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The MLB Trailblazer

 

Alyssa Nakken was a lifelong Giants fan who landed an internship with the franchise six years ago. Now she’s paving the way for women in baseball as a full-time assistant coach for the analytically driven organization. 

By: Sacha Pisani

Never before had there been a full-time female coach in Major League Baseball.

Step forward Alyssa Nakken.

The former Sacramento State softball player and lifelong Giants fan, who first joined the eight-time World Series champions as an intern in baseball operations in 2014, made history when she was appointed to Gabe Kapler’s coaching staff as an assistant for the San Francisco Giants in January.

“There are a lot of emotions that come with it. Throughout the interview process, I was just really working towards that next step in my career. I wasn’t thinking about making any sort of history or anything. I was just looking for that next opportunity in baseball, and specifically within the Giants organization,” the 30-year-old Nakken told Stats Perform News.

MLB pioneer Alyssa Nakken

“So, that was my focus for a month and a half of a pretty intense interview process,” she added. “Then at the end, when the offer was made, it sort of hit me. ‘Okay, yay, I have this new job but, wow, there’s this whole extra layer coming on top of it in the form of being the first full-time female coach at the major league level.’ It’s an incredible honor that makes me so humble, then it also lights this other fire within me that is like ‘okay, I have this additional responsibility to ensure that I continue to pave this path for many, many other women who are about to walk it soon after this.’”

Before the regular season got underway, Nakken became the first woman to coach in an on-field capacity during an MLB game when she took over as the Giants’ first-base coach in a July tuneup against the Oakland Athletics.

“It was such a special moment. I knew I had to be prepared,” she reflected. “Antoan Richardson is our first-base coach, who I worked very closely with this season. Before the game, he said, ‘hey be ready, I’m going to bring you in to coach first in the seventh inning.’ I was like okay, there is no benefit in stressing about it or hesitating in saying yes.

“It also went through my head, ‘okay cameras are here and I think the game is on TV. I don’t think a female has ever coached on the field before in an MLB game, this might make a few headlines.’ Sure enough, it made quite a few but I was just so locked-in into the game and moment. I was just focused on really knowing the signs, how the opposing pitcher controls the running game and just being a resource for our players when they got on base. Afterward in the clubhouse when I was able to have access to my phone, (there was an) outpour of respect and congratulations.”

Tyler Heineman bumps forearms with first base coach Alyssa Nakken in a July exhibition game versus Oakland.

Nakken’s historic first regular season as an assistant was far from routine amid the coronavirus pandemic. Initially scheduled to start in March, the MLB campaign was pushed back to July, with the regular season reduced from 162 games to 60.

It made for what she described as “a rollercoaster from the beginning.”

“Back in March during spring training, we were really getting to that halfway point and really working our way up, starting to really get a feel for each other because it’s a brand new staff for the most part and a lot of new players,” Nakken explained. “Then all of a sudden, a complete shutdown. That three months of lockdown was full of emotions. You know when you’re anticipating something, like the anticipation of going to the dentist and it scares you. When you’re anticipating that, it causes some anxiety. For me personally, the idea of maybe having a season or maybe not, the anticipation of it was causing some anxiety.

“Then you had the back-and-forth with the league and players association. For a while, we were like, ‘okay, we think we will be back in mid-May, and then it was nope, June 1, nope, mid-June’… this wild and range of feelings. On top of that, the extreme anxiety the whole world has faced with the global pandemic and wanting to make sure my family was okay and I remained healthy and did all I could to support those around me. Then we get into the season and it came with its own restraints and restrictions that no one has seen before. There’s a benefit though for this season being your first because you have nothing to compare it to really, so I just rolled with it.”

Alyssa Nakken is the first female coach on staff in MLB history.

The Giants (29-31) fell short in their bid to make the playoffs, but there were signs of progress in Kapler’s first season as manager.

San Francisco arguably had the most improved offense in the league, while its leap in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) was one of the biggest by any National League team since the division era began in 1969.

Brandon Belt (1.015), Mike Yastrzemski (.968) and Alex Dickerson (.947) all had an OPS of .900 or higher this year, marking the first time the Giants had three players with a .900-plus OPS in the same season (minimum 150 plate appearances) since Barry Bonds, Ellis Burks and Jeff Kent in 2000.

A big part of San Francisco’s development was its ability to hit well in clutch situations. The club’s .289 batting average in “close and late” situations was the second best in the majors, behind the San Diego Padres (.295). “Close and late” is defined as the seventh inning or later with the batting team ahead by one run, tied, or with the tying run on base, at bat or on deck.

“We went on a seven-game winning streak at one point, and at another point, we didn’t have a great road trip,” Nakken said. “To go through that, it was pretty wild, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

“Almost every decision made this season, there was a huge emphasis on analytics behind it to confirm why we were making a decision.” 

Advanced data and analytics likely played a big role in the Giants taking a step forward. The deeper data and knowledge that comes with it have helped revolutionize not only Major League Baseball, but all of sports as teams have sought to gain every advantage over the competition.

According to Nakken, it’s at the foundation of San Francisco’s philosophy under Kapler.

“We work alongside our analysts every single moment of the day,” she said. “We have a text thread that is just coaching staff and our analysts. They add so much value to our roles and team, and to our game strategy.”

“As coaches, we are involved in a lot of processes of developing the analytics, but it’s really them who put the work into it and give us the reports. Then it’s on us as coaches to learn how to digest that and communicate it effectively to players so it’s not an overload of information. Almost every decision made this season, there was a huge emphasis on analytics behind it to confirm why we were making a decision.”

Abiatal Avelino, left, talks with Antoan Richardson, center, and Alyssa Nakken, right, before a spring training game in March.

So, what is the ultimate goal for Nakken as she paves the way for women in baseball?

Well, with Giants bench coach Kai Correa serving as somewhat of a mentor, she believes she could eventually work her way into a bench role, which is often considered to be a stepping stone on the way to becoming a manager.

“What is exciting to think about is that there doesn’t have to be an end goal, but there is so much to learn in the process to get to the next step of your career,” Nakken said. “I experienced that through my time with the Giants. I think an assistant coach is the best job ever because I get to work alongside all our coaches in all aspects of the game and be a resource for our players in every aspect they may need. My goal in the next couple of years is to really dominate this assistant coach role. I’m excited to go into a full 162-game season with this added knowledge and be able to be a sharper resource.

“Kai Correa has been someone I’ve been learning from so much. There are some things that I really see that if I continue to develop my skills, I could potentially become a bench coach in the future if future me wants that. I know a lot of bench coaches are looking to become managers one day so that just seems like a good path to journey along.”

 

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