Cookeville (Tenn.) High School head coach Butch Chaffin has spent more than 30 years in the game, with prior stints as an assistant coach at Tennessee Tech, a Special Assignment Scout for the Kansas City Royals, and an assistant with USA Baseball. Chaffin has led the Cookeville Cavaliers to 13 District titles, six Region titles and a State Championship appearance. He has coached 19 All-State players, five High School All-Americans and 126 players who went on to play college baseball.
Inside Pitch: You’ve worked on the pro side, as a Division I assistant and for the majority of your career as a high school head coach. What do you like about the high school game compared to other levels?
I love high school baseball. I love it because you can see the growth. Players come to you as immature 14-year-old boys with no real concept of how a team works. Most of them have played for eight years or so, but they think that baseball is just throwing, catching, and hitting. You teach them how to work and develop an approach to what they are doing. When they leave, they are 18 and much more mature young men. When you learn that the work is going to happen and that you are tougher than you think you are, things begin to click. As with anything, some of our players “buy in” quick and others take longer, but the thrill of seeing them learn to work at this level is a rush.
IP: Who do you consider to be your coaching mentors?
Wow, where to begin? I have so many. Obviously, my coaches throughout my life taught me a baseline for what I wanted to do. My high school coach David Little instilled in me a love of work. My JUCO coaches Jackie Reavis and Bill Gardner helped me develop a love of strategy. My four-year coach David Mays taught me about practice planning. I have made so many friends who love players and baseball. I have groups, my “PBI Mafia” (Camp friends) boys and my “Nekton Brothers” (USA Baseball friends). These are guys I talk to all the time, daily about baseball.
Baseball is such a great game. The people in this game are so good. Baseball coaches are so open to share information and are a tight knit group.
IP: When and how did you get involved with coaching?
I left for college in 1981 and thought that someday I would be an architect or engineer. No offense to engineers, but I looked around the room and thought, I am not like these people! I wanted to talk and interact and they wanted to just do their work. I coached a Little League team when I was 18 and we had a lot of success, which was when the itch started. I put the best thrower at catcher and my two players who could catch the ball at first and third. The plan was to throw them out at first and if we didn’t throw them out at first, the catcher would throw them out at third. We also worked on bunting and base running a lot. I was hooked.
IP: What’s your advice when your players ask you how they can get an opportunity in college baseball?
Make good grades. If you have good grades and your ability will allow, you can play anywhere. You can create options with good grades. We monitor grades weekly and mention it daily. We have a saying, “F’s don’t travel.” We don’t allow players with failing grades to make road trips. Some may think our emphasis on grades may be over the top, but it is motivation. Also, make a commitment to getting stronger. We are fortunate to have a really good strength and conditioning program. We want our players strong and in shape. We feel like that gives them an edge when they play and helps prevent injury. I am amazed at the number of schools that don’t lift and if they do, a football coach in a strength class may have a different agenda for them. We are lucky – I have an assistant coach who knows what baseball players need in the weight room.
“The game knows"…I truly feel that what goes around, comes around for those who work hard and do things the right way, especially in baseball.
IP: There is a very strong junior college presence in Tennessee. What do you tell your players when they are getting recruited from some of those type of schools?
I am a JUCO fan. I played at a JUCO – Walters State – and it was life-changing. I matured, was exposed to great coaching, got to play right away, and had a great experience. I think for many it is a great avenue to continue their athletic careers. If they have good grades and go to a junior college, the work is easier for them. Plus, attending JUCOs in Tennessee is basically free for many of our players, and we have some of the best JUCO coaches in the country here. Many times, it is a no-brainer for a player to attend.
IP: How do you implement technology in your program?
I would say we are a regular high school in terms of our budget. I would love to have thousands of dollars to invest in equipment to help our players, but we still find a way to measure. Measurement is motivation. We use Blast and a radar gun to help measure things with our hitters. With high school hitters, Blast helps show us their angle of attack on the ball. The radar gun helps them find their “ceiling” on their exit/bat speed and work back to functional. We want them to “be on time” and “find the ball with their barrel.” We use the Pocket Radar with our pitchers, to show the difference in fastball and offspeed pitches. We outsource our pitchers to be measured by Rapsodo and find that they have effective spin on two seam fastballs.
IP: Alright – you’re commissioner for a day. How would you change MLB baseball?
How about a list?
I would not over-legislate it. Let the players police the game. This is a glaring problem. They have taken the game away from the players.
I would make a universal designated hitter so we wouldn’t have to watch pitchers hit. Glad to see them experimenting with that in 2020.
I wouldn’t worry about the speed of play. This is being done so that the average fan isn’t bored. If I am paying hundreds of dollars to attend a game, I want it to flow and not feel rushed. I love the game within the game and the fact that there is no clock.
I like matchups, so the new relief pitcher rule is silly to me.
I would lower the ticket prices so everyone could attend.
I would play some postseason games during the day, especially the World Series!
IP: What has been your message to your current (and in some cases, now former) players during the COVID-19 pandemic?
This is a tough one. We are dealing with things that are out of our control. As we are talking, this is still a huge unknown with how everything is going to play out. The seriousness of the situation is still relatively unknown. We have to control what we can control. It is a huge life lesson on how suddenly the end can occur. We had eight seniors who I am very close with whose high school careers ended just like that. But while baseball was put on hold for a while, I reminded our guys that with the passing of each day, we get closer to the end point of all this, we get closer to getting back to normal.