Heavenly Insights Making Ole Sheldon Key Piece in St. Paul Saints Success
Once the helmet goes on, one could easily see Ole Sheldon heading out to fight forest fires or chop lumber. At 6-4, 235, the St. Paul Saints hitting coach is an imposing figure on the field, but it is not his hulking physique that has had anything to do with the role that he has played with his team. It is the fact that his methods of teaching the team’s hitters and the trust that he has earned from his manager have made it so that Ole has quickly established himself as one of the elite coaches in the American Association.
In just his third season with the team, Ole has quickly established himself as one of the brighter young hitting coaches in the game. His methods and philosophies of teaching have quickly provided results for the team. In 2013, the year before he became the Saints hitting coach, St. Paul had a team battering average of .277, sixth in the American Association, and their 95-homeruns was fourth in the league.
In his first season with the team the team average raised eight-points. Last season, he saw his philosophies really take off. The team hit .290 last season and led the league in homeruns with 104, nearly 20 more than the second highest in the league. His philosophies helped to turn catcher Vinny DiFazio into an MVP, and Angelo Songco also had a career year that could very well have made him the American Association MVP had it not been for the year that DiFazio had. Both DiFazio and Songco tied the team record for RBI in a season (82) and Willie Argo scored a team record 78-runs.
While last season was an impressive performance to say the least, Sheldon’s corps of Saints hitters has been nearly as impressive this year. The team has a .284 average, tied for second in the league, which is an impressive performance in and of itself. However, it is the homeruns where the team has really excelled. The Saints are first in homers with 54; that is in just 42-games. The results have truly been remarkable, but it is the philosophies that Sheldon has developed over the years that has really helped these hitters to put up such impressive numbers.
A Career Focused on Hard Work
Born in Roseburg, OR, Ole had success on the diamond nearly from the time he could pick up a bat. He attended the University of Oklahoma, where he had a monster season in 2004. The then junior hit .358 in 59-games with 4-homers and 51-RBI. He clearly had an impressive swing, and that season earned Sheldon a spot with the Houston Astros organization, as he was drafted 14th in the 2004 MLB amateur draft.
Ole immediately reported to Greenville where he hit .217 in 54-games. The next season he was moved to Mid-A Lexington where he began to get comfortable in the professional game. In 68-games that season he hit .259 with 5-homers and 35-RBI. They were solid numbers, but 2006 became a breakout season for the Astros prospect.
Sheldon began the season at Lexington, hitting .328, which earned him a promotion to High-A Salem where he continued to swing the ball well. He hit .292 in 46-games with the Advanced-A club, combining to hit .313 overall with 56 runs driven in.
In 2007, he had another outstanding season at Salem, hitting .298 with 6-homers and 25-RBI. The solid season got him another promotion, this time to AA-Corpus Christi. In 114 games, he hit extremely well, batting .282 with a then career high 13-homeruns and 55-RBI. It was a solid season that led to the Cleveland Indians acquiring him.
He started out 2009 at High-A Kingston, where he hit .267 in 72-games, while showing a lot of power; hitting 13-homers and driving in 54. However, the organization inexplicably opted to release him.
Out of affiliate ball, Ole opted to move to independent baseball, joining the St. Paul Saints as a player. He would appear in the final 30-games of the season for the Saints, and played exceptionally well. In 126 at-bats he hit .340 with 6-HR and 19-RBI.
This would be the start of an impressive run in St. Paul. Sheldon never hit less than .279 as a Saint, and he showed great power in St. Paul. In 2010 he clubbed 22-homeruns, second most in franchise history, and in 2012 he added 20 more. In five seasons in St. Paul he hit 67-homeruns, ranked first in Saints history.
Starting the Second Phase of His Career
After hitting .299 in 2013, Sheldon decided that his time on the field as a player was over, but he had always thought that coaching would be something that would interest him. When Manager George Tsamis asked him to join his staff the decision seemed to be a no-brainer.
“Everybody who plays, who has been involved in the game their whole life, wants to find ways to stay in the game. It was always there that I would want to become a coach if the opportunity was there, but it would have to be the right opportunity. I couldn’t really see coaching in affiliate ball because the season is so long, so it had to be about opportunity, and I really don’t enjoy the high school level. So, when the opportunity came with George I pounced on it right away.”
The decision made sense, not only because of his history with the Saints and with its Manager, but also because he had played with pitching coach Kerry Ligtenberg in 2009, and the pitching coach had been on Tsamis’ staff in 2013. This made the transition even easier, because he already had a great rapport with both.
“Because I have such great relationships with both of them that just kind of made it the perfect situation.”
The relationship was important, but what made the choice an easy one was that he knew that he already had the trust of his manager. That allowed him to not only do his job, but to develop his own sense of what he wanted to accomplish without being dictated to as to how he should do that job.
“You can’t say enough about what George does. I already had such a great relationship with him from a playing stand point. Now he has trusted both Kerry and I and just lets us go, and that really makes it a lot more enjoyable to come to work and makes it a lot easier, because you don’t feel like your boss is micromanaging all the things that you say. He’s always asking for ideas and always asking for our input, wanting us to be more involved and more in tuned with the day to day process.”
The Perfect Guide to Helping Hitters Improve Their Game
The first thing that Ole Sheldon realized when he became the team’s hitting coach was that he was not going to be a guy who came across as having all the answers. Those coaches he shied away from as a player and knew that if he took this approach his own players would be avoiding him as well.
“The coaches who would tell me hold your hands here and you’re going to do so much better. Stand this way and you’re going to do so much better. Those were the guys that I tried to shy away from because if there was an approach that we could all follow that would make us so much better, then we would all just do that. That’s just not the way it works.”
