SURPRISE, Ariz.—There was no way of knowing Chris Woodward had the makings of a big league manager when he was a scrawny teenager scooping up grounders and spraying line drives around the field at Hollenbeck Park in Covina.
Only with the clarity of hindsight and a relationship built on a shared blue-collar upbringing and two-plus decades in professional baseball did the clues come into focus for Michael Young, a fellow Covina native who played 13 of his 14 big league seasons with the Texas Rangers.
“Woody is a normal-sized guy now, but when he was young, he was tiny,” Young said of Woodward, the former Dodgers third base coach who was named Rangers manager last November. “He was the shortest guy, the skinniest guy, and at that age, you don’t really try to chop up someone’s future.
“But looking back, yeah, it’s pretty obvious how and why he is where he is. In order to manage in the big leagues and spend as much time around the game and continue to excel, you have to really love it. He eats, sleeps and breathes this stuff, so in that sense, it’s not shocking at all.”
Woodward and Young, both 42, went to Las Palmas Junior High School in Covina together and played youth league ball with and against each other before going to different high schools, Woodward to Northview and Young to Bishop Amat.
Young, a fifth-round pick out of UC Santa Barbara in 1997, went on to become a seven-time All-Star infielder and play in two World Series with the Rangers.
Woodward, who grew up idolizing former Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., carved out a 12-year big league career as a scrappy utility player despite being drafted in the 54th round by Toronto in 1994. He was the Dodgers third base coach from 2016-2018.
When Jeff Banister was fired last September near the end of a 67-95 season in which Texas finished 36 games behind Houston in the American League West, it was speculated that Young, now a special assistant to Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, would get the job.
Young was not interested — four years removed from his playing career, he wanted to spend more time with his family — but he gave a ringing endorsement to Woodward, who emerged from a list of 15 finalists.
“I got to see at a fairly early age how much baseball means to him,” Young said. “He treats people with respect. He’s very knowledgeable about the game. He wants to learn more. He’s very well-versed in every different vernacular that baseball requires nowadays.”
Woodward went into coaching after his playing career ended in 2012, and he quickly caught the eye of Daniels, who likened Woodward’s on-field energy to that of Ron Washington, the former Texas manager and infield guru who guided the Rangers to the World Series in 2010 and 2011.
The feedback Daniels got about Woodward from Dodgers executives, coaches and former players was favorable and jibed with Young’s assessment. And Woodward nailed his interview.
“What stood out about Woody was how authentic he was,” Daniels said. “We really got the sense that he’s the same guy whether he’s talking to the media, the players, the fans, his family, the front office, ownership. It’s what you see is what you get.
“Over the course of a long season, that’s critical. The players need consistency. They need to know what to expect, because whether you’re winning 100 games or losing 100 games, the highs and lows are what really kind of get you.”
The Rangers have squeezed several of those extremes into the last decade. Three years after their back-to-back World Series appearances, they went 67-95 and finished last in the AL West in 2014. They won division titles in 2015 and 2016. Last year, they were back in the basement.
The Rangers are rebuilding around a promising young core that includes sluggers Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara and closer Jose Leclerc. Woodward will have the luxury of managing — at least in the short term — without the kind of pressure his former boss, Dave Roberts, faces every season.
“In L.A. you have to win now, the expectations are to win the World Series,” Woodward said. “I have the luxury of needing to develop guys. We have to hold ourselves to championship standards and expectations. At the same time, when we fall short, we need to address the issues as to why.”
To change the fortunes of the Rangers, Woodward must change the culture. Success will be measured more by how players mature and improve and bond together than by wins and losses.
“He’s really about the process, getting better every day and growing, and I think that’s really important with where we’re at right now as a team,” said Gallo, who hit .206 with 40 homers, 92 RBIs and 207 strikeouts last season. “He’s not worried about results.”
Woodward wants players to be more aggressive offensively instead of “sitting back on your hands and waiting for things to happen,” as Gallo put it. With so many power-hitting lineups in one of baseball’s most hitter-friendly parks, the Rangers have too often played for the three-run homer.
“There was more of a be-patient approach, and it was a little frustrating because we’d have to take a lot of pitches and we’d fall behind in the count a lot,” Gallo said. “In the big leagues, you fall behind, and the numbers say you’re going to be out most of the time. But when you get ahead, things go your way.
“It’s more of an analytics thing that Chris is embracing. Look at the numbers when you’re 1-0 compared to 0-1. He wants us to get ahead however we can. That’s nice, because as a player, you never like to go up and be given the take sign. It kind of handcuffs you.”
Woodward spent the past three years with a team that relies heavily on analytics to make roster, lineup and in-game decisions. Numbers will play an important role in his new job, but Woodward won’t be a slave to them.
“I love information, I really do,” Woodward said. “If I’m playing blackjack, I’m counting cards. If I’m playing poker, I’m taking advantage of the odds. I’ll ask for a lot of information to help with decisions — what are the probabilities of this vs. that? But I’ll also go by feel.
“So if Nomar [Mazara] struggles against lefties in the first month, I’m not just going to sit him. And we’re not going to scrap everything we do if we go 1-8 at some point. You have to ride through some of these development things.”