Since joining San Diego State in 2014, Joe Oliveira has helped the Aztecs to four 40+ win seasons, five Mountain West Championships and five NCAA Regional appearances. During that time, he’s coached three big leaguers and 31 MLB draft picks, and his recruiting classes are routinely ranked amongst the top 25 in the country.
Oliveira has also served as coach for USA Baseball’s National Team Identification Series for three seasons and was the head coach in the Northwoods League (Battle Creek) in 2013. He was a four-year letterwinner and a three-time All-Big West Conference selection at Pacific, and played in the Baltimore Orioles organization afterwards.
Inside Pitch: You got the opportunity to manage a team in the Northwoods League at 25 years old. What was that like?
Getting to manage in that league at such an early age was a huge experience. I went straight from playing minor league ball to managing kids that were only a few years younger than me. I knew I wanted to coach college baseball and I knew I needed to get some coaching experience in order to land somewhere. It was the first time I ran an offense or wrote a lineup. I got to develop my coaching style and work with some great kids from great programs. I probably learned more from the players than they did from me, because I was picking their brains all summer about what their coaches did back at their respective schools.
IP: Describe your experience working with USA Baseball.
Working with USA baseball was incredible. Definitely one of the highlights of my career so far. I did the 14u NTIS (National Team Identification Series) for three straight years. It was great getting on the field and getting to know the best players in the country at that age. I’ve kept great relationships with a lot of them. It’s given me a great baseline of what to look for at that age too.
IP: You are a recruiting coordinator AND a hitting coach. How do you balance those two roles?
Balancing my role as hitting coach and recruiting coordinator can be tough. It’s definitely something that I feel like I’ve gotten better at each year. My mindset is that our current players come first. These are the guys that we recruited and told during the recruiting process that we would do everything in our power to develop to the best of our ability. So I make sure my focus is on them first and then work the recruiting schedule around that.
With that being said, recruiting is the lifeblood to every program so we have to make sure we keep getting talented players and keep getting better. Sometimes it takes a little creativity, like scheduling some hitting sessions in the morning if I’m going to watch a game in the afternoon, or watching video of our guys while I’m on the road and sending them some ideas of what I saw in their swings. With the recruiting calendar changing, it makes it a little bit easier, the more quiet periods in the fall makes it a little bit easier to focus on our team.
IP: Give us your keys to recruiting – what are you looking for?
When we look at hitters, obviously we want five tool guys, but those are hard to find, hard to get and harder to get to show up on campus. So we really try to build a complete team by getting multidimensional guys that can help us win in a variety of ways. We try not to get too many of the same type of guy too. We want guys with the hit tool, meaning guys that are confident in the box and carry themselves with confidence. Bat speed is a must, guys that are able to handle velocity as the pitchers get better. If they are a middle guy we like to see some high-end athleticism, if they are a corner guy, we like to see some power.
On the pitching side, strike throwers are a must, so we look at the arm swing and ability to repeat a delivery consistently. Guys that can get downhill and also have the frame to eat up some innings, but we have had some smaller (under 6’0) guys, but they have really quick arms and ability to spin the breaking ball. I also like to see how a pitcher competes when it isn’t a clean inning. A lot of times, you can see a pitcher’s real stuff and competitiveness when he’s out of the stretch and runners are in scoring position.
IP: What are your favorite drills?
I’m a big lower half guy. We usually start from the ground up; it’s hard to keep your eyes still and your bat on plane if you aren’t balanced with your lower half throughout your swing. We do a lot of back knee touches, follow throughs and holding our finish early in the Fall. From there we work on taking a direct path to the ball- our ability to be balanced with our lower half allows us to do that. I really like the high tee drill to get going with that. If you’re off balance, pushing forward or too long on the backside, you won’t be able to handle the high pitch, and that drill gives you immediate feedback of where you are.
I really like offset hitting as well. We set up the machines as if the pitch was coming from the opposite middle infielder and put a line down so the hitter has to stride straight towards the mound. In order to hit a pitch coming in at that angle, the hitter has to get his hands inside the ball. Once a hitter is able to do that consistently, he’ll be able to handle anything with a good approach.
IP: What does ‘west coast baseball’ mean?
West coast baseball is really deep. You have to be extremely fundamental and resourceful. There are so many programs that can beat you on any given day. There are less than 50 Division I schools west of Texas, which means a lot of the talent on the west coast is generally divided up between those 50 schools. So you have to be mentally ready to play every day and do things correct in all areas in order to be a consistent winner.
IP: What was it like working with Tony Gwynn?
I worked with Tony for a year before he passed away. He was the one who hired me, well, Mark Martinez convinced him to. I remember my first week on the job and he called me one night and leaves a voicemail saying that he wanted me to come into his office the next day. I was 25 at the time, just hired, and I don’t think I slept the entire night thinking that I did something to piss off Tony Gwynn. I get to the office at like 6am the next day and wait there for hours until Tony gets there. I go into his office when he arrives and he says to shut the door behind me. I’m practically sweating in anticipation at this point. He starts by saying, “you know, Joe, it’s really important that you don’t say anything about this meeting. We really aren’t supposed to do this in our profession, but I want to invite you into our fantasy football league.” I immediately started laughing, basically in relief. He went on to explain that there was no money involved and it was just for fun, but he still didn’t want to take any chances of anybody knowing.
Another funny story was one practice we were having an intra-squad game and Tony was in the dugout calling out what pitch the pitcher was throwing right when he took the ball out of his glove. It was unbelievable. On top of that, he was wearing an eye patch because he had some swelling from some of the treatment he was going through. So he was sitting there, twice as far than the hitter was, using one eye, and knew every pitch that was coming. He called Mark over to show him what he saw, then he called me over to try to show me and started calling anybody close to see if they could see it. Nobody else could see it, but he saw something that the pitcher did as he took the ball out of his glove to separate and throw home, where he knew every pitch that was coming. It really hit me right there at what a special talent he was and he was so much more than just a good swing. He knew the game so well and studied it so hard that he gave himself every advantage possible.
I’ll never forget his laugh. I think anybody that knew him will have that laugh stuck in their heads. It was a special kind of cackle. And it’s crazy that his son, Tony Gwynn, Jr. has the exact same laugh. Tony Jr. comes around a lot and there have been a few times where he’s laughed and I get the chills because it sounds so much like his dad.
It was kind of surreal for me, I grew up in San Diego idolizing him, so getting to work with him every day was special. One of the first things I noticed or felt was that he treated everybody around him with respect. That has really stuck with me. Here was a real-life Hall of Famer, and he took the time to say hello to anybody that he crossed paths with. To see how people would react that when Tony Gwynn went out of his way to simply say hello them was really cool. We all get caught up in our daily routine and what we have to do, and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone, but I really try to be how Tony was in that aspect. I try show respect to everybody I cross paths with, sometimes it just takes a simple hello or acknowledgement.