Sure, when the Cubs announced the hiring of Rachel Folden on Nov. 22, she became the first female coach in team history. And, yes, the 32-year-old was -- and continues to be -- a prime figure for the evolution of the sport and evidence that women have a place in
Sure, when the Cubs announced the hiring of Rachel Folden on Nov. 22, she became the first female coach in team history. And, yes, the 32-year-old was -- and continues to be -- a prime figure for the evolution of the sport and evidence that women have a place in what is commonly thought to be a man's game.
However, both Folden and the organization are quick to acknowledge that creating the partnership had nothing to do with either of those elements. Headlines are nice, but they don't win baseball games. The decision to bring Folden into the Cubs' revamped hitting department came down to one thing: providing the best resources to succeed.
"Top to bottom, we're always looking to get better and evolve," Cubs senior director of player development Matt Dorey said. "And the players on that space, in terms of tech and data, we just felt like there was an opportunity to evaluate what was available out there and get back to our core values of providing the best in the industry experience for our players. We want to provide every tool we possibly can to hold up our end of the bargain to help our guys become big leaguers ... so Rachel has been working in that field, leveraging all the newest technology and when we brought on Justin [Stone], he made that recommendation for her and we brought her in for an interview and she just blew us all away.
"Her resume, personality, body of work and her values lined up with the organization's core values."
Folden grew up playing Little League baseball in California before being coaxed into pursuing softball, a path she followed successfully as both a player and coach. She was inducted to Marshall University's softball Hall of Fame, starred with the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch League from 2008-12, helping lead the squad to a pair of championships, and had some coaching overlap during that time. Folden served as an assistant at Valparaiso University from 2009-10, then founded Folden Fastpitch, an Indiana-based training facility that provides baseball and softball instruction based on technology and data.
She believes that every aspect of that journey has prepared her for her new role in Minor League Baseball.
"As a pro softball player, I know a lot about what these guys go through," Folden said. "You play every day, train all year and there's not a lot of money in pro softball, just like there isn't a lot of money in the Minors. I think that levels the playing field in the ability to communicate with these players. I also know what it's like to get blown up by a pitch you're not ready for, I know what's like to slump, so I think those experiences really help me the most with going into the day to day with each hitter."
In 2017, Folden met Stone -- who operated Elite Baseball Training -- and the two began working together. When Stone was hired by the Cubs in October to become director of the hitting department, he knew immediately who he wanted as part of his new staff.
"She's the first person I brought in for an interview," Stone told MLB.com. "Even when I was interviewing with different teams, I brought this up in my own interview process, that this was important to me, because I knew wherever I was going to go, I was going to have to build a staff. … Rachel's been working alongside me for the last couple years, and there is nobody more confident.
"She's going to be a star."
Elated for the opportunity to return to baseball, what she refers to as her "first love," Folden accepted Chicago's offer without hesitation. Still, she understood there were plenty of challenges to navigate.
"From an in-house perspective, the Cubs have been extremely supportive. But from a social media and fans' response, there's been a lot of scrutiny because I never played in the Major Leagues, so every day I understand that I have to be good at my job," Folden said. "I mean, for personal pride I had that anyway. No matter what my job is, I want to be good at it and make the people who hired me proud that they made that decision.
"But because the social media grasp is so much larger today, I feel like I do have a personal responsibility to show people that gender doesn't matter here and that I was hired on merit and I will either progress on this job or lose it on merit. And I'm aware of that responsibility and I think this is a good opportunity for me to show everyone -- especially women in baseball or just sports in general -- that you can do your job absent of the noise. Don't let it swallow you, just attack it and don't use it as a crutch or something to lean on."
And knowing she has a friend going through a similar experience has empowered Folden. On the same day the Cubs announced her hiring as lead hitting lab technician and fourth coach for the Rookie-level Arizona League Cubs, the Yankees announced the hiring of Rachel Balkovec as their newest hitting instructor.
"It's awesome. She's part of the wave, too," Folden said. "It's enough to be alone on an island, but to know you have other women experiencing the same thing as you, that's helpful. I know Rachel personally and to have her to talk to and have as a friend is huge. ... It's just cool to see that baseball just wants to get better and baseball thinks we can help them get better. We're all just part of this hitting revolution, and it's because of the skills that we have."
Folden has hit the ground running with those skills on full display. After hiring a team of instructors to take over her hands-on responsibilities at her Fastpitch facility, she's devoted 100 percent of her attention to her new role with the Cubs over the last month. She's already in the process of implementing her hitting philosophy, which revolves around maximizing efficiency as well as "creating more time."
"We wanna know, based on what you do well, how can we make you more efficient?" she said. "Whether it's strength and conditioning, swing mechanics, etc., ... we're trying to maximize efficiency and therefore create more time for a hitter. Velocities keep going up, so if you can give a hitter more time, you give them the freedom for better swing decisions. If you can increase the timing window, that's worth millions of dollars.
"This is why you see pitchers blowing people up right now. They've limited a hitter's timing window. But if you can get that swing off quicker and know where to barrel, you can combat this rise of the pitcher. So now we have this information, how do we apply it and make each hitter more effective? That's why I'm here. It's not just about collecting data, but how you apply it. Making it digestible and packaging it into something easy to communicate to an athlete is one of my strengths."
And her early efforts have not gone unnoticed by the organization.
"We've just been down here a couple of weeks, but she's everything that we thought," Dorey said. "She's hard-working, humbled, committed to the players. Her expertise and overarching passion for hitting just beams through and she's a natural-born leader.
"We were just on the hunt for talent and the fact that she's a woman, it didn't even for a second not allow us to identify her talent. After we spoke to her face to face and learned about her background and the obstacles she faced -- really all the same obstacles she'll face as you're dealing with young players -- we saw that she leaned into those opportunities with confidence and humility, and just the way she always puts the players first ... that all resonated with us. We believe that her talent and passion and work ethic will enable her to have success in whatever she does."
The Cubs also identified another key trait that drives Folden's success: she's tough.
"You worry or you take a second thought of, 'How are guys going to react to the first time they've ever been coached by a woman in their life?' Rachel's the perfect person to cross this barrier because not only is she one of the most talented people in our industry, she's extremely confident," Stone told MLB.com. "And if somebody gives her crap, she'll get in the cage and probably outswing them."
For now, however, Folden isn't looking too far ahead; she's exactly where she wants to be.
"I'm just enjoying this moment," she said. "I've been in a batting cage for the last 10 years and it hasn't gotten old. So any job that allows me to be in a cage, grinding with hitters every day, that's the job I want. So if that means up the ladder as a hitting coach or coordinator or staying where I'm at, I just want a job where I can be in a cage all day. That's my livelihood."
Since the hirings of Folden and Balkovec, the Giants made Alyssa Nakken the first female coach on a Major League staff in baseball history. And the Orioles named Anaima Garcia their new education coordinator and Liz Pardo the strength and conditioning coach for Class A Short Season Aberdeen.
Rob Terranova is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RobTnova24.