Yankees Magazine: The Watchman

Marcus Thames is finally coaching in the Big Leagues, and he can't look away

May 4th, 2016
A baseball lifer and prolific observer, Marcus Thames has spent years storing away knowledge of the game -- and his Yankees hitters -- to call upon whenever he needs to lend a helping hand. (New York Yankees)NEW YORK YANKEES

It's April 5, Opening Day -- take two -- at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and the temperature reads 32, but the air feels more like 21. Thousands of people will pack the Stadium on this day, and even more will watch on TV. Most, no doubt, will be feeling anxious anticipation about the season ahead.

Some fans arrive early, bundled up, drinking in the Stadium's Opening Day energy (perhaps also drinking a hot chocolate to fight the chill in the air).

Manager Joe Girardi is there, too, smiling, standing behind the cage, taking in the day. With his hood up and gloved hands nestled in his sweatshirt pockets in an attempt to keep warm, he's watching batting practice. But he's also watching his surroundings. He turns and spots a reporter in a dress and heels, standing on the warning track, shivering.

Girardi's paternal instincts kick in as he raises his palms in disbelief.

"Are you crazy?" he mouths to her.

She gives him a thumbs-up. True, she can't feel her thumbs, but that's not the point. She's watching BP, too. But her focus isn't on the players. She's watching the man right next to the manager, the Yankees' new assistant hitting coach, Marcus Thames, who rotates to his right just in time to see the exchange between Girardi and the reporter.

Thames grins, shakes his head and turns his attention back toward the cage to watch his students on their first day of school.

If Thames is cold, he doesn't show it. If he's excited, his face betrays not a hint of it. Thames is focused only on what's in front of him: the player in the cage.

He's watching that guy like he's been watching everything since his days as a player. He might not be able to get a big hit anymore, and he can't directly make anyone else get one either. So he watches, always. And he stores everything he sees in a file he's been curating for more than a decade.

Where It All Began

Thames' first Big League Opening Day as a player came almost exactly a decade prior to his first as a Big League coach. In 2006, Thames was in his third year with the Tigers after debuting with the Yankees and then being traded to Texas. He was on the roster as a fourth outfielder, happy to contribute when and where he could. But Thames was already laying the groundwork for a life as a coach.

"When I was on the bench as a player, I was listening and watching my manager, Jim Leyland," said Thames, who also played for the Dodgers. "He would be making moves like two or three innings prior to the situation that was going to come up. I was like, 'Wow, this man is smart.' I started trying to put some of that stuff in the back of my mind, so if I did want to be a coach, I could use it."

For years, Thames watched his managers and coaches -- among them Joe Torre, Stump Merrill, Buck Showalter, Don Mattingly and his current boss, Girardi -- adding tidbits to that file in his mind marked For Later Use. How to strategize, ways to adapt to game situations, the most effective approaches to managing players -- he hoped to bring them out if the opportunity presented itself.

For Thames, it was time well spent; those tidbits have come in handy during his steady rise up the Yankees' coaching ranks.

Thames' coaching career began in 2013, when Mark Newman, then the club's vice president of baseball operations, called and offered him the job of hitting coach for Single-A Tampa.

"I quickly said yes," Thames recalled. "I was all in. From sitting on the benches in Detroit or New York or L.A., I said if I ever got the chance at this opportunity to coach, I wouldn't pass it up."

In his first season in the role, Thames helped the Tampa Yankees improve their on-base percentage from second worst in the Florida State League in 2012 (.317) to third best in 2013 (.330). He preached patience, and it paid off as the team added nearly 100 walks to its 2012 total.

His success led to a promotion in 2014 to Double-A Trenton, where Thames helped the Thunder players raise their collective batting average by 11 points. He also guided Rob Refsnyder on his way to a breakout season in which the young infielder batted .342 with 19 doubles, five triples and six home runs in 60 games with the Thunder.

Another promotion followed at the end of the year, this time to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In 2015, the RailRiders crushed it offensively, leading the International League with a .271 batting average. They clinched the IL North title, but more importantly served as a bit of a revolving door as the big club dipped into their roster all season long for players who could contribute -- among them Refsnyder, who wound up starting for the Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game.

In this area, Thames proved to be a valuable resource to the Yankees and then-assistant hitting coach Alan Cockrell, who has since been promoted to the head hitting coach position with the big club.

"With the amount of guys that came up to the Bronx from Scranton last year, I talked to Alan quite a bit," Thames said. "We started a really good bond."

