Strom Can't Stop Learning
Fired on the final day of Nationals spring training, and faced with few feasible opportunities to revive his coaching career, Brent Strom cleaned the scruffy dogs for his wife to groom inside her shop.
“You’ll laugh,” he says now, “but my job was actually to bathe dogs and clean dingleberries out of their (butts). That’s kind of where I was.
“But I still maintained a love for this—kept studying, kept learning.”
Strom resided out of the sport which consumed his entire adult life. He played professionally from 1970 to 1981 before coaching in four organizations, hired and fired often. In 2006, Washington was the last franchise to can him. He was 58. On age alone, he was approaching archaic in baseball’s ever-changing landscape. With his ideas, Strom was ahead of the progress.
Strom pitched at Triple-A for the Dodgers in 1981, and time spent with Los Angeles as both a player and minor league coach was a “doctoral program” for the young coach.
“We talked back in the time I was with the Dodgers, we talked about the value of the four-seam fastball, utilizing it up in the zone and stuff like that,” Strom said.
“Unfortunately, when I started my coaching career, there were some organizations that, when I brought that to the table, kind of dismissed it and didn’t buy in. It made me, perhaps, ahead a little bit of where this realm is now.”
Dog grooming did little to pacify Strom, a man who so admired Sandy Koufax and found nothing more enjoyable than developing talent to come within a fraction of Koufax’s Hall of Fame success. While he was out of the game, Strom worked clinics and absorbed new techniques to mesh with his past success.
Strom, the aging former major leaguer—the second pitcher ever to have Tommy John surgery—maintained hope for one more call back to coaching.
One cold January day in St. Louis, courtesy of a friend of a friend, that call came.
“He showed up and he understood all of the principles of Mike Marshall and Tom House, all the different schools of thought out there,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “He had taken the best elements of different ones and was reading books, telling me what books to read.
“He’s always been a curious mind. I don’t think age has anything to do with it. I think he truly is always seeking the truth and he doesn’t stop. He knows it.”
Strom sold himself to one of baseball’s fast-rising executives. Then the Cardinals’ director of scouting and player development, Luhnow hired Strom as a minor league instructor. His reentry to baseball was complete—and his ascension to the sport’s pinnacle had its start.
Strom parlayed his six seasons in the St. Louis farm system to the opportunity he so revered. In 2014, Luhnow lured Strom to Houston, where he has established a sterling reputation among the men he coaches and reached heights few could have foreseen.
At 70, Strom is the oldest pitching coach in the major leagues. His impeccable ability to blend the lessons of his past with the Astros’ data-driven, analytical operation yields staggering results.
Take, for example, his first season. Luhnow implored him to watch a “kid from Arkansas” on one of the back fields in spring training at Kissimmee, Fla. Dallas Keuchel toiled there, trying to emulate Erik Bedard’s mechanics.
“How about if we start to throw a little bit like (Clayton) Kershaw, where we time our arms and legs a little bit better,” Strom told him. “I think you’re capable of doing it.”
One season later, with a more synced delivery, Keuchel won the American League Cy Young Award. Strom counts the bearded lefthander along with Shane Reynolds as his two favorite pitchers to ever mentor.
In 2018, under Strom’s tutelage, the Astros possessed the best pitching staff in franchise history. It allowed the fewest runs by any AL team in a non-strike shortened season of the DH era.
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“I just wanted to kind of ride it as long as I could,” Strom said. “As you would go along in the games, you
would kind of be in shock (or) it kind of would hit you hard if you gave up six or seven runs per game. You kind of say, ‘OK, what went wrong here?’ But that was often times the norm for many teams that didn’t have the advantage of having the pitchers who I had.”
Gerrit Cole, once a sinkerball, pitch-to-contact righty who resided down in the strike zone, revamped his arsenal at Strom’s urging.
Elevated four-seam fastballs were en vogue. Cole eschewed his two-seamer and elevated the 96-98 mph heat he’s always had. Opponents hit .198 against him.
“He has such a passion for helping pitchers be their best and it doesn’t matter if it’s a 16-year-old kid in the Dominican or a 35-year-old veteran pitcher,” Luhnow said. “He derives so much joy out of helping these guys
maximize their abilities and I recognized that right away. He’s also one of the most curious minds in baseball and completely open-minded.”
Strom’s health is fine. Staying as a pitching coach for “two or three” more years is his goal. He wants to discover new ways to elevate a pitching staff he has already guided to greatness.
“Even in good times, we don’t rest,” Strom said. “This is something that Jeff has brought to the Astros. We’re still trying to stay ahead and keep our game going because there’s really no time to rest and pat yourself on the back as these things are going.”