Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reason #19: The Coach.

There are many, many ways to describe how poorly the Royals were run during their dark period, a period which I can only hope is finally lifting. One of my favorite ways is to simply point out this fact: the Royals employed seven different pitching coaches in a little over six years, and eight pitching coaches in a little under eight years.

The chronology, as best as I can figure:

Bruce Kison (1994 – mid 1998)
Mark Wiley (mid 1998 – end of 1999)
Brent Strom (beginning 2000 – May 2001)
Al Nipper (May 2001 – June 2002)
John Cumberland (June 2002-June 2004)
Mike Mason (June 2004 – end 2004)
Guy Hansen (2005)
Bob McClure (2006-present)

McClure, assuming he doesn’t get axed before the season starts, will become the Royals’ longest-tenured pitching coach since Bruce Kison. Not coincidentally, it was under Kison’s tutelage that the Royals last had anything remotely resembling a pitching staff. From 1994 through 1996, the Royals ranked 3rd, 4th, and 2nd in the league in runs allowed. In 1997 the team fell to a still-respectable 8th; in 1998 the team finished 13th as Kison got fired and the pitching funhouse began.

1999: 14th (i.e. dead last)
2000: 13th
2001: 11th
2002: 13th
2003: 12th
2004: 14th
2005: 13th
2006: 14th

It has to be difficult to develop your career in any field when you have a new boss every year. I don’t suspect it’s any easier to develop as a young pitcher when you have a new pitching coach every year, particularly when each coach is telling you a different thing. It’s not like the pitching coach has a minor role on the team – the pitching coach has more influence on a team’s success than anyone other than the manager, certainly more influence than the hitting coach.

Hitting is reaction – you can have the best coach in the world, but in the end you have less than a quarter-second to react to a pitch, decide whether to swing, and determine where you place your bat to make contact with the ball. You can have the best hitting approach in the world, but if it takes half a second to execute, it’s worthless. Pitching, on the other hand, is action; baseball, after all, is the only major sport in which the defense, not the offense, controls the ball. And if pitching is action, that means that pitching, unlike hitting, can be planned.

And so a pitcher who does a good job of preparing each pitch, placing each pitch in the right location, changes speeds, uses finger pressure to subtly move the ball around, mixes his pitches so the hitter never knows what’s coming next – that pitcher can succeed beyond his natural abilities. Greg Maddux was the best pitcher in baseball at his peak, one of the best the game has ever seen, and rarely broke 87 on the gun. Almost all the best starting pitchers in the game are noted for their intelligence. Conversely, some of the greatest wastes of talent on the mound have been guys who simply didn’t have the brainpower to make smart decisions out there.

You don’t have to be smart (in the traditional sense of having a high IQ) to be a tremendous hitter. I have no idea if Manny Ramirez is really a budding Rhodes scholar under that fa├žade, but he certainly doesn’t come across as a brilliant human being. Juan Gonzalez does not appear to have any Nobel Prizes in his future. I have no idea how smart Vladimir Guerrero is – is there any future Hall of Famer about whom we know less than Guerrero? But his approach at the plate doesn’t require intelligence. See ball, hit ball. If you have tremendous hand-eye coordination and enough fast-twitch muscles, that’s a perfectly acceptable approach at the plate.

A prepared pitcher is a better pitcher, and it’s the pitching coach’s job to make sure his pitchers are prepared, which is why a pitching coach can do much more to impact his charges – positively or negatively – than a hitting coach. It’s not a coincidence that there are very few hitting coaches with a “guru” reputation. Royals fans are of course familiar with Charley Lau, but he passed away 24 years ago, and who else rises to that rank? Whereas on the pitching side, you’ve got Leo Mazzone, of course, but at various times people like Ray Miller, Roger Craig, and Dave Duncan have been described as miracle workers.

