Inside Pitch Magazine, September/October 2021

Cover Interview: Dave Esquer, Stanford University

Finding the Fit

by Adam Revelette

Inside Pitch Magazine CoverDave Esquer was named head coach at his alma mater Stanford in 2017, succeeding Mark Marquess, who held the post for the previous 41 seasons. Esquer’s first year on ‘The Farm’ resulted in Stanford’s first Pac-12 title since 2004. In 2021, he led the storied Cardinal program to its 17th College World Series appearance, its first since 2008. Prior to Stanford, he won 525 games in 18 seasons at Cal, where he led the Bears to five NCAA Regionals and the 2011 College World Series. Esquer was the starting shortstop on Stanford’s 1987 College World Series championship team.

Inside Pitch: I always hear about the camp scene at Stanford being pretty big-time…

Dave Esquer: Coach Marquess and Coach Stotz started really successful camps here with the goal of teaching baseball to young kids in the area and trying to have some fun along the way. I worked at the camps when I was a player, ran them as an assistant and am one of the guys in charge now as head coach, so it’s come full circle. It's kind of like the janitor eventually becoming the CEO, right?

IP: Are camps as big of a recruiting tool as they used to be?

DE: Recruiting continues to change, but we still get a lot of leads and follows out of our camps. It’s an opportunity for kids who may be interested in Stanford to experience our campus and our program. And then beyond that, we have a number of coaches from highly academic schools at all levels that are helping out. Some programs have really benefited from our camps, along with the kids themselves, of course. They say that there's a place for everybody, and I think that’s true – our camps provide a good opportunity for players to get out there and be seen, add another line to the resume, so to speak. 

IP: You mentioned how recruiting has changed. With that in mind and the academic standards that Stanford demands, it's probably hard to commit players very early, when the academic body of work may not even be close to being completed. How do you navigate that?

DE: Academics are so important, and there are a lot of players that we are ready to commit, but they’ve just started to form their resume in the classroom. Many of the players we recruit have started strong, so if we can get them to continue to move on that path and challenge themselves, that gives them the best chance for admission to Stanford. A lot of times they're already on the right path and maybe we can provide a little motivation by showing them that Stanford may be a possibility.

IP: Your 2021 roster had several minority players on it. Is a diverse team something that you try to recruit intentionally? 

DE: I think we've been pleasantly surprised with how that’s turned out and how the best players have rose to the top and just resulted in a really diverse program. It’s really not intentional, we aren’t trying to balance out numbers or fill quotas, the best players that we've looked at on the recruiting trail and at our camps have fit our style and been pretty diverse. 

We’re proud of that, especially with what we know about the minority numbers in college baseball. But it’s a testament to our kids, who are really good baseball players and also have the academic ability to get in and excel at Stanford. 

My mom was born in Mexico, my father's parents were born in Mexico; he was born in the United States. And I was born and raised in Salinas, which is a pretty heavy farming town with a lot of minorities who are working there.

I think when you dig into the numbers you’ll find that minorities are underrepresented, but what's behind that, I don't know. Is it a prejudice? I can't say that for sure, but it is pretty glaring.

IP: How do you navigate the balance between pressure and accomplishment as a coach?

DE: I really didn't feel heavy pressure coming in. I experienced the high of highs when I was here [as a player], and worked for a great man in Coach Marquess. I wasn't trying to imitate what had been done here in the past. I wanted to do it with my own personality, but I understood the values and the importance of being at Stanford. I know you can be a high achiever in the classroom and a really good baseball player. You can play at the highest level and you can play on great teams here at Stanford.

My sole focus is trying to deliver the same experience that I had when I was here as a student-athlete, which was to build a program with a brotherhood of players that had great camaraderie and an affinity for one another. And I’ll take my chances with a team that’s close and hard-nosed to compete with anybody.

IP: Are there ways that you have found to develop those aspects of affinity, toughness, and other intangibles with your teams?

DE: Baseball inherently creates a certain toughness through adversity within those players who keep getting up after being knocked down, who won’t give in to the game, who don’t feel sorry for themselves or show bad body language. That resilience and the intensity of having to get up over and over again and face the confrontation the game demands, that embrace will breed a toughness inside of you. 

IP: So you step into a program that’s had one head coach for four decades, whom you played for. Were there things you were hesitant to change because they didn’t fit your style as a person or a player? 

