All Star Break Discussion #1: Pitching Coach

With the All Star break upon us, now’s a good time to deviate a little from the day to day game post-reaction loop. Over the next 3 days there will be a different discussion topic each day. Today we start with building the ideal pitching coach.

Chuck Hernandez caught a lot of heat early in the year. That criticism has quieted somewhat with the staff posting a 3.95 ERA since May 13th. But this discussion is less about the merits of Chuck Hernandez and more along the lines of role playing. You’re the manager/general manager. What are you looking for in a coach?

Some things to consider:

  1. Do you want someone with a specific philosophy or system that all pitchers would adhere to, or do you want someone who tries to leverage the strengths of the arms he’s given?
  2. What about pitcher workload? Old school where you see how far a guy can go and pitch counts are for wusses, or someone to coddle the arms and make sure they never ever throw more than 100 pitches or pitch 3 days in a row?
  3. Do you want someone who is going to emphasize mechanical tweaks and changes all the time, or someone who will let pitchers just throw and work more on their psyche and confidence?
  4. A pitch to contact philosophy or strike everyone out philosophy?
  5. Someone who embraces objective data or someone who embraces their own observations?
  6. When game planning how much emphasis is put on pitching to the pitcher’s strengths versus pitching to the oppositions weaknesses?

Finally, once you’ve selected someone, how do you evaluate whether they are doing a good job? How do you decide how much credit/blame is due to the coach and those he has to work with?

I don’t mean this to be a Chuck Hernandez bash (or love) fest. But feel free to cite examples of what you like or don’t like about Hernandez or any other pitching coach to help explain your preferences. And if there are any other qualities or traits you’d look for, feel free to include those as well.

38 thoughts on “All Star Break Discussion #1: Pitching Coach”

  1. I have nothing to add to the pitching coach discussion. I just felt sorry for this lonely thread with no posts, thought I’d give it a little love. There you go, sweetheart.

    But I do have a suggestion for another break thread. Statistics. As in:

    a) Useless/irrelevant and misused statistics.

    b) Measuring with statistics versus predicting or projecting with statistics.

    c) The Meaning of Standard Deviations for Dummies (like me). When is a big variance not so big, and a small one huge?

    d) Stat categories you’d like to see altered somehow or done away with altogether. A couple personal examples: W-L for pitchers and AB. Not to be confused with a).

    e) The best and most meaningful stats and what they’re good for.

  2. I was wondering if there is any way to determine if there were more arm injuries when pitchers used to throw a ton vs. now when they are closely monitored? I think that some pitchers are given too much info on opposing hitters and tend to overthink what they are doing rather than throwing thier best pitches and challenging the batter to hit them. There are very few modern era pitchers that walk out to the mound with the mentality that noone on the other team is good enough to hit thier “stuff”

  3. What I want from a pitching coach are the following:

    1) Convince pitchers to throw strikes.
    2) Make sure your pitchers are ready for the season.

    Number 1 was really put into contrast in the Twins series. It was odd watching a staff where every member comes in and throws strikes, and therefore works deep into the game, allowing a well-rested bullpen to shine. I don’t know what the role of Chuck in this is and what the roles of the scouts and minor league coaches are, but the job is not getting done.

    Number two obviously did not happen. I wonder how much time Chuck was forced to spend trying to fix Dontrelle, and therefore could not give to the other pitchers. I feel like Dontrelle may have gotten so much attention that everyone else was kind of free-range.

    In general, I feel that this pitching staff has underperformed its talent level. I have no idea if it is a pitching coach problem or a scouting/minors problem, but something needs to change.