Bob McClure isn’t a miracle worker, but he’s done good work. He change Gil Meche’s delivery to make him land on his toe instead of his heel, and wonder of wonders, Meche had the best season of his career. He helped Brian Bannister junk his cutter in favor of a refined curveball last spring, and Bannister was a surprise Rookie of the Year candidate. Joakim Soria pitched like a 10-year veteran out of the bullpen; Zack Greinke resurrected his career and got stronger as the season went on. He’s gotten good work out of the modest talent of Joel Peralta, and Jimmy Gobble seems to be adjusting to life as a LOOGY.

McClure wasn’t perfect; he almost worked a miracle with Jorge de la Rosa, who in his first nine starts had a 3.59 ERA and 12 walks in 58 innings, but then de la Rosa went to hell. McClure didn’t fix Kyle Davies, although there’s still time for that. He didn’t save Scott Elarton, but no one this side of God Himself could have done that. Overall, the good definitely outweighs the bad.

As important as McClure’s ability is his stability – it made no sense that the Royals would turn over their pitching coaches as often as they did, as a few of those guys almost certainly would have done better had they been given more time to do it. Guy Hansen was a tremendous pitching coach for the Royals in the early 1990s; he also scouted Kevin Appier, recommended the Royals draft Bret Saberhagen (a 16th round pick), and after a stint as the pitching coach at UCLA, returned to the Royals and recommended they take a flier on one of his pitchers who could really hit – and the Royals drafted Jeff Conine in the 58th round. But after one admittedly unimpressive season, he was axed.

If I bought my own major league franchise tomorrow, Brent Strom would be one of the first guys I’d hire. He’s smart, educated, and willing to learn new things, to an extent that’s very unusual for a baseball lifer. He gets bonus points for reading “Rob and Rany” regularly while he worked for the Royals, and while he didn’t agree with much of what we wrote, he took at least some of it to heart, particularly our frequent blatherings about pitch counts. He was made the scapegoat for the team’s terrible start in 2001; apparently after winning all of 75 games the year before, the Royals expected great things from the likes of Chad Durbin, Dan Reichert, Mac Suzuki and Chris George.

We exchanged some emails shortly after he was fired, and I’ll never forget something he wrote about Jeff Suppan. Commenting on how difficult it was to fix the mechanics of some of the team’s young pitchers, he held up Suppan as a model for pitching mechanics and wrote, “If Suppan ever hurts his arm, I’ll turn gay.” In the seven seasons since, Suppan has made at least 31 starts every year. I think we can let Strom off the hook now, which should be a relief to his wife. (Not to mention gay men everywhere.)

My point is that the Royals have had good pitching coaches before, but never gave them enough time to succeed. McClure has been given that time, and he’s delivered on it. As important as the hiring of Trey Hillman was, almost as important was the fact that the hiring of a new manager did not reflexively lead to a new pitching coach as well. McClure’s done good work so far, and I’m glad he’ll have the opportunity to build on it.


ChasingMoney said...

If Suppan ever hurts his arm, I’ll turn gay.

Suppan is a grinder, he doesnt have the best stuff but he knows how to effectively use what he's got, just like Bannister.
McClure really seems to know what he's doing, hopefully they keep him around for awhile.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Fantastic post. Completely agreed on McClure. I hope the Royals keep this guy around for as long as possible. Even if Mazzone was available I'd probably still prefer McClure with what he's done. At least give him another 2-3 years to see how many more miracles he can work with our pitching staff. I think he commented already how much talent he has to work with this Spring Training.

Anonymous said...

A quick question for Rany and anyone else out there who might have an answer: Do we know how Hillman feels about pitch counts, and pitcher use/abuse? I doubt he is familiar with Pitcher Abuse Points, but maybe he is familiar with the general concept. Do we have any idea?

Anonymous said...

I read where Hillman isn't as tied to pitch count and wants his pitchers to start with the goal of going 9 innings instead of 6 or 7.

