Mike King is sitting in an airport Saturday, on his way back from where he’s been training in Florida to spend a few days with his family in Rhode Island before heading off to spring training.
There’s a speaker nearby him somewhere and announcements from an attendant at an airline desk interrupt him a couple times, but he wants to tell this story about Jay Bell that really drew him to the RailRiders’ new manager.
“I absolutely love the guy,” said King, who spent most of his 2018 season with Bell in Double-A Trenton. “I mean, I’m telling you, you’re not going to hear anyone speak poorly about this man throughout the organization. Everyone calls him the GOAT. … He’s a very nice guy. He’s a players coach, but he also demands excellence of everybody. He has a feel.”
This one particular story stands out for King.
First thing you should know about King: he’s a student of the game. The 23-year-old righty out of Boston College loves scouting reports and video and stats and carefully stitching together a gameplan before he takes the mound every start. Each pitch he throws has a purpose. It’s part of the reason he put up an 11-5 record with a 1.79 ERA across three levels of the minors last season.
King figures this happened around his fifth or so start with Trenton. There was a lefty hitter in the lineup — he can’t remember who it was exactly — who loved to pull the ball and the Thunder would typically throw on an overshift.
“He wanted the ball in, but I felt like I could expose him in-in, like a little bit too far in where I could get him hacking in there,” said King, who has grown to love breaking a two-seam fastball across lefty hitters’ front hips.
That much played into the scouting report.
King had a plan, though, that went a bit against the grain. The guy’s first at-bat, King wanted to pound him away and try to get him to hit it to the left side. He told pitching coach Tim Norton that he wanted the hitter to think this was the plan to get him out, to get him focused the outer part of the plate. Then in his second and third at-bats, he’d pound him inside. Norton liked the plan, too. Just had to make sure the defense was aligned properly behind him to make it work.
”I want to attack him away by throwing five, six, seven, however many it takes, fastballs away in his first at-bat,” King said. “We executed perfectly. He hit a weak chopper to shortstop.
“And nobody was there because of the shift.”
King wasn’t happy and he made that abundantly clear — “I, being the young person that I am, showed some emotion on the mound,” he said — and Bell wasn’t happy about that. When King got back to the dugout, he got an earful from Bell. King said he deserved it, too.
“He’s yelling at me like, ‘You cannot show us up. Show all that privately. (Can’t) show us up in terms of that,’” King said. “I still was in my aggressive mood, so I told him why (I was mad).”
King told him about the plan he and Norton worked out, and Norton stepped in to confirm to it to Bell. Norton said something got lost in translation, and it was never communicated to Bell and the defense.
”And he was like, ‘OK. That makes a lot more sense. From now on, I want to be able to share with you the shifts that we have and if you want to modify anything,” King said Bell told him. “So he then put trust in me and faith in me to execute my gameplan. It made me like him so much more, even though I already did like him.”
Bell let him have input on the defensive shifts for his games. If King wanted something changed, Bell heard him out. It became part of King’s pregame routine. Rather than just meeting with the pitching coach and catcher ahead of his start, Bell would sit in, too.
“I’d be able to tell him like, ‘I’d like to shift him in this at-bat, or later in the game I’d rather shift him a little bit more or play him straight up, whatever it was, and he was great with it,” King said.
Not long after that game, Bell started to teach King about all the stats the organization had access to. Things like how a shortstop playing a hitter 15 feet to his left increased their chances by, King suggests, 85 percent to get to a ball.
When Bell was introduced as RailRiders manager Thursday, he talked about learning from Jim Leyland how to help different players. What Barry Bonds needed from a manager was going to be differen than what Bell or one of Pirates’ other players was going to require.
King wanted a manager who could help give him an edge. Bell bringing him in on analytics made him that guy.
“I think that baseball’s changing into — the managers of the big league teams that are successful are the ones that have the best relationships with players,” King said. “Like, you see Alex Cora. Alex Cora was loved by every single player on that team. Even Aaron Boone comes in, young guy that can have a relationship with players, makes it so much easier for a player to go out there and compete and be able to listen to a guy that’s on the same level as them, where you’re both still learning from each other.
“And Jay keeps us in that same relationship, where we have all these analytics, but we also have that relationship, that personable-type guy, that we can go up to and say, ‘Hey, I know the analytics say this, but this is what I say and is what I would like,’ And he totally conforms to what you want, because you’re the one that’s actually out there executing and he just puts trust in you and your ability to do what you say and what you’ve researched.”
King joked he hopes he doesn’t have to spend much time in Triple-A this season; after last year’s success, he’ll soon be knocking on the door to the bigs. When he is with the RailRiders, though, he’s thrilled to be back under Bell’s tutelage.
”Normally, I feel like, when you get called into a coach’s office after a game, either you’re getting called up or you’re getting yelled at, and he would just call you into his office and talk to you about nothing,” King said. “He walks around the outfield during batting practice and he comes up to you and you’ll have a good five-, ten-minute conversation just about baseball, about your future, about things that happened to him. Just would teach you different stuff. It was definitely more of a friendship-type relationship than a player-coach type of thing. The conversations that we had were definitely more friendly than a guy with authority speaking down to us. He put himself on our level.”