    Sean, I’ll try to give you a little hand with C) without too many numbers. It all really comes down to sample size. If you flip a coin, four heads in a row is not a big deal. It happens. Twenty heads in a row is a big deal. Assuming you don’t want a course on statistics, the easiest way to try to evaluate small sample sizes is with peripherals. Looking at things like BABIP, LD%, HR%, and BB/K for a batter give you a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Comparing these to a guy’s career stats and stats for the year across the league allow you to roughly evaluate the role of luck on his season. Similarly, you can look at things like BABIP, K/9, BB/9, and HR% for pitchers. has great graphs for this sort of thing. Basically, there is no ‘magic bullet’ level where the sample size is big enough to completely accurately rate an occurrence as skill instead of luck. But looking at peripherals goes a long way towards helping you figure out that Armando Gallaraga probably can’t keep this up. Assuming that that is what you want out of standard deviation, don’t worry about the actual ugly nuts and bolts of standard deviation. To give you a direct answer to your question, a big difference is not big when a sample size is small. Adam Dunn could have 8 HR in five games; it doesn’t mean he’s good enough to hit 160 HR in 100 games. The peripherals for that period would be out of whack with the rest of his career.

  4. Billfer, just wanted to take a moment to thank you for this blog, which has become a great place for the whole Tiger community to hang out. I know its a ton of work (even if a labor of love), so just wanted to let you know it’s appreciated.

  5. Ryan

    Thanks, but I am interested in the ugly nuts and bolts of standard deviation. I understand all sorts of statistical generalities. I’m more interested in the specifics.

    We all use statistics in our baseball arguments and debates. Most of us could stand to use them a little better, a little more knowledgably, and thus avoid common errors.

    Something that occurs to me as a (possible) example of “you might think so, but you’d be wrong” – one of many – would be the following assertion:

    .380 OBP is to .360 OBP as .400 is to .380.

  6. At this point, the performance of the starters is more or less in line with what would have been projected at the start of the season–with Galarraga being a fantastic surprise.

    Galarraga 3.27
    Verlander 4.15 (a tad high but rapidly falling)
    Bonderman 4.29 (out for year)
    Rogers 4.55
    Robertson 5.26
    Bonine 5.40

    Willis was, of course, horrible–but it’s hard to pin that on Hernandez.

    The starters rank 8th among 14 AL teams in ERA–mediocre but not disastrous, especially in light of the Bonderman/Willis situations.

    So that leaves the bullpen, which we knew would be bad. They can’t throw strikes in key situations. But it seems pretty clear that Leyland and Hernandez emphasize throwing strikes and letting the cards fall where they may.

    So it’s hard for me to come up with a big gripe about Hernandez or a specific strategic change that should be implemented. The best hope is that the starting pitching continues to be solid and Zumaya/Rodney regain their top form after the break.

  7. In my mind the ideal pitching coach is more of a psychological counselor than anything else. The pitchers themselves have made it to the big leagues based on their talent, and I think the coach should let that talent be. Obviously when a guy is struggling, there might be some sort of mechanical flaw that the pitching coach can help fine tune through video study and all of that (see Verlander, Justin) but by and large I think you just have to let them throw. I don’t know that a standard philosophy on “how to pitch” across the organization works, as each guy has different tools to work with. Of course, whatever the hell Dave Duncan is doing in St. Louis is working…

  8. Sean: I think .380 vs. .360 is a larger difference than .400 vs. .380 OBP wise. The league-average OBP is like .330, so .360 is a lot closer to that than .380. When you are talking .400 vs. .380, both are excellent. Not that .360 is horrible or anything, just closer to the mean. I don’t know if that makes sense. I do know that evaluating a pitcher on W/L is pretty foolhardy, though.

  9. And a final post. Stats I like: BA, HR, RBI, W/L, sarcasm. Stats I don’t like: VORP, WARP, OPS, OBP, EQA, ERA+. Seriously, though I like to look at ERA+ and OPS+ as a quick snapshot for how a guy is doing. Then dig a little deeper to see why those numbers are what they are. For pitchers looking at K/BB (pretty obvious – is he getting more non-defensive outs than he is giving away free baserunners?), K/9 (how many outs does he get without his defense being involved?), BB/9 (is he giving up too many free baserunners?), LD% (is he getting hit hard?), GB/FB (is he making the most out of his defense?), HR/FB (is he keeping his flyballs in the park?), BABiP (is he Gavin Floyd?). Generally by looking at those numbers you can figure out why the ‘traditional’ stats (ERA, W/L, BAA) are what they are.

