In 2015 as the White Sox organization was kicking off the early stages of their ambitious retooling, they made a quiet move to begin drawing up the blueprint to develop a new-age baseball manager.
The test subject? Justin Jirschele, a high-motored, minor-league grinder with an impeccable work ethic and boundless energy.
As a player “Jirsch” did more with less, reaching Triple-A despite being signed as an undrafted free agent. On the field he was the consummate banjo-hitting utility player, cobbling together a .277/.336/.322 batting line in four minor league seasons. However, on-the-field prowess has never been a prerequisite for coaching success. Numerous Hall of Fame coaches and managers hail from pedestrian backgrounds as players: Pitching guru Dave Duncan was a light-hitting catcher, revered hitting coach Charley Lau notched only 16 home runs in his 11-year playing career, and current White Sox skipper Tony La Russa’s stat line was, well, look it up … not good.
During the 2015 season while Jirschele was playing in Birmingham, he was approached by White Sox brass to gauge his interest in the opportunity to act as hitting coach for the rookie league affiliate in Great Falls. As a 25-year-old, he felt that it was time to change hats and embrace another side of the game. The still-youthful, now 30-year-old recently shared with South Side Sox, “I knew the odds were against me to make it to the big leagues as a player, and the timing was right. The opportunity was one I couldn’t pass up and that I am very thankful for.”
Jirschele immersed himself in the new role as an instructor, and took to coaching like a duck to water. The transition was seamless for Justin, as his father Mike seemingly infused his son with not only coaching DNA, but a tireless zeal for the work. The elder Jirschele had toiled in minor league obscurity, spending 36 years in the minors as a player and coach before reaching the major leagues with the Kansas City Royals in 2014 as a third-base coach.
After a promotion to Low-A in 2016, Jirschele spent the season as hitting coach for the Kannapolis Intimidators. The 2017 season found the upwardly-mobile Jirschele taking the helm as skipper for the Intimidators. At the time, the job promotion made him the youngest manager in affiliated professional baseball.
“I would say there are pros and cons to being a young manager, but I feel fortunate that I can relate with these guys — maybe even better than an older guy,” Jirschele says. “I don’t know for sure; that’s a question for someone else to answer.”
At this suggestion several of Jirschele’s young wards were asked for their input, and it became obvious that the respect he garners among his players is universal.
Tate Blackman a former White Sox farmhand, says “He’s a manager every player dreams of. He’s been a part of the grind, so he gets it. Jirsch kept the locker room energy up, win or lose, the entire two seasons I played for him. A lot of friendships were made because of him. Love the guy.”
“I could go on forever, but my favorite thing is he always puts the players first and he is out there, hands-on, to prepare his guys every day,” wunderkind first base prospect Andrew Vaughn says.
With the position players clearly entrenched as congregation at the “Church of Jirsch,” it was time for the hurlers to weigh in.
“As a manager, he was really good at not over-coaching,” Jonathan Stiever says. “It seemed like he wanted players to play their game and then coach off that, rather than have them be someone they aren’t.”
And in the front office, Jirschele boasts admirers as well.
White Sox special assistant Nick Hostetler is a big fan, saying that Jirschele “is an amazing communicator, a great baseball mind and an absolute 80 grade person! I’m so glad he’s on our team.”
It is somewhat of a conundrum to try and gauge the efficacy of a minor league baseball manager. The overwhelming emphasis is placed on player development rather than win-loss records or in-game decision-making.
For instance, a lineup is rarely optimized to stack hitters against an opposite-handed pitcher. Conversely, it might be just the opposite, as the manager may try to get his hitters to sharpen their approaches by putting them in the lineup to gain additional reps against a same-sided hurler. On a given night any reliever may be tasked with finishing a game, as traditional high-leverage roles are also rarely considered. If it’s a guy’s turn to throw he will come into a game, regardless of the situation.
“We try to get guys into all sorts of different situations, as well as different parts of the game,” Jirschele says. “A part of development is being able to see how they respond. Just because they may be a late-inning guy in the minor leagues, it doesn’t necessarily mean they translate into a big-league closer down the road.”
Another strategy contradiction in minor league baseball exists in extra innings, when an organization’s first round masher or middle-of-the order run producer may be asked to lay down a bunt. In the minors, the rule of starting extra innings with a runner on second base applies. To preserve arms and prevent late-night bus rides to the next small town, there is nearly a 100% chance that an extra-inning leadoff hitter will lay down a sacrifice bunt to move the potential winning run to third base.
Although the new-age baseball trends have shied away from old-school strategies, Jirschele still places emphasis on teaching young players the fundamentals. “We bunt a lot actually; we want to have everyone ready for these scenarios since they generally show up in key situations late in games,” he says. “The same applies to practicing bunt defenses, or first-and-third defenses. You don’t see these come up a ton, but when they do you want to be prepared to execute.”
How does Jirschele balance the goal of development with the desire to instill a winning culture? “Obviously development is first and foremost,” he says. “On occasion you might have to look past going for a win on a certain night to preserve someone’s development, but it’s also key that these guys have a winning mentality. They go hand-in-hand. A huge part of development is teaching guys to win and getting them to comprehend what it takes; they need to buy-in to the philosophy of team over individual performances. Ultimately, it’s about getting each and every one of them better and helping them reach their ceilings so they can help us win games in Chicago.”
Minor league managers are more of an extension of the player development staff, as they work collaboratively to chart the best path for individual growth for the players. Jirschele stressed the importance of open lines of communication with Chris Getz, Rick Hahn and Ken Williams while maintaining dialogue regarding playing time, lineup structure and a plan of attack for every player. Adjustments are made fluidly, and Jirschele’s input is a key component in providing the home office with valuable information and observations regarding his players.
If one wanted to judge Jirschele’s managerial chops based on wins and losses — although it has been established as a bit of a moot point — the results are encouraging: In three seasons, his ball clubs have won 214 games against 193 losses. Moreover, Jirschele has made two playoff appearances during his short tenure.
From a player development standpoint, Jirschele has graduated Danny Mendick, Seby Zavala, Nick Madrigal, Luis Robert, Dane Dunning, Stiever, Codi Heuer, Dylan Cease, Bernardo Flores Jr., Matt Foster, Jimmy Lambert, and Luis González to their major league debuts. He has also been instrumental in nurturing the growth of numerous top prospects, including Jake Burger, Vaughn, Tyler Johnson, Gavin Sheets, Micker Adolfo and Blake Rutherford. It’s safe to say that the young manager’s fingerprints are all over the current major league championship-contending roster and the franchise’s immediate future.
With the hiring of 76-year-old, Hall-of-Fame manager La Russa mired in controversy over his DUI arrest, along with recent allegations of domestic abuse involving former Birmingham Barons manager Omar Vizquel, it is readily apparent that the White Sox could use a model citizen like Jirschele to help rebuild their battered public image.
With the 2021 season around the corner, Jirschele is likely to take the reins as manager for the Double-A Birmingham Barons. Dependent upon the success of La Russa and his motivation to continue managing as he approaches his eighties, it is conceivable that Jirschele may one day become a consideration in future White Sox managerial discussions.
As much as we like to read and follow the progress of top prospects, Jirschele is a name that Sox fans should track and follow, as he is likely to be just as crucial to the future of franchise.