Shaun Larkin is a former Cleveland Indians minor league player who played for the Low-A Lake County Captains several years ago and this season returned to them as their hitting coach. He has had an interesting career starting with his playing career which spanned from 2002-2007 and his coaching career that began in 2007. He has continued coaching at several stops before reuniting with the Indians at the end of 2012. Next is a potential advisor role possible someday once he completes his master’s degree.
Q: Let’s start where it all began: draft day. You were selected by the Indians in the 9th round of the 2002 draft out of Cal State-Northridge. It was a long time ago, but do you still remember that day you were drafted and all of the excitement that came with it?
Shaun Larkin (SL): Yeah, it was 2002 and it has been awhile now. It was a lot of fun with the whole draft process with scouts calling and teams calling up until the draft. I was sitting around the computer with my family basically waiting for my name to be called. Actually getting drafted and having my scout call me and going through the signing process was a lot of fun, and then I got to go out to Mahoning Valley to get my professional career started.
Q: You had a nice career hitting .260 with 64 home runs, 310 RBI, and .770 OPS over 565 games in your six-year minor league career. Arguably your best season came in your first full season with the Indians when you hit .266 with 20 homers, 80 RBI and .844 OPS in 128 games with Low-A Lake County in 2003. That performance came in the inaugural season in Eastlake after the team moved to Ohio from Columbus, Georgia. Was that a pretty special year for you?
SL: It was really exciting. I remember we drove into the parking lot and into the clubhouse and everything was brand new. We were the first team there. We really did not know how good we were going to be, we were just a group of young guys playing in our first full season together. Everyone was really excited and we rattled off 97 wins. It was a good mix and there were some really good arms and we had just enough hitting to win, and before we knew it we scored enough runs to win a lot of games in a row and get on some winning streaks. It was one of those things where we just kept winning. We had a tight-knitted group and we hung out together all the time on and off the field. It was just a good group. At the time we don’t know how we did it, we just won. We knew we were going to win every night. It was one of those things where it was contagious and a decent mix of players and our manager Luis Rivera was fantastic. It all came together that one year and it was a lot of fun.
Q: You spent the next few seasons at High-A Kinston and Double-A Akron before you came to a crossroads in your playing career at the end of the 2006 season. Rather than continue to play and potentially bounce around from team to team you decided to pursue a path as a coach. How did that come about?
SL: It started in 2006 when Tim Bogar was our manager in Akron. We were just talking one day about long term stuff and what I wanted to do, and I said that when my playing career was over and I wanted to coach. Then 2007 came along and I was kind of in that in between mode. I had a decent career but I was a little bit older and had not done anything extraordinary per se for my status. For a guy like me I would have had to hit .300 multiple times and done bigger things. I was good but that doesn’t get you to the big leagues. It was that weird transitional phase where here is a good player but it is just one of those situations. I actually ended up breaking camp with (Triple-A) Buffalo as (someone) got hurt and I was there for a couple of weeks until everyone was healthy and then I went back down to Akron. It was the same type of situation and one of those deals where they did not have a spot but they didn’t want to lose me, so the conversation ended up coming that, ‘Hey, we know you wanted to be a coach, how would you be interested in being a player-coach on the coaching staff and continue your career that way, or we can find somewhere else for you to go?"
Q: Was it a tough decision?
SL: At the time I was 27-28 years old and I more or less knew who I was. I really did not want to bounce around in the minors as a player and I felt it was enough for me. I felt it was a good opportunity to get my coaching career started at a younger age and it would give me enough time to really figure out if I wanted to do it, and if I didn’t I would still be at a decent age to figure out something else. Really what happened is I took my stuff from my locker on the player’s side of the clubhouse to the coach’s side. And that was kind of it. It was a seamless change.
Q: You spent another year in the organization as a player-coach in 2008 but did not participate in any games that season. You then left the organization after that season and ended up coaching for a high school team in 2009 and coached in college from 2010-2012. Why did you leave the organization?
SL: There was not a full time spot with the Indians at the time and I wanted to pursue a master’s degree, so it was kind of one of those things that we kind of went in different directions at that time. In the meantime, while I was starting graduate school I helped out at the high school for a buddy of mine, and then after that one year in high school it just kind of snowballed from there. A good friend of mine who is the head coach at Cal State Northridge where I played wanted me to come out there and I took a full time position to coach college baseball. I kind of fell into that at the right time and then came full circle back to [the Indians]. It was an in between time of really trying to figure out what I really wanted to do as a career, what I wanted to do academically and where I wanted to go. In the process of doing that other opportunities with coaching came along.
Q: How did you and the Indians realign in 2012 and you get involved with the organization again?
SL: It was a situation at the college level where it was not ideal for what I really wanted to do. I had reached out to (Indians Vice President of Player Development) Ross (Atkins) and said if there was an opportunity to keep me in mind. It happened to be the right timing as there was a spot open and I went through the([hiring) process involved and ended up being hired around Thanksgiving of 2012. I was happy to get ready to do it again.