He took a very wise approach with his players, determining that he needed to help that player with an individualized approach to the game instead of creating a one size fits all mentality.
“We’re all individuals. If you take the top 30 Hall of Famer hitters and you take a look at them you see that they all had a different stance, they all had their hands in a different place, they had a different approach, so what works for them as an athlete is what they have to figure out. There are consistencies that all great hitters have, so my job is to take the abilities they have, the talents and gifts they have, and try to harness those things into the consistency that we know that all great hitters have.”
The approach was a winner for many reasons. Ole had credibility because he had proven he could hit at every level he had played, but he also earned the respect of his players by being honest with them. He had ideas, but it was their career, and so he only wanted to do those things that could help his players get back to affiliate ball.
“One of the first thing I tell all the hitters is that I don’t have all the answers. Not even close. I think that my job is just to give information to them and to articulate it to them in as many ways as I can, because everyone hears things differently. It’s their job to take that information and use what works and don’t use what doesn’t work for them individually. They are the only ones who will ever know how good they can be. With that being said, there are always little things that I am telling guys that they can do to improve their game.”
The way he has dealt with the players has not only earned him the respect of his players, but that of his manager as well. That was no more prevalent than last year, when Ole gave shortstop Anthony Phillips the idea of switch hitting. At the time the shortstop was hitting just .210. Sheldon got him to take some BP from the left side and Phillips looked fairly comfortable there. He approached Tsamis with the idea and the Manager totally supported Ole’s suggestion. There was never any doubt in the hitting coach’s mind that he would.
“That comes from George, and he said it from the first time I ever played for him, ‘What’s best for the player is what we are going to do.’ Anthony tried it out and now he is back in affiliate ball. That is when it is truly rewarding when a player makes it back. Honestly, that is the best shortstop I have ever seen professionally, so seeing him back there with this opportunity is rewarding.”
Helping His Players Develop the Right Mindset
If you watch a St. Paul Saints game you will notice one key piece that makes the team so good. No matter what is going on in the game, this team is balanced in how they handle it emotionally. They will get excited about big runs, but watching the dugout, most nights, you would have no idea if the team was up by 10 or trailing by eight. No one personifies this more than Ole Sheldon.
“I think one of the best ways to do that is to understand that when I get super high or super low then the guys are going to get super high or super low. If I keep my same manner throughout the game, then so will they.”
He does admit, however, that he can let his emotions get the best of him at times.
“There are times when I get pretty fired up when we score big runs, but we try to be as even keeled as we can as often as we can.”
It is the mental aspect of the game that made Ole such an impressive hitter, and he knows that this is the area that his teachings will have the biggest impact on a player’s professional career. This is what makes him such an exceptional coach for the Saints, because he sees the traps that stop a person from taking their game to the next level.
“There is a fine line between the player who plays across the river at Target Field and those that are playing here. I don’t think, unless you are in the game, you really understand how fine that line is. To get to the highest level it all becomes about the mental part of the game. For the most part, these guys all have the same athletic abilities, similar abilities to play the game, similar talents. It’s just how you can play this game mentally, that is what you have to have to make it at the highest levels.
“You have a guy that pitches great in the bullpen, but when he gets on the field he can’t throw strikes. A guy that hits 600-foot homeruns during BP but hits .220 in the game with three homers. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a guy that can perform at five o’clock during BP but they can’t turn that same thing on when it’s game time. I firmly believe that our job as coaches is to instill a mental approach that gives them the best ability to succeed when they get on the field.”
The one challenge that he has to really help his players overcome is the fear of failing. The reality is that many of his players were absolute stars in high school and college, but struggled in affiliate ball and this is why they have moved to the American Association. He works to teach his players that they need to focus on their approach and not on the numbers, because one will clearly take care of the other.
“I have become a firm believer that if you hit the ball hard more consistently than everybody else, I like your chances. If you do the things you are supposed to do to hit well, and do them more consistently, I like where you are going to stand at the end of the year, and that is what I try to preach.”
A Work in Progress
The progress of his players is not the only part of the St. Paul coach’s job that that he has to make adjustments with. Ole has had to make some changes in his own coaching style, and that has come with learning and defining what his role is. With all the success he has had already, one must remember that he has only been at this job for three years, so he is still learning as he goes.
“The first year, I was trying to figure out what’s my job? What does George want me to do? This is my third year, and I have to say that working with George really helps, because he lets me do my thing. He really has this mindset that we really want to win, so what do we need to do to make that happen. So, that really helps me to define my job. It’s what I can do with this guy to make him the most successful to help our team win. Just having a clear vision of specifically what we’re doing and then building the approach we are going to take from an offensive standpoint has really helped me to clarify specifically what it is that I’m trying to do.”
While he still may be developing strategies and philosophies. Ole Sheldon has earned the respect of Ligtenberg and Tsamis. Both defer to him on issues related to the offense, and welcome his comments about the pitching staff as well. Tsamis, in particular, has given the Saints hitting coach pretty much free rein to develop the players and the offensive strategy for the team, a power he is appreciative to be entrusted with.
“There is that freedom or that confidence that George has in me that I have that information that I can articulate to our guys. The kind of information that, whether the players use it or not, they will still have it. He trusts that I can get the most out of our hitters, and that is a confidence I can’t express how much that means to me.”
Three years ago the ideal situation materialized for Old Sheldon and he has not looked back ever since. The St. Paul Saints, as a group of hitters, have become the most feared group in the American Association, and he has seen three key pieces from last season’s offense move back to affiliate ball this last Spring. Two still remain there.
Ole Sheldon has already molded the team into arguably the most feared lineup in the league. That is just three years into his job. Can you imagine what the St. Paul Saints lineup will look like in five years? The rest of the American Association can only hope he decides to move to affiliate ball.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA