A Trusted Pitching Coach Can Provide Immeasurable Value
Braves righthander Brandon McCarthy is a 12-year major league veteran who has been through good and bad relationships with pitching coaches. He said the key for him is temperament. Can a pitching coach remain calm through the ups and downs every pitcher has during a season and career?
"The (pitching coaches) who ride the wave with you are typically not very popular because they love you when things are going well," he said, "then when you’re not going well they’re very critical and make you feel like you failed them. It’s a situation you check out of mentally pretty quickly. You want someone who’s consistent and there with you at all times.
"One of the things I saw and heard a lot in the minors is that pitching coaches want to brand you and get their name attached to you. That doesn’t feel right, and you can tell it’s not about your success; it’s about his reputation. That can crumble a relationship. But there are a lot of guys who have good messages and are there to help you.”
From the perspective of a pitching coach, working with a major league staff involves being part teacher and part parent, where sometimes tough love is the best way to get results.
In his 33rd season of working with pitchers at all levels, Braves pitching coach Chuck Hernandez said there is no set plan because personalities vary so widely. Some pitchers need only a quick suggestion, while others need constant reminders.
"Jose Fernandez was like that,” Hernandez said. "I had Justin Verlander as a rookie in Detroit. You knew they had electric stuff and ability. But they were young and still had to learn things about being a big league pitcher.
"I try to see what you do, how you work. Then if there’s little tweaks here and there, it’s like being a car mechanic. (You) adjust this valve or that hose, without an overhaul of what they do best. That’s a difficult thing when you start doing that. But it really happens more in the minor leagues than up here.”
Hernandez added that when he was a minor league pitching coordinator, if he saw a pitcher just drafted out of high school or college, and he noticed something in their delivery that could lead to injury, he would address that immediately.
"When we first get a kid, we don’t touch him,” Hernandez said. "The scouts saw something that made him worth drafting, so let’s see. But we’re taking notes, like he’s too far across his body, we would suggest after we watch him in instructional league and explain why we’re making these suggestions.”
Hernandez, along with the late Angels coach Bob Clear, helped Troy Percival convert from a catcher to pitcher. He said he knew right away Percival’s makeup and stuff was suited to relieving.
"He threw his first bullpen to me as his catcher. (His delivery) was a little ugly,” Hernandez said, laughing. "You just saw he was wired and built to be a reliever. You knew he had closer stuff, but it wouldn’t work for nine innings.
"Same thing with Bryan Harvey. He had a big turn in his delivery, but he threw mid- to high 90s and was tough as nails. But neither of them was textbook (in terms of their deliveries) and we didn’t try and change them. If a kid can locate the ball where he wants, let’s leave his natural delivery as is.”
The fine line every pitcher walks is pitching hurt. It’s even more problematic with relievers, who work multiple times in a week.
"You might have a few good days in April, but once you stretch out the taffy (your pitching arm), it’s a grind,” said reliever Jason Grilli, a 15-year major league veteran. "There’s a difference between pitching or playing injured and playing hurt. You’re playing hurt about 98 percent of the time. When you’re throwing every day, you have to know when to pump the brakes and when to hit the gas, and that’s knowing yourself and how your own body responds.
"That goes back to openly talking with your pitching coach and telling them you might need a day (to rest).”
Lefthander Derek Holland learned that the hard way. He said he felt some pain prior to starting for the Rangers on Opening Day in 2015. But he wanted to be there for his teammates and took the ball—against his better judgment.
"I screwed myself up in 2015 because I didn’t communicate,” said Holland, who is in big league camp with the Giants. "I tore up my rotator cuff and tried to play through the pain. I threw my first pitch and felt it grab really bad and didn’t say anything right away. Once I came out I told them I couldn’t even lift my arm and they took me out. It was very frustrating; a lesson learned.”
That’s where pitchers must decide if it’s worth it to pitch in pain and risk their careers for the good of the team. The Astros' Lance McCullers Jr. said that stresses the importance of being comfortable with telling your pitching coach you’re hurt and putting the team before yourself.
"You can go out there banged up as long as you can compete at a high level and still be somewhat effective,” McCullers said. "If you’re going out there and you can’t make it out of the third or fourth inning because you’re injured, you’re affecting your bullpen, team morale, and you’re getting in the way of what’s best for the team.
"Don’t be selfish. Let your pitching coach and manager know. Get out of there, get yourself right and come back when you’re ready.”