Cubs' Rachel Folden is swinging away at stigma that 'women can't coach baseball'

Sitting in her general computing class at Marshall University, Rachel Folden clicked the "statistics" tab on the NCAA softball web page. As her professor explained how to build Excel spreadsheets, Folden, then a 21-year-old senior, was more interested in who was leading the nation in home runs -- and how far her own total was from the mark.

"Rachel?" her professor called out. "Are you paying attention?"

Several days later at practice, Folden's softball coach, Shonda Stanton, made an announcement. She was issuing team punishments, she said; several players had committed infractions. A few of Folden's teammates were chastised because their grades had fallen below the team standard. But not Folden -- in her case, Stanton had received a stern note from Folden's computing professor, who was displeased that Folden's statistical deep dive had overridden her attention to spreadsheet builds.

"My coach loves to tell people how the only thing she had to punish me for in four years was looking up statistics during class," Folden says, laughing. "I've always been a data nerd."

She has expertly incorporated that love of number-crunching into her career, first as a pro player for the Chicago Bandits and a college softball coach; then as the founder of Folden Fastpitch -- a training facility that Folden ran full time until this past fall, when she became the lead hitting lab tech and fourth coach for the Chicago Cubs' Arizona Rookie League team in Mesa.

The new role makes Folden, 32, one of four women hired to coaching roles within pro baseball this past offseason and the first woman coach hired by the Cubs.

"Her ability to speak about the swing, the mechanics -- those were easy boxes to check," Matt Dorey, the Cubs' director of player development, says. "She was such an easy hire, not just because her credentials were so strong but also because when we got to know her personality and how ready she was to face the organic challenges, male or female, how committed she was to leaning in to this challenge, it really resonated with all of us."

Baseball was Folden's first love. She was a talented multisport athlete while growing up in Southern California, but Little League was her passion. During the spring of Folden's eighth-grade year, her basketball coach -- who also coached softball -- asked Folden to switch to softball. Folden declined. She assumed the league was slow pitch, and she wasn't interested.

"Yeah, OK," the coach responded. "You're probably not very good anyway."

That challenge was all the motivation Folden needed. She joined the rec softball team, then made the varsity squad at Diamond Bar (California) High School, where she excelled, hitting .531 as a senior and earning first-team all-state honors. While she missed baseball, Folden was grateful that her softball coaches and teammates focused on her play and not her gender, which had often happened when she competed in baseball.

"That attention [from playing baseball] was very similar to what I'm getting right now, which is interesting," Folden says. "Once I started softball, I was only getting judged on my talent. That felt like home to me."

Following her graduation from Marshall -- where she was a four-time All-American -- with a degree in history and a minor in math, Folden played five seasons in the National Pro Fastpitch league. Coaching was her long-term goal, so even while she was still playing, she also coached softball at Holy Names University in Oakland and then at Valparaiso.

Folden loved working with players, but she disliked recruiting. So in 2010, she decided to quit collegiate coaching and start her own business: Folden Fastpitch.

"To be honest, I didn't have a goal of how I wanted it to be when I started," Folden says of the Merrillville, Indiana-based training company. "I just knew that the only thing I wanted to do was coach. The scope [of the business] evolved over time."

Initially, Folden didn't have enough clients to keep her business afloat, so she took a second job selling cellphones at Best Buy. "That was a bit of an ego punch," Folden says. "I'm like, 'I'm a professional softball player, and I'm wearing a blue polo selling phones.'"

Folden's first Fastpitch clients were several girls, ages 10 to 13. She focused primarily on hitting instruction while also coaching catcher-specific drills -- receiving, blocking, throws at the plate, etc. -- with catchers, her former position. But hitting mechanics were her specialty.

"Hitting is hard, which suits my personality," Folden says. "I tend to gravitate toward things that are very challenging. I don't think there's a greater feeling than hitting a home run off of someone and knowing you won that battle. ... You work so hard at hitting to get just a tiny bit better, and there's something so beautiful and magical about that."

