A key trait many thought the new Texas Rangers manager would have was being fluent in Spanish.
Chris Woodward? Well, he’s working on it.
He knows that players from Latin America regularly help fill MLB rosters, but the Rangers seem to have more than the average share. Four of the top six prospects in the latest Baseball America ranking of Rangers prospects are Spanish-speaking.
But no matter how fluently a player from Latin America speaks English, and Rangers players such as Elvis Andrus, Nomar Mazara and Ronald Guzman are excellent, they are always going to be more comfortable speaking their native language.
The good news for Woodward, but better news for Spanish-speaking players, is that pitching coach Julio Rangel and hitting coach Luis Ortiz speak Spanish. All involved rave about the potential advantage the players now have.
“We tend to be a little more shy, especially when we don’t speak the language too well,” Rangel said. “You see it in some of the kids we have around. Now they feel more confident because they feel like they can communicate with someone in their language and they can express themselves.
“A lot of time when you translate, it’s really hard to express someone else’s feelings. It definitely helps. You’re getting a little more in-depth when a guy comes to explain something and they can understand it. Sometimes it’s hard when your English is not that great. They miss a lot of the message.”
Spanish is also the native language for first-base coach Hector Ortiz, who served as bullpen coach last season, and bullpen coach Oscar Marin. The Rangers employ at least one Spanish-speaking coach per minor-league coaching staff to help ease the transition of young players from Latin America.
The Rangers’ 40-man roster includes 11 players from three Latin America countries (Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Panama), and they have nine non-roster invites in big-league camp (Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba).
“If we don’t have a Spanish-speaking pitching coach or hitting coach, we try to make sure the fourth coach or the manager can speak Spanish,” Daly said. “For the development of the players, it’s a big-time change of culture. There’s a real value in helping players get the best understanding as possible.”
Andrus is 30 and has been playing in the United States since 2005. The Venezuelan polished his English by listening to country western music, and by the time he arrived for his first big-league camp in 2008, English wasn’t a problem.
The same goes for Mazara and Guzman, who signed as 16-year-olds in the Dominican Republic in 2011. Mazara and Guzman were fluent in English then. They don’t have many problems now, but there are some occasionally.
With a data revolution under way with how the Rangers coach players, it helps to have two of the top assistants speaking a new baseball language in their language.
“With as much pride as they have, they might not understand something English, they might nod ‘yes,’ but it’s not displaying in his brain the right way,” Ortiz said. “A lot of it is trying to get the expressions and do they know the real context of it. They might know superficially, but it’s also that battle of comfort and discomfort.”
Second baseman Rougned Odor has made significant improvements with his English since his 2014 debut. Closer Jose Leclerc and left-hander Yohander Mendez started speaking English with the media only last season.
Leclerc opted to use a translator, which MLB now requires teams to have for Spanish-speaking players, for some of the news conference Wednesday announcing his four-year contract extension.
Rangel said that Leclerc told him how much more comfortable he is this year compared to his first two big-league camps with former pitching coach Doug Brocail.
“When you get somebody who speaks your language, you’re more comfortable to say anything,” Leclerc said in English. “When Brocail told me something in English I probably understood whatever he told me, but if I didn’t understand, he got somebody to tell me.”
One problem isn’t necessarily understanding the words or saying the right words in English, but making sure the emotion behind the words were understood. That’s where something is most commonly lost in translation.
The English-speaking coaches are benefiting from having four Spanish-speaking coaches (assistant hitting coach Callix Crabbe, who was born in St. Thomas and went to high school in Georgia, can also speak Spanish).
Woodward said that if he needs a message conveyed, he can rely on an assistant to do it correctly. The ability to speak Spanish wasn’t the reason Woodward hired the coaches he did, but it didn’t hurt their chances either.
“It’s a tremendous help for me because I can communicate my ideas and there’s nothing lost in translation,” Woodward said. “There’s not an issue. We have one of the most diverse staffs in all of sports and we have a diverse group of players. It’s an important factor.”
“That’s huge,” Mazara said. “It’s going to be better for them to understand things a lot quicker. To kids that are coming up, they’re going to feel more comfortable. As a young player, if there’s something we don’t know what to say, when you have people who speak Spanish, you can go straight to the point.”