Before Joe Espada took over as the Yankees’ third base coach in 2015, he spent the 2014 season as a special assistant to General Manager Brian Cashman. The position was ostensibly a pro scouting role, but it also allowed Espada the opportunity to work with the front office and learn the organization’s philosophy — a coaching residency of sorts.
After three years on Manager Joe Girardi’s Yankees staff, Espada was hired as the Houston Astros’ bench coach, to work alongside Manager A.J. Hinch. Espada replaced Alex Cora, who had been hired as the new manager of the Boston Red Sox. Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow thought finding another up-and-comer was a good fit for the staff, effectively making the bench coach position an apprenticeship.
“That model continues to be the right model for us, to have a managerial prospect in that seat, and that’s essentially what he’s been for us,” Luhnow said. “He’s been terrific.”
Espada, 44, is rare connective tissue between the two like-minded, analytically inclined organizations that established themselves as the American League standard-bearers this season. (The only player on the teams’ current rosters to have spent time in both uniforms is Yankees outfielder Cameron Maybin, who logged 21 games with the Astros in 2017.)
Espada also embodies the evolving role of the modern coach, balancing responsibilities as a conduit to the front office with the traditional task of developing players. His aptitude and experience in both areas explain why he has been linked to so many managerial job openings — interviewing for several open posts last winter and at least one, with the Cubs last Monday, for next year. (Espada declined to be interviewed for this article because of his status as a managerial candidate.)
“Joey asks a lot of questions,” said the Phillies bench coach Rob Thomson, who held that role with the Yankees when Espada was the third-base coach. “When he first started with us, what he didn’t know or didn’t realize, he asked the questions, and he figured it out. The true beauty of this job is to be able to balance the analytics with what you’re teaching and how it applies to that player, this team, this situation.”
And Espada was able to produce results internally. Defensive overshifting in the infield is now common throughout the majors, but that wasn’t the case as recently as four years ago. The Yankees, in particular, had seen mixed results.
In early 2016, Girardi went so far as to say he would recommend banning the use of the shift (while conceding he would use it as long as it remained legal). As infield coach, however, Espada not only advocated the shift but also worked with the analytics team to help improve its algorithms and then communicate the plan to the players.
“He was a big reason why we were able to be transformative eventually with the shift,” Cashman said. “When he was in charge, it was still something that was resisted by our players, by our field staff. Other people were constantly poking fun at it, questioning it, whether it was our media, our radio broadcast team, whether it was the fans, the YES Network broadcasters.
“Whenever it failed, there was a lot of tension, a lot of animosity from all involved, including the pitchers, so he was on the front line having to push it.”
The Astros, one of the earliest and most faithful adopters of the shift, had already committed to it by the time Espada arrived, but he was charged with unifying the team in other areas.
“We use a lot of information to help our coaches do their jobs,” Luhnow said. “He’s very receptive to it. He pushes us when he doesn’t agree, but ultimately he’s responsible for making sure everybody — all of our coaches and players — are following the plan that A.J. sets.”
But beyond internal politicking and understanding the nuances of analytics, the modern coaching job still demands long hours of technique instruction. Astros shortstop Carlos Correa described arriving early to spring training camp every day to work on his defense with Espada. “I think he’s one of the best infield coaches out there,” Correa said. “It’s unbelievable how much I’ve learned from him.”
Those who know Espada praise his preternatural understanding of the game and say he has been prepared to coach his entire adult life. As a young shortstop at the University of Mobile, an NAIA program where he holds the school record for career batting average at .442, Espada not only knew what he should do in every situation but also “where everybody was supposed to be,” said Mike Jacobs, the school’s longtime baseball coach. “That was even as young as 18, 19 years old,” he added. The very first time Jacobs saw Espada play in a high school tournament, he took the field with an Ozzie Smith-style back flip.
Espada and Hinch were drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the second and third rounds, respectively, of the 1996 draft, and both remained in that organization through the 2000 season. Espada never got to the majors, reaching as high as Class AAA over nine years of minor league ball. In 2004, Espada signed with the Pensacola Pelicans in the independent Central League, where he was reunited with Jorge Hernandez, a former Mobile assistant working on the Pelicans’ staff.
“He just came to end his career, and he wanted to get into coaching,” Hernandez said.
Espada joined the Marlins’ coaching ranks in 2006 — and Hernandez followed a year later on Espada’s recommendation — as hitting coach of the Class A Greensboro Grasshoppers. Brandon Hyde, who now leads the Baltimore Orioles, was his manager then, later becoming his landlord and then his brother-in-law.
Espada was living in a unit behind Hyde’s house in 2007 when he met Pamela Dearth, the sister of Hyde’s wife, whom he later married. (Hyde no longer remembers if Espada paid rent, saying with a laugh, “I should have charged him more.”)
Hyde and Espada worked together again in 2010 and ’11 on the Marlins’ big league staff. They lived near Jupiter, Fla., and carpooled the hour each way to Miami, discussing the sport and their players the whole way.
“Very prepared. Very detailed. Passionate about sports. Passionate about teaching,” Hyde said. “He communicates extremely well with players. He’s just a baseball guy. He loves the game. He’s very interested in other ideas. We would just talk the game a lot over the years.”
Cashman, who hired Espada away from the Marlins in 2013, emphasized that what he looks for are “collaborative, open-minded people” and said the Astros targeted Espada with good reason.
“He was one of the better coaches I’ve had,” Cashman said. “And I’ve been here a long time.”
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