Japanese pitchers routinely throw more pitches in games and throw more on the side than American pitchers.

Really, what harm comes from riding a great pitcher hard once he nears free agency? If Cleveland finds it has no chance to sign CC Sebathia, why wouldn't the Indians let him throw 130-140 pitches in the right situation?

Unknown said...

As far as Hillman and pitch counts goes, there was an article in the Star or on the Royals official site that talked about how he wanted to reduce pitch counts so that the starters would go farther into the games.

Regarding Reason #19, I have been very pleased with McClure and was worried when a new manager was in our future. I wasn't sure that McClure would stay with us with the change. I actually thought that McClure would make it higher on the list of reasons. I hope he's here to stay awhile as I agree with Rany in regards to a pitching coach needing to be here more than a year at a time.

Anonymous said...

Rany is right about the importance of stability and maybe some of these other coaches could have been effective if they'd been given more time. But considering our managers don't last too long, it can hardly be expected that the coaches would last long at all.

As far as McClure, I'm liking him thus far, but I don't think we should rush to judgment. It's not like he turned the terrible '06 pitching staff into the '07 staff. He had a lot more talent to work with. If the staff takes a step forward this year, which I'm doubting it can do, then I think we can heap tons of credit and kudos onto McClure.

kcghost said...

I do believe players perform better in stable environments.

I think it is way too soon to say the hiring of Hillman was "important" though getting rid of Buddy Bell was mega-important.

Anonymous said...

Keep the blog up, Rany, and don't miss Rob as the door hits him on the ass on the way out. You're way better off without his sorry ass to pull you back. IMO this decision and move will only help you in getting more and more attention.

If Rob comes back in a few months when the Royals are in 2nd place in the AL Central, don't even consider writing with him again. Just forget about him.

This is honestly probably one of the top two Royals blogs I've ever read so far.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Isaac, I thought McClure was going to be much higher up on the list. He's been in my top 5 reasons for excitement probably with the work he did last year...

can't wait to see the rest of this list if McClure is 19...

Anonymous said...

Rany, I know this is off topic, but I just read the last Rob & Rany on the Royals. I saw your 73-wins prediction. First, you refer to that as an improvement over last year. But last year's Pythagorean win total was 74. You don't think our RS/RA is going to be better than last year? Or are you predicting bad luck?

Also, I think the team improves by at least a handful of games over last year's Pythag. Meche and Bannister will regress some, but I don't see them falling off the same cliff PECOTA does. Similarly, I see Greinke stepping up, while again PECOTA does not.

I think it is reasonable to predict that the Royals will score about as many runs as they give up in 2008, and therefore a record around .500.

Anonymous said...

I completely understand Robs frustration. i think Rany said it exactly right that Rob has access to the inner workings of EVERY MLB team. The Royals are at this point far behind most other franchise in overall talent. Its gonna take some luck, but if you dont have faith.....why be a fan?

P.S. Bob McClure is only 19th? Must be one hell of a top 5.

Anonymous said...

Hey Rany. Your blog is great. I hope you'll be able to keep this pace up...

I just read the last R&R. I'll miss reading your rebuttals to his ever-negative stance. I know you won't bad mouth him, but didn't it seem very condescendingly ESPN of him to say "I would have felt bad about deserting the few remaining Royals fans"? HEY! There's more than a few of us, and we're going to win it without you jerk.

And I'm not buying the "he has access to every team" stuff. With that kind of knowledge, he should be the first one to see the strides this team is making! Anyway, I think the Royals are going in the right direction. Look at all of the young pitching we've accumulated in the last year and a half. Now we need some offense. Go Royals!

Oh yeah, and when Rob does come crawling back and we're in 2nd, first graciously accept him back in, second make him admit that the Royals are awesome, and third, make him post over here! :)

Wow, sorry for the rants on Rob. Had to get it off my chest after reading the last R&R. I'm glad you're carrying the torch, Rany.