  10. Chris: Well, you get what I’m pointing at with my example. Things aren’t always what they appear to be.

    I suppose there are things in baseball statistics that are (boy, I’m getting in over my head now) more logarithmic than linear. You don’t have to bat .500 to be twice as good as a .250 hitter… or do you? I suppose I’m looking for the key to the Richter Scale of ERAs and OPSs and such.

  11. “And a final post.”

    Well, that was a littler anticlimactic, I must say. I thought you’d at least work a Hey-oh in there for old times’ sake.

    Anyway, good luck to you in your future endeavors, Chris, from all of us here at DTW.

  12. No. Sean is correct.

    Assume 200 hypothetical batters.

    .360 = 72 runners
    .380 = 76 runners
    .400 = 80 runners

    4 runners difference either side, as would be predicted.

  13. I suppose I should’ve been more specific. Like “And a final post in a string of run-on posts”. Hey-oh.

  14. Chris Y

    I wasn’t trying to be correct. It was just an example of a question. The difference between 76 and 72 or .380 and .360 is in at least one sense more significant (than that of 80 and 76). What does this mean? I dunno.

  15. Chris in D, welcome back! It was like time stood still while you were gone. Really weird. All these numbers must cause voodoo mind tricks like that. Somebody must be praketin’ richcraft.

  16. It should be noted that Justin Verlander is now sporting a 100 ERA+. The ace is league-average now, baby. Good things are in store for us all.

  17. “The ace is league-average now, baby.”

    Cool. He matches the 47-47 team as a whole now.

  18. Don’t mean to be a dick about this, but let’s try and stay in the vicinity of the topic.

  19. Sorry, billfer, I’ll quit it with the tangents. If I were to give a letter grade to Chuck Hernandez for 2008 so far I’d give him a C+. To a certain degree, he can only play with the hand he’s been dealt, relying on guys like Eddie Bonine and Battlestar Galarraga to get it done. Battlestar has been a nice surprise, so that’s a point in Chuck’s favor. On the other hand, the starting staff seemed woefully unprepared for the start of the season, with all 5 guys struggling out of the gate so I think some of that blame goes to Chucky H. I think the ideal guy is more counselor than coach, and should operate with the philosophy of “throw strikes and trust your stuff.”

  20. It must be extremely difficult for a pitching coach to make a big difference either psychologically or mechanically. He’s dealing with, for the most part, guys that are younger than he is, and probably more accomplished in their craft than he ever was, and have made it to the major leagues. Human nature will make these guys look at anything Hernandez says with some degree of doubt, ‘cuz they are the millionaire guys that have always been successful at every stage of their career, and he is just a coach who didn’t really accomplish much as a pitcher. I would also bet that, for the most part, most pitchers would view suggestions for changes to their mechanics with a great deal of doubt. So, Billfer, I suspect that pitching coaches (and hitting coaches as well) are probably overated at the major league level. Minors, that’s a different thing, as guys in the minors would know that they are still on a learning curve. I just can’t imagine Jason, Nate, or Kenny seriously listening to CH suggest changes to their mechanics.

  21. So maybe the ideal pitching coach is the one that can make a difference in the 4-5 starters or the fringe bullpen guys.

  22. 1. Specific Philosophy: First pitch strike. First pitch strike. First pitch strike. Repeat it. Over and over and over. It’s just so simple. You’ll bring the best out of every one of your pitchers when you put them in a position of pitching ahead in counts 0-1, 0-2, 1-2. Trust your stuff and pitch. If you can achieve those counts consistently, you’re gonna win games. No matter who’s pitching.

    I would be interested to know how teams fare overall relative to their “first pitch strike” stats and “first-and-second-pitch strike” stats… My guess is there is a positive correlation to wins, and also teams like the Twins are much better at it than the Tigers. Attributing a part of that trend to solid coaching stands to reason.