As word spread about Folden's detail-oriented approach, her strong communication skills and her clients' successes, she added several young baseball players to her roster. And as her business evolved, the data and analytics movement within baseball was evolving as well.

Early on, Folden's use of technology had been limited to watching film. She started a Twitter account in 2011 and began following other private coaches, particularly those who used analytical tools. Chad Longworth, a former minor league baseball player who trained players through his Longworth Sports facility in rural Virginia, was one of those coaches.

Longworth had begun experimenting with bat sensors, using a HitTrax simulator in the cage to measure batted-ball metrics such as exit velocity and launch angle, and the Diamond Kinetics pitch-tracker app to collect swing data such as bat speed and swing-plane efficiency. These data-driven, quantitative methods were ahead of the curve -- and weren't universally used across baseball in 2016. But Folden immediately grasped their potential.

"Rachel was willing to ask different questions," Longworth says. "And that framed the way she thought about training hitters differently, which sent her down into the rabbit hole where most people don't go. That curiosity has gotten her to where she is now."

Folden began introducing her own subtle, data-driven changes: working on specific movement preparation, using pitching machines more frequently and increasing the overall difficulty of practices to better simulate games. She bought a radar gun, bat sensors and other data-gathering tools to provide direct, individualized feedback on swing mechanics for each player.

"When I first started giving lessons in 2010, I didn't use a pitching machine," Folden says. "Once I bought one, I literally used it every day. That helped my approach in realizing that I don't need to give feedback after every single swing. Instead, we work in rounds and I can assess after each round is over. That way, I can keep hitters in a rhythm."

When Justin Stone, head of Elite Baseball Training, a Chicago-based baseball instructional company, approached Folden in 2017 about starting a softball franchise with him, she agreed, on one condition: She would get to work with baseball players as well.

Once Folden began instructing professional baseball players, "she never missed a beat," Stone says. "I'd introduce her to people, and I'd say, 'This is Rachel. She'll be the first female to work in professional baseball.'"

The Cubs hired Stone as their director of hitting last September, as part of an organizational overhaul that put a larger emphasis on technology and data. It followed an MLB trend of hiring more analytical, data-driven minds -- rather than former major leaguers with high batting averages. Soon after, as Stone and Folden were driving to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to run a clinic for the University of Michigan softball team, Stone told her, "I'm going to recommend you to the Cubs."

"You'll have to interview [with the team]," he continued. "But I need someone to run the hitting lab. I'd like you to do it."

Over the course of two days of interviews, Folden talked with multiple Cubs executives. In every meeting, she would ask, "Am I being considered just so you can check a box?" Each time, Folden says, she heard a similar response: "'We don't have time to get this wrong,' [Cubs staffers] said. 'We're not trying to prove a point and then fall behind. We're trying to win a World Series -- several World Series -- and we need to bring in the best possible people to accomplish those.' And that included me."

The Cubs officially announced Folden's hire on Nov. 22, the same day the Yankees announced the hiring of Rachel Balkovec as a minor league hitting coach.

Folden and Balkovec had never met until they both happened to work a clinic for the Northwestern University softball team on Nov. 20, just two days before the official MLB announcements. During a private conversation at the clinic, they realized they would both be working in Major League Baseball -- and breaking barriers for two of baseball's most storied teams.

"I felt like when you meet a dog of the same breed and you're like, 'Wait, I've never seen a dog of the same breed! What is this creature?'" Balkovec said of meeting Folden and learning of their shared secret.

Balkovec is also a former college softball catcher, at Creighton and New Mexico, but her path to becoming a full-time hitting coach in pro baseball was quite different from Folden's. She learned Spanish and has two master's degrees (in kinesiology from LSU and in human movement sciences from Vrije University in the Netherlands) and once altered her résumé, spelling her first name "Rae" to make her name sound more gender neutral after getting passed over for jobs. In 2014, Balkovec became the first woman to hold a full-time strength and conditioning position in major-league-affiliated baseball when she was hired by the St. Louis Cardinals. She later served as the Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator for the Houston Astros.

