issues because they’re human beings, they’re not robots.”


Bard knows it’s easy to compartmentalize his role, to call him “the numbers guy.” The Yankees have, understandably, prided themselves in developing a substantial analytics department, and they see Bard as a helpful part of implementing that information on the field. “Analytics are about quantifiable things and accountability,” Bard says. “How do you win in the margins?”

But as someone who would like to be a manager someday -- and yes, Bard is open about his desire to take the reins somewhere, eventually -- he has made sure that his strictly analytical characterization remains just a perception. “The relationships are the separator,” he says. “You can’t be completely analytical, you can’t be completely relational. It has to be a blend.”

As a consequence of Boone’s strong relationship with players (i.e., getting ejected for arguing with umpires on their behalf), Bard had a few opportunities this season to take over the club. That included managing a full game to start a July series with Colorado after Boone was suspended one game for defending his team’s displeasure with the strike zone. For what it’s worth, the Yankees won, and Bard admits the game has slowed down from his perch behind the dugout netting.

True to form, though, Bard says the victory is worth little, and gives himself minuscule credit for stepping in as lead decision-maker. “Nothing really changes because we try to put so much into our prep work,” Bard says. “My kids always ask me, ‘Do you get nervous?’ I’m like, ‘I get nervous when I’m unprepared. When I’m prepared, I’m not nervous.’ The prep stuff and the process stuff, it’s not sexy, it’s kind of boring and it’s not super public, but it served me well as a player, and I feel like it serves me well as a coach.”

Asking Bard about his future goals is just stealing more chances for the bench coach to praise and support his manager anyhow. “I want to stand up and shout about how well Aaron has done,” he says, citing the injuries the Yankees have endured this year and Boone’s calm demeanor in response to them. “It’s kudos to him where he has built a culture here where people don’t miss a beat. It’s like, ‘This is what we do.’ It’s not, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy got hurt, the season’s over.’”

After two full seasons in New York, their process has primed the Yankees for another postseason run, one likely filled with unique pitching permutations and lineup scenarios. Inevitably, Bard has already distinguished which numbers and goals take precedent: “We’re more concerned about winning 11 games,” he says, “than we are about winning 100 games.”