    2. Pitcher Workload: Limiting pitcher workload is all a sham. I find this one of the most interesting phenomenon going on in baseball right now. It’s like one day someone came up with an arbitrary pitch count, and everybody jumped on board like drones to light — regardless of circumstance or situation. How bizarre is that? There is absolutely a time and a place and many situational circumstances where the team should monitor/limit a pitcher’s workload, but to arbitrarily do so is ridiculous. Apparently Lou Pinella agrees:

    There is also no real research, to my knowledge, that shows a pitcher’s effectiveness decreases or his risk of injury increases after throwing X number of pitches. In other words, every pitcher has unique durability and ability. There is also a convincing line of reasoning that argues coddling pitchers actually hurts them in the long run, and that increasing pitch counts could lead to pitchers becoming stronger and more durable. How about this: If a pitcher is effective in the 100 – 150 pitch count range, let him pitch. If he’s not, don’t. Dah! I expect in the coming years an avant-garde manager with maverick instincts will buck the trend — same manager’s bullpen will become invincible — and the whole philosophy will change again.

    3. A pitch to contact philosophy or strike everyone out philosophy? Depends. The former is certainly easier to come by. If there were a plethora of strike-everyone-out pitchers out there, I’m sure you’d wanna go that route.

    4. When game planning how much emphasis is put on pitching to the pitcher’s strengths versus pitching to the opposition’s weaknesses?

    Essential. I don’t think it’s random that the Tigers have been shut out so many times this year. Opposing pitching staff/coaches have figured out our lineup and employ a specific strategy facing us. The Tigers 1000-run lineup — while not to downplay its formidability in any way — is nonetheless transparent. Often people on this site will comment, “…how come the Tigers make such-and-such mediocre pitcher look like Cy Young?” Answer: Because such-and-such pitcher is employing a specific pitching strategy against a power-hitting lineup. A blatant example is watching opposing teams pitch to Pudge in 2-strike counts. He’ll chase the high fastball 75% of the time. Or Inge last year in 2-strike counts. Or the 2-strike slider to Monroe in 2007. And there are probably countless other examples much more subtle but just as effective.

    I think coaching plays a huge role in the success of a pitching staff. Sometimes a pitcher has natural instincts and the coach is not as essential to his success, but who can expect every flame thrower to be a brilliant strategist, too? That’s the pitching coach’s job.

  23. Without a manager who knows how to manage, the issue of any kind of a pitching coach is moot, since the manager is the one who is going to choose the pitching coach. Let’s take first thing’s first.

    OK, end of rant. I think the best way to “build” a pitching coach is to get Roger Craig.

  24. Vince, I agree. Which is why I said…

    You’re the manager/general manager. What are you looking for in a coach?

    And I agree about Roger Craig, but what is it about him that makes him an attractive choice?

  25. I think it’s the high knees when he breaks off one of those great runs from scrimmage…

    Sorry, that was lame. I’m just out of my element when the discussion gets technical, and I miss baseball already.

  26. Good points Vince. I’d also like to add that I hate managers who are slaves to the Jerome Holtzman rule, which is all of them. That being the rule for what constitutes a save. Use your best relievers in the highest leverage situations, which doesn’t necessarily mean the 9th inning with a 3 or less run lead. And for goodness sake, don’t be afraid to use a guy for (gasp) more than three outs.

  27. I want a pitching coach who is given guaranteed time to work and grow with the entire pitching staff. The more time a pitching coach gets to learn his staff, the better the pitching coach will be. Merely changing pitching coaches can only hurt the team because you’re back to square 1 if you do that. I feel the same way about a manager and the rest of the coaching staff.

    These men basically do the same thing forest rangers do, they need to learn the layout of the land. If you switch forest rangers every year or every other year, you’ll have nobody who knows the parks intricacies and secrets.

    If you keep the same coaching staff for 3+ years you’ll finally have guys who know and have learned their talent inside and out. The only problem with LJ and crew is that they are old. We can’t keep them here for 10+ years.

    My philosophy about baseball is that almost any philosophy or coaching method can work if it is given time and players with talent. Coaches can help make that talent shine.