Balkovec is happy that she and Folden have the opportunity to be trailblazers but wonders what took so long. "There are plenty of qualified softball coaches who can work in baseball," Balkovec says. "Hitting in particular is such a transferable skill, so why aren't there more female hitting coaches? They're coaching almost the exact same movement."

Folden Fastpitch clients Hayden and Delaney Kaminski agree. The brother-and-sister duo began working with Folden four years ago. After Delaney started seeing results at the plate from her individual hitting sessions with Folden, including her first-ever home run, the siblings' father, Mark, suggested to Hayden that he follow suit.

He did -- and saw marked improvements after his eighth-grade season, making his high school's varsity squad as a high school freshman.

"[Folden] really helped me by breaking my swing down into parts," Hayden, now 18, says. "Every lesson, we'd have a new focus: one would be loading up, the next would be going from the load to contact, etc. Going in little stages like that really helped me understand the swing she was trying to teach. And knowing how energetic she is about teaching you makes you care about it as much as she does." (Hayden's senior season is on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, and he plans to enroll in flight school in the fall. Delaney, a high school junior, hopes to play softball in college.)

Folden has carried that passion, for both the performance and the player, into her new role.

"Rachel is able to quickly read the personalities that show up in the batter's box," Stone says. "Some are deep critical thinkers; some are the complete opposite. You have to cue them in completely different ways, and she knows how to do that."

That ability to think and adjust on the fly is significant because few jobs in baseball -- or any sport, for that matter -- are more hands-on than a hitting coach, who must analyze a batter's mechanics and provide instant feedback, sometimes even between at-bats. There's no room for self-doubt or indecision.

"It's a high-anxiety job," Stone says. "It's going to be messy a lot of times, and understanding and having empathy for that [is key]. Having been through it herself helps get Rachel through that guy-girl stigma."

Folden and Balkovec aren't the only women swinging away at that stigma. Alyssa Nakken -- another former softball standout -- put another crack in MLB's glass ceiling when she was named an assistant for the San Francisco Giants in January, making her the first woman coach on a major league staff in baseball history. And in February, the Cardinals hired Tina Whitlock as a coach for one of their minor league affiliates as part of the franchise's Fourth Coach program, which helps develop future coaches and scouts.

"I don't think about [the significance of being one of the first women in MLB] on a daily basis," Folden says. "If I did that, it would become a crutch. I'm one of only four women working in baseball -- clearly, it's not exactly an easy path. I get the social impact of it. I'm here for it, but I just want to do my job really well."

Balkovec says the environment has changed even since 2012, when she landed her first internship with the Cardinals (as a strength and conditioning coach with their minor league affiliate). "When you work in a men's facility, you go into the restroom and -- guess what -- the toilet seat is up," Balkovec says. "Is it because they're a--holes? No, they're just not thinking about it. They're not used to putting it down. [Working in MLB], I metaphorically put the toilet seat down probably daily. When I signed the paper to work for the Yankees, I knew I had two jobs, not one. It's not pressure, it's a responsibility that I pridefully accept. I'm ready, and even if something unfair happens, I know how to handle it. I'm a vehicle for change and I have to be prepared for some things to not go perfectly."

Both women also want to be visible role models for young girls who are just as passionate about baseball as softball. Dozens of players and parents have reached out to them through social media, expressing their support and appreciation.

"When you see young girls who want to work in or play baseball, this gives them one more little nugget of encouragement," Folden says. "When I was a kid, no one was ever like, 'Hey, you know what? One day you're going to be a baseball coach.' It was always, 'Sure, play baseball, but eventually you'll have to switch to softball.'

"Now little girls are going to grow up in a society where there are women working in baseball."

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