Madman Across the Water
(or Do Coaches Matter? part 1 of 2)  (05/14/01)

Fantasy baseball has created a cottage industry of sports information.  Whether it's daily TV programs or stat books or websites, you can get almost any bit of information about any player you want.  But almost all of this information is centered on the player himself.  Very little attention is paid to the guys who tell these players how to play the game.

The main reason for this lack of spotlight is that most people believe that the most important ingredient to winning is talent.  While this is largely true (no one wins without talent), for the vast majority of players at the major league level, the difference in talent is minuscule.  What separates the average players from the good ones is quite often the quality of instruction they get from their coaches.  I doubt I could get away with making such a proclamation without offering any historical proof, so...

Philadelphia Freedom

Johnny Podres was a brilliant pitching coach with the Phillies and should probably be given the lion's share of the credit for the Phillies success in the early 90's.  He transformed an average staff into a contender.  Curt Schilling had been a reliever for most of his career, posting a career ERA of 4.16 before coming to the Phillies in a trade for Jason Grimsley.  In his first year with the Phills, Schilling was moved into the rotation at Podres' behest.  That year he posted an ERA of 2.35 and was arguably the most dominant starter in the NL.  With the exception of a few injury plagued years, he's been one of the best ever since.  Terry Mulholland enjoyed a similar improvement under Podres.  He joined the Phillies in 1989 and spent more than 4 years with them.  His career ERA under Podres was 3.52.  Without him, it's 4.76.  In 1993, he took Danny Jackson off the journeyman scrap heap and returned him to his status as an effective 200 inning starter for 2 more years.  Podres also managed to turn another journeyman, Paul Byrd, into an All-Star and make Heathcliff Slocumb into an effective closer.  Talk about a miracle worker.

Burn Down the Mission

Dave Stewart was named the Padres pitching coach prior to the 1998 season.  In 1997, the Pads' had numerous pitchers go on the DL and their starters had the fewest innings per start in the majors.  Stewart decided on Day One that his staff would not repeat that performance.  In the locker room he stood before an assembly of all the pitchers, put his 5 pennant rings and 3 World Series championship rings on the table in front of him and stated, "I just got this job. I want to keep it. You got one guy fired. You need to go out and get the job done.  Unless you have more of these than me (pointing to the rings), you better listen up."

He instituted a vigorous workout schedule in spring training and during the season refused to take starters out if they got into early trouble.  The result: the Pads went to the World Series that year largely on the strength of their pitching staff.  After 1998, Stewart left for a front office job with Toronto.  The Pads ERAs from 1997-2000 are:

1997 - 4.98
1998 - 3.63
1999 - 4.47
2000 - 4.52

Even without Kevin Brown's fantastic contributions in 1998, the rest of the staff, which was largely unchanged from the previous year, posted an ERA of 3.90.

With that in mind, today I'll look at how a pitching coach can improve performance.  Tomorrow, I'll look at hitters.

Pinball Wizard

While Dave Duncan has never had much luck developing a good young pitcher, he's one of the best at revitalizing flagging careers. Dennis Eckersley, Dave Stewart, Andy Benes and Darryl Kile have each rekindled early successes under his guidance after years of hardship and struggle.  Eck became a Hall of Fame closer.  Stewart won 20 games four years in a row.  In his first year under Duncan Andy Benes won 18.  Kile won 20.

Dustin Hermanson is his latest project but really hasn't displayed that same kind of progress... yet.  Last year through the first week of May, he had an ERA of 4.81 and a 15/19 BB/K ratio.  This year, he's at 4.91 and a 15/24 ratio.  That's not much, but it is better.  Another sign pointing to greater improvement ahead is his baserunners allowed, which is down from 1.395 per inning last season to 1.314 per inning this year.  Even more encouraging, he is showing more consistency, allowing two earned runs or less in his last 4 starts.  It's beginning to look like Duncan has yet another success story under way.

Someone Saved My Life Tonight

One of the reasons the Phillies staff might be doing so well this year - 2nd best ERA in the NL - is pitching coach Vern Ruhle.  His handling of the Astros' pitching staff was a big reason why Houston won 3 straight NL Central titles before last year.  Like Podres and Stewart, Ruhle was a decent pitcher in his day and has enjoyed enough success and failure to know what works and what doesn't.  Similar to Stewart's philosophy, Ruhle encourages his starters to plan to go deep into games and get themselves out of problems of their own creation rather than depending on the bullpen to bail them out.  If the starter goes into the game thinking he needs to be efficient, he'll use his defense more, preferring to get one or two pitch outs rather than trying to make 3 perfect pitches to get the strikeout.  By pitching more efficiently, he'll keep his defense more focused and the bullpen more rested and ready to finish the game if needed.

The plan is working to near perfection so far.  The added bonus is that it also just might save Randy Wolf's career.  Last year, Wolf threw at least 110 pitches in 19 starts, topping 120 in 11 of them, and was looking like a sure fire candidate for major reconstructive surgery.  This year, he has topped 110 twice and 120 just once.  After a rough start to the season, he has looked pretty good lately and may end up a pretty decent pitcher this year.  Robert Person also topped 120 frequently last year (6 times), but has yet to record an outing of more than 120 pitches this year.  Is it any coincidence that a guy with his talent is finally in the top 20 in the NL in both ERA and strikeouts?

Take Me to the Pilot

Pitchers who perform well above expectation often come from teams with great pitching coaches.  Vern Ruhle (Phi), Joe Kerrigan (Bos), Dave Duncan (StL), Marcel Lachemann (Col), Mark Connor (Tor) each have solid histories of getting more out of their pitching staffs than was expected.  Billy Connors and Larry Rothchild are also very good and might show up somewhere soon.

Every year, there are guys who come out of nowhere to have good or even great years.  Don't be surprised if the majority of those guys come from pitching staffs led by this pitching coach elite.

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