[Interview] Preston Claiborne’s journey leads him to becoming coach

Preston Claiborne (center) returns to the Yankees organization as a pitching coach. (Robert M. Pimpsner)

Earlier this week on the Pinstriped Prospects Podcast, we had the pleasure to talk to former New York Yankees reliever Preston Claiborne. Claiborne, who was the Yankees’ 17th Round Pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, is now a coach in the organization with the Gulf Coast League West squad in Rookie Ball.

Claiborne made his Major League debut with the New York Yankees on May 5, 2013. He had a 3.79 career ERA in 62 games with the Yankees between 2013-2014. However, injuries cut his career short and he only appeared in one Major League game after ’14 (2017 with the Texas Rangers).

So that you don’t miss a single thing of what Claiborne had to say, we wanted to make sure you can read the interview that we did with him as well. You will hear about the right hander’s journey to becoming a coach, how coaches are handling the Coronavirus pandemic, some great stories from his playing days, and what he would tell a college player based on the possible MLB Draft changes:

Preston Claiborne (center) returns to the Yankees organization as a pitching coach. (Robert M. Pimpsner)

Question: With the Coronavirus pandemic going on, what has this offseason been like for you?

Answer: It’s been, I’ll say this, the Yankees are obviously a world class organization and we have had such good direction and such good communication amongst not only player development, but getting communication from the front office and then formulating a game plan. Everyone around us has chipped in so we can alleviate as much stress and try to keep somewhat of a normal or create a normal routine for players and that’s what we have done.

We have weekly meetings not only within player development, but the analytics department. We are in constant communication with our players multiple times a week checking on them, making sure they are following programs and protocols and that their training regiments and what they have access to understanding they have their own limitations as far as equipment, materials, baseballs, and access to parks because different states have different restrictions and limitations.

It has been tough but give credit to everyone in the front office and player development department that has come together so that we can all communicate with one message and disseminate that message amongst the players.

Q: Preston, you mentioned that you have been in contact with your players. What has the feedback been like and what are they doing to stay prepared?

A: So, what we did, we had our down time in Tampa and some players had homes rented, apartments, condos, and others were at our hotels and then we were spread out in a similar fashion. At that time, public areas were still open and we had access to fields and parks, so we can get guys equipment and baseballs. The good thing about baseball is you can practice social distancing throwing a baseball and long tossing pretty easily. They are actually getting further apart, which is what they want. It’s been good. Obviously, everyone’s body is different and everyone has different accessibility to materials and areas to go to train, so that’s why we are in constant communication, so we can come up with recommendations and ideas (training regiments, protocols).

The feedback on it from the players is while obviously everyone wants to play and get back to some sense of normalcy, that’s the message we had to tell guys that this is essentially an extended offseason you are preparing to come back for a shortened season. This time is more crucial because once we get back, we are hitting the ground running and firing on all cylinders.

Q: Was coaching something you thought about doing during your playing career? How did you decide that you wanted to be a coach?

A: It’s been a journey and different experiences I’ve accumulated over my playing career that got me into this thought process. The big one being in 2015. 2013 was healthy and great. 2014 I had my first shoulder injury with the Yankees and separated my A/C joint, missed a bunch of time. 2015 I had another shoulder injury with the Miami Marlins and missed that entire year. I came back healthy with the San Francisco Giants in 2016 and was one of the elder statesmen on the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels.

I was fresh out of the big leagues. Me giving pointers to guys on how to prepare because I was a relievers and prospects/relievers/first-year players have different schedules and timelines. Everyone has different training protocols, so me being able to give the guys with Richmond pointers and tips because I was a big-league reliever and trained one way the entire time and then my body started to break down because I was going too hard all the time.

Getting guys to understand and trust that they used the offseason to do all the preparation they could do. When they get into the full swing of baseball, the training protocols have to somewhat slow down because your body can’t maintain certain aspects of playing 144 or 162 games throwing a baseball 1,000 miles-per-hour every single pitch and sleep and travel. Prepare your body for the grind of the season.

In 2017, when I was in the bullpen in Texas, I had a great group of catchers (Brett Nicholas, Brett Hayes). Greg Hibbard was my pitching coach and he allowed me to essentially run the bullpen. I would do scouting reports, advanced reports. We would have meetings as a pitching staff with the catchers because it was my first time in the PCL. You hear horror stories about the PCL and the ball flies. We basically started advance scouting meetings before every series and gathering information as players. Now, coaches and catchers would give whatever information they had. Development is development. You are sitting there in Triple-A waiting to be called up, but we also wanted to win because we are all competitors.

Then, in 2018, after I got injured. Seems to be a lot of those, there is a trend here, which is why I am now a coach. When I hurt my elbow in the second game of the season, I was waiting on MRI results and Cleveland was waiting, trying to figure out what I was going to do, whether or not I should have the surgery, stay in Columbus to rehab, or go back to Arizona/Texas. They wound up letting me go back to Texas. There was a two-week span where I was there and did the same thing. Ran the bullpen, did the scouting reports, watch video because I had nothing else to do, so I was like I can help the team and help my buddies prepare.