    Galarraga credits his success this year because of what Chuch Hernandez told him. Chuck simply said. “trust your pitches”.

  28. Hitting and pitching coaches at the ML level are a mystery to me in terms of what kind of and how much impact they can have on a staff or even individual player. Coaches, for the most part, have to deal with the material at hand, and how they deal with it involves variables which may prove to be successful in one case and fail in another. How much of this is due to the coach and his approach and how much to the player is anybody’s (at least from where we sit) guess. Adding an additional BIG variable to the equation is that of player development at the lower levels, which of course involves a philosophy which could well precede and be quite different than that of any pitching coach. By example compare the Tigers penchant for many years of drafting pitchers who could throw the ball over the backstop at 100MPH but rarely find the strike zone (e.g. Matt Anderson), to the hated Twins who have drafted for quite some time now mostly pitchers with average fastballs but good-excellent control (e.g. Blackburn, Slowey, Baker – all in the Brad Radke mold). The Twins, obviously, have a system in place which is consistent from draft to developemont to MLB and it has served them well. I’m not sure the Tigers are as far advanced with the long-term plan (remember the disastrous Randy “Radar” Smith era is not that long ago), but of course i don’t know this; it’s just a guess on my part based on hearsay and those minor league system ratings we read about in the sports mags from tiime to time. Anyway, I guess my pont is that for a pitching coach to have any chance of success, I would think that, despite being gifted as a teacher and having willing students, his particular philosophy has to match up with the organization’s successful one as well.

  29. That just throw strikes philosophy wouldn’t work for the Tigers. Are pitchers need to nibble the corners, take chances on walking hitters, so that they can get easy outs.

    Minnesota pitchers pitch to contact, but that wouldn’t work so well with the Tigers pitchers because We don’t have great defense. Are pitchers need to rely on hitters hitting bad pitches into double plays or hitting into easy pop fly outs.

  30. One thing I would certainly emphasize as a pitching coach is throw your fastball. I hated to see Verlander in the early part of the year get two strikes on a guy and automatically go to the curveball or changeup. If a guy is 0-2, make him chase a fastball up or a fastball away. This is one of the few things I really like about how Josh Beckett pitches – he uses his fastball as an outpitch an awful lot. Verlander has started doing that more this year, and it has paid off.

    I don’t necessarily buy into the basic “throw strikes” philosophy, because lots of pitchers do that and get hammered (Silva). My thing would be – get ahead, then expand the zone, then make them chase. Bonderman and Rogers are very good at this.

    As far as how long to leave a guy in for – I’d let him show me how long he can be effective. Every pitcher is different. Dan Haren runs out of gas at 105 pitches. CC Sabathia is just getting started at 70. For Verlander, I wouldn’t have any problem with him averaging 110-115 pitches per start, unless he shows signs of fatigue. Bonderman doesn’t seem to be up to that workload, but I’d try and get his arm to be a little more resilient in Spring Training and have him throw 105-110 every time out. Of course, when Bonderman is right he can make 100 pitches go a long way because he doesn’t walk many people. He’s exactly what you want out of a #2 guy, just like Haren or James Shields – to efficiently give you 6 or 7 quality innings, every time out. For the ace, it’s different – take as many pitches as you need, but dominate for 6 or 7 innings.

    I’d also really shoot for getting 200 innings out of the top two guys in the rotation at the very least. When healthy, there is no reason Verlander and Bonderman shouldn’t combine for 420 innings of 4.00 ball with 400 strikeouts.

    Every pitcher on the staff, including bullpen guys, would be working on or already posses a put-away changeup. Not the Josh Beckett/A.J. Burnett throw it 5 times a game at nearly the speed of the fastball changeup, but one with 8-10 mph difference and movement. That’s part of the reason I was so bummed to see Bonderman go down this year, because he had made that change – throwing more fastballs, more changeups, and fewer sliders. Get ahead with the fastball, put away with any of them.