DE: I was comfortable that my own style was pretty aligned with the system that Coach Marquess already had in place. It was really just about morphing that with what the players of today were like and what they would respond to. I remind them all the time of the values that the Stanford program has always had. We're not going to mimic the things that other teams do. 

IP: What’s an example of that? 

DE: One example would be that I'm not as big a stickler on sprinting out to your positions. Not because I don't respect that, because I enjoyed doing that myself, and that was a part of who I was. But I think it’s just a way to allow a little bit more individuality for the players. You can’t imitate your way to the College World Series. 

IP: But you can never change the uniforms, right? 

DE: I just go with the ‘I’m just doing what Nike lets us do’ when I get asked that question! But I’ve snuck a couple buttons at the top of a couple jerseys, which is two more than we've had in the past! Some of our players really embrace that old style. Brendan Beck loved wearing the old Stanford script, the same thing that was probably popular in the 70s and 80s. 

IP: So maybe you can get away with the one-button-per-year approach…

DE: I'm not against buttons. I don't have any moral opposition to wearing buttons, but I probably will always keep one buttonless jersey in the program, just as an homage to my brothers from days’ past.

IP: How are you handling the influx of technology with your program? 

DE: The reality is those things are great, just as long as they are a teaching tool. If it helps advance performance, and if the players have an appetite for it, I am in. The challenge is exploring whether everything is a helpful tool or not. Not everything is something that every player can use or needs. You're not trying to program robots. For me, I am trying to figure out if there are some important metrics that we can quantify and adjust, maybe learn a new grip or movement, and allow us to ultimately understand our strengths and play with more freedom.

IP: Is the ‘west coast’ style of baseball a thing of the past with your teams? Or is that just something that you have to play to your players’ strengths?

DE: A little of both. I used to joke that I was morally opposed to bunting in the first five innings, but I can’t say that I never have and never will again. If you’re facing a big time arm you’re not going to get much off of, I get it. The thing for me is the edge we know that the ‘big inning’ creates in a game. Many times, the team that wins scores more runs in one inning than the other team scores the entire game. So if you’re just playing for a bunch of one-run innings, that may not work. And you’re putting a lot of pressure on your pitching staff that way. 

We take our shots at trying to develop some power, for sure. But I think one of the products of the COVID shutdown was that our short game wasn’t as advanced as it could have been. Considering that we didn’t have fall practice and didn’t really get together until February 1, we had to make some choices on what we could focus our time on. And I think the short game lost out.

IP: Did the extra planning help you out a little bit? 

DE: You couldn't help but be a little nervous that the other teams were advancing beyond you, just because of practice time, and that maybe you were falling behind or wouldn't be able to catch up as fast. But I think what we found out, amazingly enough, was that it has had a positive effect on some of our players. And our guys did a really good job with training themselves, so we feel like we were able to catch up pretty quickly. 

It was really just a challenge for our freshman pitchers, who were basically relying on their junior year in high school for the last time they got hitters out in a competitive setting.

IP: How have you implemented the weight room in your programs?

DE: Players now more than ever are becoming accustomed to training during the course of the season. I remember when I was a player, I don't think I learned how to lift weights and play baseball simultaneously until I was in pro ball. Now it’s part of every baseball program, training in season, phasing in and out, and being able to maintain strength. 

When you get a good strength coach who has a good feel for the game, knows where your team is at, and can really connect with your players, it’s a home run. Our current strength coach Gunnar Cederburg has done that from day one. And we've been fortunate, our last few strength coaches have been just outstanding as far as communication with our training staff and our pitching coach, our players. Virtually everything we do is recognizing what our players are doing in the weight room so that we're not reckless with taxing their bodies and opening them up to injury.

IP: What’s something that a recruit must have to play for you? 

DE: I'll be honest, I'll take a little bit more makeup than ability. Guys who play with energy and are a little animated and not afraid to communicate on the field, players who look like they can move the needle with positive body language. I really love it when we are digging a little deeper on recruits and we learn that they are really good teammates who genuinely care about winning.
It’s kind of how I wrap up our recruitment with every player we are engaged with. If everything is in line with grades and ability level, that’s great. If you want to come because you love what our program at Stanford has to offer, that’s great. But if you’re not willing to have a close, personal relationship with your teammates and your coaches, don't come, because it won't be a good fit.

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