When I was talking with Matt Daley, he asked me what I wanted to do as far as my post-playing career was concerned. He showed me opportunities where I could go into a front office or pro scouting role or do an interning type role where I get a multi-faceted education from many different departments (analytics, pro scouting, front office, administration, player development). The player in me still wanted to be in pants.

I will never close the door on something like that down the line, but I still want to be in pants and be around the guys on the field. That’s part of the reason why Sam Briend, our director of  pitching, was gracious enough to be back because he told me he valued the fact that I was a Yankee and preparing guys to come in with my own experiences and what it was actually like. Started with the organization, grinded his way up, up and down a few times, and then you establish yourself dealing with different routines, emotions, and injuries.

That’s why Sam wanted to bring me back and I completely agree with it. So far, it has been wonderful.

Q: What did being a Yankee mean to you?

A: Simply put, everything. I hate to be as cliché as Derek Jeter wanting to play shortstop with the Yankees and my story is not as sexy as his, but I remember doing plenty of interviews with you guys in 2010 and Meredith Marakovits and people on TV and I will say the same story. My dad took me to my first Rangers-Yankees game and he told me to play like the guys in the pinstripes. The Evil Empire. They were the epitome of class and dignity and the aura that surrounds the Yankees. They are the pinnacle of baseball and that’s what I wanted to do.

I am thankful and blessed to have had the opportunities with 5 different clubs and the Rangers for not only as a player getting to the big leagues, but coming back as a faux internship coach, that’s what the baseball community is about ultimately. Coming back to the Yankees, this is home for me.

Q: You don’t become a Yankees pitching coach without knowing a good amount of analytics. When you think of the new wave of analytics, how did you plan on embracing it and using it as a tool for your players?

A: I would say when we started getting access to what we can actually do with the baseball when I was a player. Trevor Bauer was a big influence in my life in terms of the science behind pitching and what he was trying to accomplish as a pitcher. I started the deep dive with a former Yankee who is now the assistant pitching coach in Cincinnati, Caleb Cotham.

We were both injured at the same time in 2014 and we were both rehabbing. He’s kind of the one that introduced me to Driveline, Trevor Bauer, what Driveline is trying to accomplish, and the purpose of the PlyoCare baseball program. It’s not just about the analytics, its how we train, its how our bodies move biomechanically and that’s why the Yankees put a fortune into the player development program and research and biomechanics and data collection not only on what we do with the ball, but how our bodies move, which is probably the most important thing as we learn from Mark Prior or Stephen Strasburg.

We can break things down with slow motion video or high frame video a lot quicker. Guys are still trying to delve into the physics of baseball. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know to and players, if they want access to it, can have it. You don’t want to overwhelm a player, but you want to coach players into understanding what we are trying to accomplish and why they can potentially be better. That’s why the coaching staff is amazing and the nutrition staff, it all ties into together, the preparation into being a professional athlete.

Now, it’s sleep and nutrition and the proper warm-up/calisthenics/plyometrics. How to build individual programs to make them the best player they can possibly be.

R: In 2013, you get to relieve Andy Pettitte in your professional debut. What do you remember the most about that game?

A: Honestly, of all the days, that’s the one I remember the least. It was awesome. I guess I was lucky because I got called up on May 3 and then got hot in the bullpen but I did not get in. I got my first adrenaline jolt. May 4, I did not get up and watched the game and calmed the nerves down more. On May 5, that’s the one day I remember the least, but I remember warming up and was actually quite calm during the day game.

We were down a couple of runs and but then after I ran through the gate and looked down at the ground, trotting in and trying not to trip on my shoelaces to get to the mound. I was jelly legging pretty well and after my first two pitches, Chris Stewart gave me the hands down and I thought this is all the same. The plate is still there, my catcher is doing the same thing my Triple-A catcher is doing, so we were good.

It happened so fast, it was awesome, and I made sure not to look up and look around until after the outing. I was always a hyper focused guy and especially being a rookie reliever, you never know when you will get in. I pitched in every single inning from inning 1 to 15.

Q: You were on the same team as Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte when they were playing their last season in the big leagues. What was it like being a teammate of theirs during those memorable moments?

A: Being around Mariano, he was the one that had the calming effect. Can’t say enough great things about him. Treated me with respect and was kind and gracious and can always go up to him to talk to him. Same thing with Derek. He was the ultimate player and cool as a cucumber. That’s why he was good with the media, kids, charities, Turn 2 Foundation. All he wanted to do was win and have fun. It was amazing to see the both of their careers. Derek was rehabbing in 2013, trying to get back. He kept having setbacks and then he finished his rehab and played his last year in 2014.

