Even World Series champions make significant changes ahead of the following season. After nearly 550 victories across seven seasons in the Houston Astros organization, veteran minor league skipper Tony DeFrancesco parted ways with the club that had given him his first shot in the major leagues. Fortunately for DeFrancesco, the Mets were looking to fill their managerial vacancy at Triple-A Las Vegas at the same time. On January 9, the 54-year-old was named the 24th manager in 51s history.
Over the past 23 years, DeFrancesco has earned a reputation as one of the premier player development specialists in baseball. After a nine-year minor league career as a catcher and nearly two decades in the Oakland Athletics’ system, he joined the Astros while they were at the lowest of their lows. While the major league team was in the midst of their first of three straight 100-loss seasons, DeFrancesco oversaw a Triple-A club that sent future crucial World Series contributors Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, and George Springer to the next level. On August 19, 2012, DeFrancesco was named to replace Brad Mills as Houston’s interim manager, leading the team over the season’s final 41 games.
In an exclusive interview with MMN, DeFrancesco addressed his new gig, reflected on his time with the Astros, and offered his thoughts on the state of analytics in today’s game.
First off, congratulations on the new job. How did the opportunity arise, and how did that process play out?
Tony DeFrancesco: Well I spent the last seven years with the Astros, and Jeff [Lunhow] told me I wasn’t coming back, so a couple days later Sandy [Alderson] called me and asked if I was interested in coming out to New York to talk some of the people over here, and everything worked out so I’m really excited to be a Met.
Did the relationship with Sandy going back to your days in Oakland make the process easier here?
DeFrancesco: I would think so, yeah. I was just starting out as a young coach and I went over [to the Athletics organization], played one year with them in the minor leagues, and they were looking for a hitting coach midseason. I started in 1992, I know Sandy was there for a few years, and I got to know him pretty well over there.
Does being a local guy make this a bit sweeter?
DeFrancesco: Oh, absolutely. You’re a New Yorker growing up, I was born in the Bronx then moved to a small suburb in Suffern, NY, but it’s definitely good to be back home and see my family.
Looking back at your career to this point, what are some of your fondest memories?
DeFrancesco: Well first of all I was a Yankees fan growing up and I was drafted by the Red Sox out of Seton Hall, so that was fun. Just grinding over the years, trying to get to the big leagues, and then starting my coaching career. I coached third base for Oakland for a bit, then got to be the interim manager with Houston in 2012, and just watching that organization grow was a treat.
What did that 41 game call-up in 2012 mean to you and your family?
DeFrancesco: That was everything. That was the ultimate reward. I got a chance to manage in the big leagues which was something I always wanted to do, and hopefully one day I’ll get another shot at it, but that’s something that brings back a lot of great memories.
What kind of directive has the organization given you in terms of player development goals for the upcoming season?
DeFrancesco: One thing I do at Triple-A is getting the guys ready for the big leagues. I prepare them, and really make sure that when they get up there they can impact the game. I did that with Oakland, I did that with Houston, now it’s my job to make sure they can compete at Citi Field.
Coaching against Las Vegas many times with Oklahoma City and then Fresno, who were the guys on the other side of the field that stood out to you?
DeFrancesco: The guys that I remember were the ones like [Dominic] Smith and [Amed] Rosario. I saw most of the pitchers that came through there, like Noah [Syndergaard] and [Robert] Gsellman, even [Steven] Matz pitched against us. They’ve got a great group of pitching, and hopefully we can get our guys ready for when they’re needed.
What were the biggest takeaways from the Houston organization in terms of how they run their baseball operations and player development departments?
DeFrancesco: They definitely worked together. The analytics guys and baseball guys were on the same page, and everybody knew what the mindset was when you got on the field and how to implement it. Trackman was very important over there, and I just think you’re giving the players another weapon, to see the results either that night or the next day, they can watch the video and see exactly where they need to improve, like swing paths and what percentage of their pitches they’re using at the right time. I think it helps all around, and if the players want to jump on board, we’ll give them as much information as they want, otherwise, they can just go out and play the game.
Does the World Series victory resonate throughout the minor leagues as much as it does at the major league level?
DeFrancesco: Oh yeah, you definitely feel like you’re a big part. When you’re in an organization, you’re rooting for the big league team to succeed. This is my 35th year and my first World Series ring, and even though I’ve won some championships in the minor leagues—those are no doubt rewarding—the ultimate goal is to get the ring for the organization. Last year I actually got to coach third base for about ten days after their guy had surgery, so it was fun to be a part of it for a while. They had a great thing going.