    So basically, I’d do this:

    Get more innings out of my best pitchers
    Try to have them be more efficient by using their fastballs more
    Don’t pull a guy at 100 pitches if he’s got gas left and has shown it won’t affect him
    Skip the fifth starter if there were an off day

  31. I want Rick Peterson. Someone who works with people who knows how the body works. Peterson’s into the biomechanical way of pitch (things that rated Tim Lincecum’s delivery as very good rather than ‘herky-jerky’ that scared a ton of teams off of him in the 05 draft).

    I’d also like to employ the same system that the Red Sox have with Papelbon and I believe they use it for all of their pitchers. It deals with arm strength. They’ve got a dude who asks papelbon, for instance, how his arm feels on a scale of 1-5 or 1-10. He’ll answer, say, a 7. Then they’ll run tests to actually grade out his arm for that day and if it’s below a certain number, he’s off limits. If it’s not, he’s good to go. This is especially useful when it comes to back-to-back-to-back outings and things of that ilk.

    And this is a pipe-dream since it’d take having to adjust an entire organization’s training and philosophy, but I’d like to try out the 4-man rotation that Baseball Prospectus (i think it’s them) says maximizes the teams talents. It’d allow for another bench player or bullpen arm. And that type of rotation would give each pitcher more innings and keep them on an absolute strict 100-110 pitch count that couldn’t be exceeded for it to work.

  32. Joel in Ichiroville: “I think it’s the high knees when he breaks off one of those great runs from scrimmage…”

    Yeah, those were the days. Now it’s the hineys that break off when they try to get a great run from scrimmage…

    (Just double-checking–Scrimmage IS in mid-state Pennsylvania, right?)

  33. Steve in Sweatervest Commonwealth: “Josh Hamilton is friggin amazing… for those watching the HR Derby right now… 28 HR in the FIRST round – ridiculous!”

    Yes…and yet, that still works out to the specatators paying 23.00 per BP HR…

    That reminds me, did anyone see Reggie Jackson’s comment about the HR derby (“how is it a home run derby without ryan howard and ken griffey jr? that’s like a dunk contest without michael jordan.”

    1: Reggie, you’ve mellowed! You KNOW you wanted to say BARRY BONDS, I KNOW you did!!! Ryan Howard, Ken Griffey, Barry Bond! I almost heard you say it!! But you’re on the MLB payroll for this thing at the same time aren’t you?…that’s OK, it will be worth it to be able to look at the tricks the candlelight plays on Bud’s hairpiece at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse (BTW: what a dumbass name for a restaurant…can ANYONE figure out the grammer happening there??).

    2. Um, dude–you haven’t watched a slam-dunk competition in a LONG time have you?

  34. Mike R:

    re: 4-man rotation, do you think such a move would entice or repel the best pitchers? I think many of them would be hesitant to put that much wear on their arm, but I think some of the best guys would love the chance to go for a 30-win season. I’d be interesting to see if someone could do it.

  35. Joel, if they’re groomed within your organization they have no choice. For instance, Justin Verlander would have no choice in the matter or not because he’s not FA eligible for another 3 years after this season. And, like I said, it’d have to an organizational change, not just one at the major league level. It’d have to go straight on down through your rookie league teams. So, if kids are coming up through that system, they’ll get used to it and if they still don’t like it, they’re kind of stuck due to the Major League service time rule.

    The only thing would be pitchers in the draft might be hesitant to sign, but money talks. Meet their price tag and they’ll pitch 150 times a year so long as they get their paychecks.

  36. Mike:

    Oh, I understand that. I’m just curious what the big free-agent pitchers would think. I think a guy like Roy Halladay would welcome the challenge of pitching 40 games a year. Teams would theoretically be willing to pay more for pitchers that are going to play in a quarter of their games rather than just a fifth.

    I think it could actually make teams more attractive to some top-of-the-line guys.

  37. Joel:

    Absolutely. I really, really want it to happen but I don’t know how likely it is. If it ever did occur, it’d be from a team like the A’s, Red Sox, DBacks, Indians, or another team along those lines. It’d be a very interesting thing to see happen if it ever does. I don’t know if it will, though.

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