Mike Gillespie: A Career Well Lived

Legendary head coach Mike GIllespie, who retired upon the end of the 2018 season, was a two-time national coach of the year and a 2010 ABCA Hall of Fame inductee. We could fill this entire issue with Gillespie’s thoughts on baseball and in life, but here’s the foundation of why his teams have been so successful year in and year out:

You’ve coached on the West Coast for the entirety of your career. Do you buy in to the concepts of ‘west coast baseball’?

I’m familiar with what people are referring to when they talk about ‘west coast guys.’ It always made sense to me to try to develop as much of the skills as you can and as your personnel dictates, maybe you can call on your abilities to execute some of those things during a game.

I’ve never recruited to the philosophy that we’ve got to be able to play the short game and all of that. I like guys that can drive the ball and I’m not averse to home runs! The last few years, our particular teams haven’t run much at all, so we’ve had to drive guys in, we’ve had to hit and run.

I’d like us to be able to find out about our guys in the Fall, but you just don’t know what you have until you play those games in the Spring. Players that shine and ‘win jobs’ in the Fall might not be able to do it. Then you give someone else who you didn’t think would be a factor a chance, and they run away with a job.

Organizing a pitching staff

I don’t have anything revolutionary to say about organizing a pitching staff. We wish everyone threw 94, but that’s not us, and that’s not typically what we see of the teams that we play. We’ve had some top-notch guys that anybody would like to have, but we rarely have had the power arms, the special fastballs. It starts with strikes; ideally you’re able to get starters who can throw three pitches for strikes. It drives me crazy when you have to give in to guys with a 2-0 fastball because you can’t rely on anything off-speed for a strike. Consistent winners are always mixing pitches.

I’ve found that the most important quality for a back end guy is confidence. He’s not afraid, he doesn’t crack. He’s willing to come at you with whatever his stuff is that day. The guys that are good late in games are typically upper 80s with a good slider. Every now and then, you’ll run into a big arm and you have to deal with high velocity, but more often than not, it’s going to be good sliders. What I wish we were and what we are are different things, but over the long time I’ve done this, give me the tough guys.

Calling pitches

I believe in it. I just think that if I’m going to get fired, I want to be the one making the mistake. Now I don’t want to get fired, and I don’t want to make mistakes, but I just feel like the coaching staff is going to know who we’re playing better than our catchers and pitchers. You’re looking to match up your pitchers’ abilities with that you perceive to be the weakness of the hitters. If our guy doesn’t have the confidence to throw something like a 3-2 curveball, for example, he needs to shake off, but our guys don’t shake off much, they have confidence in our preparation as coaches.

I think it can be argued that in professional baseball, guys like Buster Posey are going to know what to call against the Dodgers, for example.

There really aren’t any absolutes when it comes to calling a game. I do think that some teams can get into too many chase pitches in 0-2 counts, with elevated fastballs or bounced breaking balls, and it’s the same way with pitching inside. If you don’t have guys that are doing those particular things, you’ve got to be able to adjust to that as a coach.

Scouting Reports

We do try to get them, and I do think that they’re valuable. A lot of times, you can get a regurgitation of multiple reports, so you have to be aware of that. Our staff works really hard and we present a good report, but it really comes down to your team and execution. We really like to know who’s going to run, who’s got power, who might have unusual abilities to bunt or hit breaking pitches. We had a guy a couple years ago, Keston Hiura, who was unbelievable at hitting breaking balls, so his scouting report should have said to be really careful with breaking balls, but he still saw a lot of them! They were doing him a favor.

Characteristics of your team

I want us to know how to win, be classy, play the game the right way. Our players need to understand what we as coaches believe ‘the right way’ is. We want to be the junkyard dog type of team that plays hard on every pitch, but who doesn’t? I’ve coached against several Mark Marquess [Stanford] teams where he’s pacing the dugout and he’s on fire and it just doesn’t matter what the score was, like it didn’t matter at all. There was no clock, and there was still some game left to be played.

I’m truly convinced that games are lost, not won, so we try- with varying levels of success- to limit and minimize the classic freebies- bases on balls, errors, stolen bases, overthrowing cutoff men, things like that. We want to be as complete as we can possibly be in those areas. If there’s an out that’s there to be had on the bases, I want to have that pickoff move. If there’s an opportunity for a safety squeeze, I’d like to take advantage of that. How we execute in a game is a direct reflection of how well we’ve worked on things in practice.

How do you plan your practices?

We generally ask ourselves what we need to work the most on, and we go from there. You wish you had it all in place, but you just don’t. I’m flying by the seat of my pants and dealing with it as it goes along.

There are certain things you have to work on- first and thirds, cuts and relays, short game- to me, it’s like a rehearsal. We’d like to be able to do those things with some variety in practice, however we can. You just don’t know when those things are going to come up in this game. I saw a first and third defense break down in the big leagues the other day- the run scored without a play and the runner in between first and second ends up being safe. They can screw it up- so of course we can too! Then you’re left to address how much practice time you want to invest in those things.

We have plenty of flaws that need to be addressed, and we’d like to make it kind of interesting at practice, instead of boring. I mean, how many different ways can you practice the drag bunt?

Any drills that you really like?

We have on particular drill- Bo Hughes’ “Inside Game” drill- just a combination drill of PFP, 3-1, 3-6-3, 1-2-3, short path balls, bunts down the 3B line- that’s the single best drill that I know of.

We try to bunt a lot. I mean, you’re beautiful and handsome and you’ve been working on your pecs and your chest, maybe you don’t want to get hit by a pitch! I find that bunting in games is hard, it takes a little courage to stick your nose in there and get a bunt down if a guy is throwing 95.

If we take the drag bunt and really work on it with a guy today, you have to realize that you’re not going to see much of a difference by tomorrow. You might see a difference six months from now and maybe even two years from now. So don’t give up on what you’re teaching and most importantly, who you’re teaching.

What would your advice be to yourself as a coach at College of the Canyons?

It’s more of a do as I say and not as I do. My best advice would be to be careful what you say. Coaches can get mad and say something mean, cutting, ill-advised, hurtful- and you can’t take it back. We’re all driven to win, but you have to understand that this is just a game. It’s not a game for us because if you don’t win you get fired, but you still have to be careful what you say, while addressing the development of the fundamentals of the game. Try to enjoy it. Part of the reason we do this is because we don’t have to get a real job!

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