WEST SACRAMENTO, California -- During a late afternoon in June, there's no shade to be found on the playing surface of Raley Field. But when Nestor Rojas trots to the mound to throw batting practice in the heat, he's exactly where he wants to be.
"Every single day. To be honest with you, it's one of my favorite parts of my job," he said. "That and coaching third base are my favorite, because they make me feel that I'm part of the game."
Rojas is Triple-A Sacramento's fundamentals coach, a role the player development department in San Francisco created as part of what Giants general manager Bobby Evans described as "a pretty significant rebuild of our system" at the Winter Meetings in December.
"This is about our farm system in 2020 and beyond," Evans told the media during the offseason. "I really want to see [new vice president of player development David Bell] set up an environment and culture in our Minor League system that is consistent with who we are as an organization."
Gary Davenport has the same title at the team's Double-A Richmond affiliate, and Ydwin Villegas at Class A Augusta, but what exactly the job entails varies depending on need and personality.
The fundamentals coach appointed to the highest rung of the Minors was a catcher for seven years in the Giants system and has worked in the organization since retiring as a player in 2010. He relies on his experience as both a specialist (backstop) and generalist (manager) to make as big an impact as he can.
"I'm involved with a lot of different parts of the game, the fundamentals of the game," Rojas said. "I work with the infielders and catchers, pretty much, keeping them sharp for the game and getting them ready to play in The Show. Our skipper, Brundy [Dave Brundage], he works with the outfield [more]. I've been working with the outfield as well, but my strength is with the infielders and catchers."
That strength is something Brundage particularly values.
"Hearing his name and knowing that he managed last year and that he's a former catcher, I was excited. I don't have a catching background -- it's tough to when you're left-handed," the manager said, admitting that it can be a challenge to notice the finer points of his catchers' defensive progress.
"It's like watching your kids grow -- you don't notice if you're watching them day to day. You can get in good habits or bad habits, but they look the same to you when it's not your area. It's nice having a catching guy right here, first-hand, working with the catchers and having that input."
On top of being the equivalent of a roving catching instructor who doesn't rove, Rojas is also a bench coach, an aide to hitting coach Damon Minor and even a help to pitching coach Steve Kline.
"As soon as I heard the news that I was going to be in this new role, my goal was to try to make everybody's job easier -- my manager, my hitting coach and my pitching coach. How am I going to help them?" Rojas said. "Like, today, we did PFP [pitchers fielding practice] and went over some ways to field ground balls. On the other side, with the hitting coach, we just share ideas or tips on how to make those guys better."
His presence has also changed Brundage's role. Working in his second year in the Giants system and second at the helm of the River Cats but his 20th as a Minor League manager, Brundage's day-to-day routine has become more like a Major League skipper's. With Rojas coaching third, Brundage is adapting to managing from off the field while Sacramento is at bat.
| "There's certain areas where you get to have one-on-one. It's not just about checking boxes to keep your job. It's for the ... development of players."
-- Dave Brundage, Sacramento River Cats manager
"[The game is] certainly a lot slower when you're standing in the dugout. It's given me a whole different perspective." Brundage said. "When we started talking about it, we started talking about responsibilities, and David Bell says, 'You know, it's up to you. Certainly, Nestor's done a good job in the third base coach's box, and he's been a manager.' And there's things to learn every day."
Creating a smooth system for communicating signs has been part of that learning process.
"The first few weeks we got [it] ironed out, which is nice," Brundage said. "I always prided myself on managing with my instincts, but it's way easier when you're managing from the third base box, because it comes to you right there instead of having to relay it, and he relays it to the player, and by now we're two pitches later and I'm like, 'I don't know if I got that communicated right.' Sometimes you get that spur-of-the-moment thing where you want that steal or you want that hit and run or that double-steal and you can't just sit there and yell out the conversation from the dugout."
Usually, though, Rojas has anticipated plays even as Brundage works on delivering the sign.
"That's been very pleasing," he said. "Nestor's managed -- he has that feel, which is nice."
He's also been a hitting a coach (for Class A Augusta from 2011-2012 before taking managing jobs in the Rookie-level Arizona League, with Augusta and with Class A Advanced San Jose over the ensuing years). And being on the field affords Rojas a little extra insight into how the River Cats' offense could improve.
"Sometimes, being a third base coach you see a lot of mechanical stuff. First thing, I go to our hitting coach and we just talk together about what they've been working on, and I'll tell him what I see," Rojas said. "Some guys even come to me and ask, 'Hey, Ro, what'd you see from the side?' or 'What should I do?' or stuff like that. The best thing is, we are on the same page. I know what they've been working on. I try to reinforce that or give them a [related] little tip to get better."
That extra set of eyes paying attention to detail is part of what having a fundamentals coach is all about.
"Everybody is working in quality, not in quantity. It's been awesome," Rojas said. "I think it's been one of the best things we as an organization have been doing. It was a pretty good idea from our bosses."
Brundage agreed, reiterating that the new role has allowed everybody on the staff to pay more attention to each player's growth.
"We get more hands-on, more individual time. We're getting more quality than quantity. I think that's been the biggest difference this year, as oppose to just checking boxes and coming out here and saying, 'OK, we've got to do the PFP or we've got to do the....' There's certain areas where you get to go out and have one-on-one," he said. "It's not just about checking boxes to keep your job. It's for the players and it's for the development of players. 'Hey, you know what? This guy needs work at first and this guy needs work behind the plate. Let's get them out. These two guys need to work on their double plays up the the middle. Let's take these two guys.'
"That's the way the game should be. In the past, no matter what organization you're in, there's always, 'OK, well, we're told to do this, this and this, so we've got to do this, this and this,' as oppose to, 'Hey, we've got this 15 minutes for individual work you see make a difference on a day-to-day basis.' You get to use that quality time. That's not just for eyewash. That's what we're trying to get away from, the eyewash and the checking the boxes. It's, 'Hey, this guy is getting better because of this.'"
"Bell told me my job as a fundamentals coach was going to involve a lot of roles," Rojas said.
One of those guys is River Cats utility man Myles Schroder, who was a catcher in the AZL in his debut season of 2011 and has played every position as a pro -- and five positions with Sacramento this year. He first worked with Rojas on the GreenJackets seven years ago and was excited to be reunited with him at the Giants' facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, before Spring Training started.
"He was out there early and was throwing BP to a few of us," Schroder said. "That was nice -- he wasn't getting paid or anything. He was just out there to help out.
"He has a lot of energy. He likes to work. That's the biggest thing -- having somebody who wants to work and is enthusiastic about it and puts in the time. With him, that's what he does and that's what you need. Having [an extra] coach in town to do stuff all the time is big as it is, but one who loves to work all the time is huge."
For Brundage, those parts of Rojas' personality are what make him the right man for the job.
"Just the way the game's gone, and the fundamentals, I thought the Giants were right -- obviously stepping up," the manager said. "He wasn't coming here to be the so-called fourth coach. 'You're fourth in line here and this is the totem pole.' It doesn't work like that. He handles the catching and the third base coaching and he handles the fundamentals.
"He likes to work. I think just the energy. ... He's got good energy. Players feed off that. He's got some flair to him and he's got the passion. He wants to do a good job and he takes pride in what he's doing."