Mariano, I got lucky with that one, that he tore his ACL and pushed his career back a year. It’s lucky, amazing, and iconic. There was no better time especially since I grew up with the Core 4 of this generation. I got to see Jorge [Posada] a lot in spring training. I was really blessed.

Q: How do you plan on helping your guys have a better understanding of their bodies and how to push themselves?

A: I was coming up through the minor leagues and you feel really good, you are a young man growing into your body. We all have this innate desire to pitch for the Yankees. I am not ever going to try to pull the reigns back on someone and tell them do less. You have to be able to self-monitor so that you don’t overexert yourself to the point of fatigue and then when we get injured, it is when we pitch fatigued when our body isn’t moving correctly. That’s the message the entire organization understands now with the science behind the body because the body can’t perform if it’s under 100 percent. It can, but with many limitations. It is so important to prepare and take care of your body in the minor leagues to get to the big leagues.

We have a singular message. The food may get a little better, but you are still going to sleep, you are still going to show up and work out, you are still going to warm up. We are trying to get guys to establish routines that benefit them the most and get the message across. Understanding their bodies is why it makes it so important. When I was in the minors, I didn’t have access to all these things.

Q: Do you have a memorable minor league moment?

A: 2010, we won the Florida State League Championship, that was pretty awesome. I had just gotten drafted. That was a great moment. Honestly, it was getting called up to Triple-A when I was with the Yankees when we were the Empire State Yankees.

I remember looking around the clubhouse at all these salty old vets (Russell Branyan, Jack Cust, Chris Dickerson, Francisco Cervelli, John Maine, Manny Delcarmen, Eduardo Nunez). Some high-profile guys in that clubhouse and I was like what in the world.

I remember pitching my debut in Triple-A in Rochester. We are winning some crazy blowout game and I get called in for the 9th. I punch the first guy out, the next guy grounds out to second. I’m like this is easy. The next guy walks with pitches barely off the plate. I thought I threw good changeups or slider. The next guy, the same thing. I give up a single, a walk, and the next thing you know I have given up 4 runs with 2 outs.

The catcher and pitching coach come out to tell me to calm down and Branyan runs over from first base and is like “Hey man, what’s your problem?” I was like, what? Branyan said, “you don’t like beer? Get this last guy out so we can go in and drink some beer,”. I was like oh, okay, so that was terrifying and intimidating.

I got the last guy out and Russell gave me my first Triple-A beer, so that was funny.

Q: Did you have a favorite stadium that you liked to pitch in?

A: Pitching in Yankee Stadium was incredible except when I played Boston, I got booed a couple of times, so that sucked. I liked pitching in my home park in Texas when I was playing for the Yankees as the hometown kid. Nolan Ryan was in the stands, my family was my around, but you can’t beat Yankee Stadium running through those doors every day.

Q: This year, baseball is going to have a shortened MLB Draft. You were a 17th Round pick and I want to get your thoughts because the Yankees picked you in a round that won’t exist this year. Looking back at your career, what advice would you give to someone who isn’t going to be taken this year because of the new format?

A: The Yankees did take a chance on me and I want to thank Damon Oppenheimer and Andy Cannizaro, the scout who convinced Damon to draft me. Everyone has a chance. ½ of the NFL is undrafted free agents. MLB has about 2,500 players getting drafted, but that’s the important thing.

With the NCAA, I think they are allowing seniors to get another year of eligibility, but that’s the important part of this preparation. It is going to be strange for the high school guys that were supposed to go to college and the JUCO players, what are they going to do? Luckily, we have such good social media presence and kids have savvy to put their content out and the access to data and Rhapsodo, they can put it online so scouts can see them.

In Texas, we signed a kld that was putting his bullpen sessions up and was throwing 97-99 mph. If you want to accomplish something and you have a goal, the easiest thing I can say is don’t let anyone or anything steal your dreams, my dad used to say to me. This Coronavirus pandemic is a thing, but it shouldn’t stop you from following your dream as long as you are putting in the work.

My dad was in the Army and I have a huge affinity for our Armed Forces and Military, so that’s where I drew a lot of my motivation to keep going. I remember in the minor leagues, in 2011, I had the most consecutive outings giving up a home run. With the pandemic, we are all going to fail, have setbacks, have injuries. Don’t let anyone take away your dream.

I know our scouting department is working tirelessly on getting players and doing it in the most efficient way possible. The Yankees are going to have the play the hand they are dealt once MLB comes up with a gameplan. It is all hands on deck with their communication.

Q: What is the most memorable piece of advice you have ever received from a coach?

A: I would probably say it was from Greg Hibbard when I was with Texas as a player. He had such a calming nature about him and I was a pretty fiery guy not only in the minors, but in the big leagues. He said it to me I had a rough outing one time and was beating myself up because I made a mistake. He came over to me and said what did you see? I said, what do you think He said, I think we get to go out and do it again tomorrow. Then, he walked off.

I was like well, that was easy. He was 100% right. I know it is weird to say right now because we are not going to get to do it tomorrow, but we will real soon.

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