May 9, 2014 (ISN) – “Did you hear what Abby told me when he came out to the mound?” said Frenchy, my fellow pitcher and friend on the Portland Beavers pitching staff in 2008. “No, what’d he say?”
“Said that all I needed was a double play groundball. I said, ‘Abby, there are two outs.’ So he said, ‘Good, then you only need one of the outs from that double play ball, but might as well get two just to be sure.’ Then he smacked me in the ass and walked off the mound. What the hell was that about?”
“You got out of the inning, didn’t you?” I said.
“Yeah, but not because I was told to roll a double play ball.“
“How do you know?”‘
“Trust me, I know.“
* * *
Mound visits are one of baseball’s many arts. When a coach calls time and waddles out to the old agony patch in the middle of the infield, he often doesn’t have time to say all the things he really wants to. It’s not like a supervised practice session in the bullpen where you can pontificate on the virtues of working the bottom portion of the strike zone. It’s like the Twitter version of coaching: You don’t have room for many words.
Folks like to think that, if the outcome is positive after a mound visit, it worked. They got things sorted or, they must have fixed the issue. It’s hardly that simple.
When a pitcher is in the middle of a game, you can’t truly fix an issue. You can only steer him toward a temporary solution. In fact, the more in-depth coaches go, the more likely they are to make the pitcher double-minded — one half of his focus on the opponent, the other half on what part of him he needs to fix.
It’s better to simply nudge the pitcher back in the direction you want him to go and hope that he gets himself back on track naturally. To do that, you must know your pitcher beyond mere mechanics
There are pitchers who need pep talks. Pitchers who need to be screamed at. Pitchers who need to be reminded on what to throw, and pitchers who need to be reminded to just relax and throw.
Sometimes a coach will make the walk out, ask you about how your girlfriend is in the sack and then stand there while you giggle, saying nothing about pitching at all. Sometimes he’ll come out and just stare at you, waiting for the umpire to show up so he can rip him a new one over how bad his zone is.
Abby, our pitching coach in Portland, instructed Frenchy to get a double play ball because Frenchy was the type of pitcher that, if the ball were an egg, it would have exploded in his hand from holding it so tight. After getting hit around a little, Frenchy would come into the dugout screaming about how the other team had picked up his signs and how he needed to overhaul the entire operation. When that stuff started, the enemy was no longer the other team’s bats, but Frenchy himself.
Asking a pitcher to roll a double play ball when there were already two outs is just a way of nudging his focus off himself and onto some other stupid thing in the world.
“It doesn’t surprise me Abby told you that,” I said to Frenchy as we anchored the left field foul line during batting practice, “One time he came out to me after I gave up a mess of homeruns in the same inning, and told me that I needed to slow down because the guy responsible for firing the home run cannon was having trouble keeping up.”
“I would have punched him if he said that to me,” said Frenchy.
“I know you would have. Which is why he said it to me. I just laughed.”
The best coaches know their players’ personalities, what motivates or defeats them. I needed to relax. Frenchy needed to stop fighting himself. But other guys on the squad, like Ox, the hard-throwing rage monster, needed to be pissed off. Abby would go tell him things like, “You want me to take you out or do you want to finish this, because it seems like you’re doing everything you can to get an early exit.”
Sometimes, when a pitcher is particularly aggressive or reactive to criticism in the heat of the moment, the manager will go out. The manager can say things that a pitching coach can’t, or, in some cases, things a pitching coach shouldn’t say.
Since the pitching coach is often the pitcher’s most trusted confidant during the season, there is a natural opportunity for a manager to play bad cop to a pitching coach’s good cop. Frustration with the manager draws a pitcher closer to the one advocate he feels he has. The pitching coach can then deliver instruction to the player — even if it’s straight from the manager — under the guise of proving the manager wrong.
But going to the mound isn’t always about playing therapist. Sometimes the pitcher is already off the rails and the coach or manager just wants to see how they’ll react.
I was told that Lou Piniella was the kind of guy who would go out and threaten a rookie player with a demotion, call him a pussy, challenge him to be a man, or some combination of all of the above. If the pitcher folded, Lou knew what kind of guy he was dealing with. If the pitcher gave him some lip back, he knew the kid was a fighter. It’s a pretty cruel way to find out what a player is made off, and, yet, there is no other time when what a player is made of matters more.
That said, the Piniella method could easily backfire. When a coach hits the mound, angry that a pitcher isn’t tough or focused enough, it can make the player more concerned about being whatever the manager wants in that moment, and not being what got that pitcher to where he is in the first place.
As always, though, results are king — not how a player looks or feels while getting them.
* * *
“I don’t like it when he screws with me like that,” said Frenchy as we walked off the batting practice field toward the dugout.
“He tells you what you need to hear and nothing more, that’s what you’re upset about. Besides, you ended up getting yourself out of a jam, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but it was a pop-fly, not a grounder, and I made that pitch, not Abby.”
“Of course is was you, dummy. That’s what Abby was relying on.”
* * *
Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also a best-selling author, and has appeared on Baseball America, Bleacher Report, Deadspin, The Score, ESPN, TBS’ MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more. More from Dirk at www.dirkhayhurst.com. Follow him on Twitter at @thegarfoose