Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
When the Yankees fired longtime pitching coach Larry Rothschild last month, they did not do it because Rothschild lacked knowledge of his craft, or work ethic, or a connection to his pitchers. In fact, the front office largely believed that Rothschild was performing well at his job.
Unfortunately for Rothschild, the job itself had changed.
The Yankees wanted to push to the edge of contemporary trends, and hired 34-year-old Matt Blake out of the Cleveland organization. Last season, the Mets fired pitching coach Dave Eiland for similar reasons, and are soon to make their own leap into the future.
All three of the known candidates to replace interim coach Phil Regan -- Twins bullpen coach Jeremy Hefner, University of Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter, and Brewers bullpen coach Steve Karsay -- are very much of the new school.
Hefner, in particular, has become a hot name in the industry for his work this year with a Twins bullpen that became one of the strongest in the league. For example, he helped reliever Tyler Duffey understand that by throwing his best pitch -- the curveball -- as much as possible, he would have more success than if he mixed his pitches in a traditional way.
This is just one small example of how the concept of "new school" in pitching extends to lengths that would been hard to imagine just a few years ago.
For decades, pitching coaches were empowered to run side sessions on their own, tell pitchers how to tweak grips, and determine bullpen moves and pitch selection. The modern pitcher -- and the modern GM -- now require more collaboration, and knowledge of technology.
Increasingly, pitchers are working with private companies like Driveline and Cressey Sports Performance, and expecting their teams to speak that language and use comparable tech. Organizations, including the Yankees, are scooping up staffers from both companies (Blake himself once worked with Cressey).
Now, pitching coaches must bring with them a deep familiarity with technology like Rapsodo, the high-speed cameras that give real-time data on depth, spin rates, and spin axis. During bullpen sessions, these machines give pitching coaches and their charges advanced information that helps them tweak pitches.
Rapsodo and the comparable YakkerTech help pitching coaches determine what pitches to throw in what counts, and what pitches are strongest for an individuals (like Duffey's curveball). Other machines provide biomechanical data that helps pitchers to stay healthy and repeat their deliveries.
The Yankees exposed Rothschild to these tools - and the results were mixed at best. The team had to go around its pitching coach to help James Paxton throw more curveballs last year, and save his season, according to sources.
With the Mets, Eiland could be openly hostile to analytics and tech, which is part of the reason the team fired him in the middle of the year.
In addition to purchasing new technology, GMs are looking at new places for candidates. The Twins last year hired Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson, and the Mets are considering Fetter. Fetter was a serious candidate with the Yankees, but Blake won the interview process.
Colleges have become laboratories of experimentation, and professional clubs want to import that knowledge.
"In college, there is so much freedom," says one major league coach. "A college coach can try new things with little or no pushback from up or down the chain, mostly because there is no chain of command. Autonomy can be a great thing for growth."
We're a long way from Ron Guidry, Eiland or Regan. Those former New York coaches are baseball lifers with a library full of pitching knowledge in their brains, but are not as conversant in the elements that matter most to teams now.
As to whether big league pitchers will listen to college or minor league coaches lacking the gravitas of a Guidry or Regan, one current coach made a salient point: "Big leaguers want to make money, very simply. If you aid them in making money, they'll listen to anything you say."