Q: This is your second year coaching full-time with the Indians. Last season you coached short season Single-A Mahoning Valley, which was the place you began your playing career. This season, you are at Lake County, which was your next stop in your playing career and a place where you maybe had your best success as a player. What is it like to return to these places and to do so as a coach versus as a player?
SL: It is a lot of fun, especially with these guys as they know I played here and all that. It is fun to be able to pass on my experiences onto them. Just like I was when I was here my first year, they are looking for answers and are looking for ways to get better and fight every night. It is nice to pass along my experiences both positive and negative. You are playing multiple roles as you are not just a hitting coach, you are a mental skills coach, you are an advisor and you play many other different roles.
Q: Things are a little different 11 years later in Lake County. The excitement from that amazing first season is now just a distant memory, but the support of the team is still strong. Do you notice anything different now?
SL: The novelty has worn off as we were the hot ticket in town in 2003. It helps when you win a lot of games, but the people around town are still great and the fan support we have is outstanding and they are involved. It is still a great atmosphere to be in.
Q: What is your greatest memory of that 2003 season?
SL: I can’t put a finger on one specific thing, but it was my first time wining a division and being able to spray champagne in the clubhouse after celebrating a division championship and then going on in the playoffs and into the finals. It was just the culmination of the whole year that was a lot of fun. It was a long season and being a part of it all and our manager being a former Major League player. It was not just one thing. It was the overall experience of the first full season.
Q: As I understand it you are very close to that goal you set out after the 2008 season to complete your master’s degree. What is your area of focus?
SL: I am a paper away from getting my master’s degree in performance psychology. I am writing a pretty lengthy paper now that may turn into a book, which is an aspiration of mine. I am really interested in that side of the game. That is something that I don’t talk about much other than in-house stuff, so I am pretty close to having an advanced level degree which is pretty exciting.
Q: Is this something you wish to incorporate into your baseball coaching career?
SL: It is mental skills techniques. When I am done with this I will be able to do intervention type stuff. Give guys routines with understanding breathing techniques, understanding how their mind works and how their physiological changes work throughout a game and with their performance. Things like performance anxiety and how to get out of that; how to manage stress and allow yourself to perform up to optimum levels more consistently. Just being aware of how your body responds to different situations over the course of competition.
Q: Baseball is so often called a "game of failure" that it would seem to make sense to have someone in the game involved with the mental side of it and learning to control all of the emotions that flow as a result of pressure, anxiety, competition, success and frustration.
SL: That is the one thing that really draws me to it. I know there were times in my career where I was a mental mess too as I was pressing too hard, trying too hard, frustrated…the whole thing. There was never anybody I could go to who really understood what I was going through. There was always a book answer or a generic answer you would get from somebody, but there was never really an answer of when, why and how it applies and that is kind of where I see me myself. Not only do I have the academic base behind it with the research, but I also know how it actually applies to a baseball player at this level and really just understand where they are coming from.
Q: Do you see yourself down the road less as a coach and more in a role of a mental skills advisor to help players cope with the frustrations that come from playing baseball?
SL: Long term that is what I would really like to do. It is just a bigger part of it. At the end of the day we can work on your swing and work on that stuff as much as we want, but if you don’t have the mental component to execute what you have been working on then what is the point? It is something I have studied a lot and struggled with myself, so it is something I am gravitating to more long term maybe as some sort of performance coach or mental skills coach, whatever you want to call it.
Q: This is something that may be beneficial to baseball players beyond the professional level as I am sure college, high school and youth players could use some help with learning how to manage the struggles that come from the game.
SL: Of course, this is expanding into consulting opportunities and a year round thing. First and foremost though, I want to utilize it with the Indians as a full-time staff member with our organization. That is the main goal is to utilize it here with our group and with our guys from Arizona all the way to the big leagues. It covers a lot of different levels as well as the amateur level too, but I would like to use it at the professional level with the Indians in whatever capacity. That is the primary goal and past that we will see.
Q: Have you applied some of your new knowledge on some of your players this year?
SL: It is tough for these guys here because for a lot of them it is really the first time they are experiencing some sort of failure. Having this many at bats in a row or games in a row over a week, it is the first time that they have had that much of an opportunity to fail. College and high school guys are playing three games a week and if they are hot they are hot and if they are not they have four or five days to get over it and they can get hot again right away. Here there is no escaping four at bats a night. I tell them all the time that we picked the stupidest sport you could pick. We picked a sport with a round bat and round ball and have to hit it coming at 90 MPH. We are stupid (laughs). We have to live with the game we chose and live with the successes and failures that come with it. Understanding that you are not going to be perfect and it is not going to be easy, so the last thing I do is try to minimize the difficulty of it. First and foremost I acknowledge how hard it is and why it is so hard, and then you can go through the process of the game and make it easier to handle.
Q: When it is all said and done it is about developing the players. Whether it be as a hitter, a teammate, their mental approach to the game and so on, that is your goal as a coach, right?