That bond is an important one. After the 2015 season, when the assistant hitting coach position in the Bronx opened up, Thames had the opportunity he was waiting for -- a chance to get back to the Majors. But in a dual-coaching system, none of it would matter if the two coaches weren't on the same page. Luckily, in Cockrell, Thames found somewhat of a kindred spirit.

"He's pretty much like I am with his philosophy," Thames said, putting air quotes around the word.

As it happens, Thames does not have one overarching philosophy. Instead, he tailors his approach to each specific player.

"Every hitter is different," said Mark Teixeira, who was a teammate of Thames' in Texas in 2003 and with the Yankees in 2010. "There isn't one philosophy of hitting; there isn't one way to hit. There are hundreds of ways to hit, and you have to understand what makes each guy tick."

"A Brian McCann or an Alex Rodriguez has a different kind of game than I do," Brett Gardner echoed. "So I think it's important and great that [Thames] knows what kind of game each player has, knows what their job is and focuses on honing those skills."

That's where the watching comes in.

Extra Eyes

Thames works with each player individually, using knowledge he spent all offseason cultivating. Once he accepted the job with the Yankees, he had an iPad loaded with video of the Yankees' hitters sent to him, and he began to study. He learned about every hitter in the lineup, looking at when they were doing well and when they were struggling. When he got to Spring Training this past February, he met with each guy and asked what made him operate, what he liked to do at the plate. He opened that file in his mind again -- For Later Use -- and locked away everything he heard and saw. He also started keeping a little notepad with two or three notes for each guy.

"I remember what they tell me," Thames said with a smile.

He explains that he'll approach a player after a good day and casually ask how he felt at the plate.

"They'll say, 'Oh, I felt good. I felt this, and I did this,'" Thames explained. "And I keep that in my head, and then I might go jot it down for later."

When a slump follows -- and it will - -Thames will offer a subtle tip, maybe about not swinging at bad pitches.

Other times, well …

"He'll just say it out loud, something like, 'Quit stepping like that,'" said catcher Austin Romine, who spent most of 2015 with Thames in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. "He's been the biggest help for me in the last year or so. He knows what I'm doing and what I'm trying to do. He remembers what I told him.

"If he tells me that something is off, I fix it like that," Romine continued, snapping his fingers. "There's a trust level there. Whenever he tells me to do something, I do it."

With a young player or guys trying to reach the Majors, Thames' approach had to be more hands-on. But in the Big Leagues, Thames is able to take a step back and do what he loves most: watch.

"At this level, you're just an extra set of eyes," Thames said. "These guys can hit. Most of these guys are pretty [darn] good already because if not, they wouldn't be here. Especially not in New York."

So for Thames, the work comes in the watching. Every game day, Thames is at the Stadium hours before first pitch in the video room, watching his guys and their previous at-bats against the day's starting pitcher. If a player mentioned something to Thames, he'll bring up video and see if he can identify what the player was talking about. Then, he files it away.

When the players show up, Thames is available to anyone and everyone and always ready.

"The guys come in and say, 'Hey, what do you have for me today?'" Thames said. "I always make sure I have something.

"My overall goal is to be whatever the guys need," he continued. "Whether it's scouting reports, or whatever it may be. I just want to stay really, really positive with the guys because in this game, I know that there are a lot of ups and downs. You always need somebody in your corner that remembers the game and knows that it's not that easy. I'm just here to help them and be their extra set of eyes."

Watch What Happens

Thames is standing behind the BP screen, directly behind home plate. It's April 6, and it's not quite as freezing as Opening Day, but it's certainly not warm.

He is stock-still. His sweatshirt hood is up, and his eyes are forward. As each hitting group comes through to take its swings, Thames watches.

Occasionally, he'll turn to his left or right, where Cockrell and Girardi usually stand, and he'll listen to what one or the other has to say. Invariably, Thames speaks only when spoken to.

Third baseman Chase Headley finishes taking his hacks and walks behind the cage to have a quick talk with Thames. Headley went hitless on Opening Day, and today he's up against Collin McHugh, who won 19 games for the Astros last year. Headley asks Thames a question and does a mock swing. Thames responds. Headley nods and walks away.

A couple hours later, Headley rips an RBI single to center field as part of the Yankees' six-run first inning.

Inside the dugout is Thames, watching, drinking it all in.

The Yanks go on to score 16 runs against Houston for their first win of the season. Every single Yankees starter gets on base and scores at least one run.

And Thames? He files it all away. For Later Use.