ST. LOUIS — There’s more to a game plan that waving base-runners home, trying to steal opposing teams’ signals or flashing signs from his third base coach’s box for Ronnie Warner.
It’s a sport that’s played as much from any computer or dugout as it is on the field. So it was no surprise to Warner.
“It is,” Warner said back on April 29, “my first full season in the major leagues.”
Warner, a 1988 Redlands High graduate, is now on his 29th season in the Cardinals’ organization — his first coaching third base after spending handfuls of seasons playing and coaching in the minor leagues.
“It was a natural progression,” he said.
“I got drafted (in 1991). The goal was to get to the major leagues (as a player). That didn’t happen. I morphed into coaching.”
When Warner isn’t waving runners home or checking on opposing signals or flashing signs to Cardinals’ hitters, there’s a set of specific duties he’s assigned for a team that’s trying to return to the post-season.
“I am the team’s bunt coach,” he said.
So when Cardinals’ center fielder Harrison Bader had homered, got hit by a pitch, bunted for a single and made a diving catch in a 6-3 Cardinals’ April 29 win over Nationals’ southpaw Patrick Corbin, it drew remarks from Warner.
“Harry definitely had a hand in this win tonight,” said Warner, noting Bader’s huge smile after beating out the bunt. “It was good to see him bunt. It was the first actual hit he’s gotten off a bunt.”
Throw in duties as scouting opposing pitchers’ moves, “their time to the plate, the opposing teams’ running game, scouting outfielders’ tendencies.”
In the MLB, it’s all about as important as a catcher blocking a pitch in the dirt, or dropping down a sacrifice bunt.
Warner’s got about as much insight as anyone in baseball coaching or managing.
“You wait for mistakes,” he says. “It’s what any manager, and coaching staff, are staring at from their spots in the dugout or on the coaching lines. “You just sit and wait,” said Warner. “Something will happen. Keep battling. Keep on observing. You’ll see something that might change the game.”
These days, baseball’s abuzz with the new analytics — Wins Above Replacement (WAR), spin rates for a pitcher, exit velocity and launch angles for hitters.
“It’s understanding all of that,” said Warner, 50, reflecting upon a professional career in 1991 that probably never imagined such data would exist.
“A (pitcher) with a high spin rate,” he noted, “probably shouldn’t be throwing a slider.”
Don’t ask him to explain. It’s now part of the game, replacing the long-ago statistics-buffs who probably reduced a pitcher’s effectiveness with earned run averages, win-loss percentage and strikeouts.
“It’s a different game nowadays,” he said.
These days, Warner is rubbing elbows with the likes of all-stars like Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter and Benjie Molina, plus some hard-throwing St. Louis Cardinals’ pitchers.
Don’t say this out loud to him, but if something slips up in St. Louis, there might be only one more place for him to go — that’s as Cardinals’ manager.
Manager-in-waiting sounds, perhaps, too harsh. Warner has too much regard for current manager Mike Schildt for such talk. He’s worked alongside such people as Hall of Famers Tony La Russa and Ozzie Smith and likely Hall of Famers like Molina and Albert Pujols.
“Right now, things are as good as it can get,” said Warner. “Obviously, I’d entertain it if something came along.”
If he does get that managerial call, remind yourself that this isn’t some guy taking over his kid’s travel ball team, or pulling the strings to get named manager of a Little League or a PONY all-star team. People like that are only “experts” as long as their kid’s on the team, right?
Managing in the majors? “It’s everything,” said Warner, “with all the analytics — spin rates (for pitchers), launch angles and exit velocity (for hitters). Being able to communicate with the players is huge. Communicating with the media’s another big thing.”
It’s nowhere close to the baseball world he’d grown up in a few decades ago.
“There was none of that,” said Warner, referring to the newly formulated analytics part of the game that has caught hold at the highest levels of the sport. “There’s value to it.
“Goldschmidt,” said Warner, “eats that stuff up. He likes everything. Part of my job is relaying all that to the players.”
Onetime Cardinals’ MVP Willie McGee, who is part of St. Louis’ tradition-rich organization, told Warner, “I wish I had that kind of information when I was playing.”
That’s another of Warner’s duties — assisting McGee with outfielders.
“Making sure our guys are aware of the other teams’ outfielders’ tendencies,” he said, referring to arm strength.
Just after that April 29 win over the Washington Nationals, Warner was on hand to discuss the game’s star. Bader’s bunt single after hitting a HR was a huge step for a young player.
Said Warner: “Right now, we’re trying to make sure he understands that can be a big part of his game.”
The game reversed momentum when the Cardinals turned a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 advantage, eventually winning with a strong bullpen behind Michael Wacha.
You figure it was just another game among the thousands of pro games — minors or majors — that Warner’s been accustomed. He’s a total lifer and a Cardinal die-hard.
If anyone remembers MLB pitcher Darryl Kile, who is from nearby Norco, Pop took jersey No. 75 in memory of Kile’s no-longer-used 57 that was retired after his death in 2002.
On display was Warner’s admiration, not just for Kile, but for a Cardinals’ organization that gave him a lifetime job.
“Really,” he said, “it’s the job of a lifetime.”