In the aftermath of claiming the NL wild card in 2008, the Milwaukee Brewers dealt with mid-market reality.
CC Sabathia, the midseason savior they acquired from Cleveland, listened to their offers to return, talked about strong emotional ties and a comfort level he quickly reached with the Brewers, then followed the riches of free agency to the Bronx, signing with the Yankees. Ben Sheets, the longtime ace of the Brewers, also became a free agent, more out of necessity than desire when he didn’t get a contract offer due to injury concerns that would keep him from pitching in 2009.
More than that, though, the Brewers also lost pitching coach Mike Maddux, who in six years had created a staff that ranked among the best in the game. He opted to head to Texas, taking a two-year deal with the Rangers that guaranteed him more than $1 million and reunited him with new president Nolan Ryan, owner of the minor league team in Round Rock, Texas, where Maddux began his coaching career in 2000.
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If the Brewers didn’t realize how much Maddux meant to their success at the time — and there’s every indication they did in light of the two-year offer they made in hopes of retaining him — the struggles of a year ago underscored to them the value of a top-of-the-line pitching coach.
So, this past offseason they lured Rick Peterson back to the coaching lines, reuniting him with Brewers manager Ken Macha — who was on the Oakland coaching staff with Peterson — and Brewers bench coach Willie Randolph, the manager of the Mets when Peterson was their pitching coach.
"I don’t expect him to come in here and work miracles," said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, "but I do think he will make a difference."
The coaches are among the ignored in baseball. They often seem like interchangeable parts, and in general, that’s probably true.
There are, however, a handful of current pitching coaches who are major factors with their teams — Maddux, Peterson, Dave Duncan of St. Louis, Bob McClure of Kansas City and Bryan Price of Cincinnati, who, like Peterson, found a new opportunity just this season.
They have a knack for creating the sculpture from a lump of clay others haven’t been able to do anything with.
The Brewers are a good case study.
Maddux inherited a staff in Milwaukee that ranked 13th in the league in ERA and left one that had the NL’s second lowest ERA (3.85) in 2008. Was it just a coincidence that in earning the wild card in 2008 the Brewers had a rotation that was 54-48 with 84 quality starts, but in their fall below .500 last year the rotation slumped to 55-59 with only 64 of them? There was, after all, no marked change in the defense — they had a .984 fielding percentage both years. And the offense actually was more productive in 2009, scoring 785 runs and ranking third in the NL, compared with 2008, when they scored 750 runs and ranked seventh.
So it was out with longtime Brewers pitcher/bullpen coach Bill Castro, who was promoted to replace Maddux, and in with Peterson, who had been out of work in big-league baseball for a year and a half.
Meanwhile, Texas, which had a composite 5.14 ERA during the first nine years of the 2000s when the Rangers went through seven different pitching coaches, saw its ERA drop from 5.36 in 2008 to 4.38 in Maddux’s first year, the team’s lowest ERA in its decade at the Ballpark in Arlington and lowest anywhere since 1993.
"There is a line about coaches getting too much credit when things go right and way too much blame when things go wrong, but in the course of a baseball season a pitcher has more ups and downs than anyone," Melvin says. "The psychology of the pitcher is more fragile. When hitters are in a slump they have the protection of the eight other hitters in the lineup. The pitchers have nowhere to hide.
"I have seen hitters go 5-for-45 and no one says anything because the guys around him are hitting. Pitchers can’t fade into the background."
That’s why coaches like Maddux, Duncan, Price, McClure and Peterson have come to the forefront, and it’s not like there’s just one way of getting the job done.
McClure’s a confidence builder. He develops a fatherly relationship with his pitchers, pushing them to make their own decisions, interacting with fellow pitchers and catchers, exchanging input and reaching conclusions. He’s always there, however, to catch the pitcher who’s about to fall.
Duncan’s a master at taking veterans who’ve never been able to get over the hump, working on the mental aspect of the game and turning long-term disappointments into successes.
Price is strong on technique, especially teaching the changeup and two-seam fastball. He has the ability to be tough, but overall, his is a relationship built on trust.
Maddux is the master of understatement, developing a long-term relationship with pitchers, and showing an unusually strong ability to break down a hitter to emphasize a pitcher’s strengths. < Peterson can get deep into the biomechanics, but doesn’t get caught up in trying to overwhelm pitchers with technicalities (a problem that current USC pitching coach Tom House has always faced) and earns a sincere confidence from his pupils.
"What you have with all of these guys is they are extremely thorough," said longtime big-league advance scout Bob Johnson, who worked with Peterson in both Oakland and New York. "They understand pitching is physical and mental.
"You can’t ignore the impact he had with (Tim) Hudson, (Mark) Mulder and (Barry) Zito when we won in Oakland. When (the A’s) didn’t know if a sixth-round draft choice (Hudson) should be a pitcher or outfielder, Rick did. Everybody talks about Zito’s curveball, but it’s the change-up, the one Rick taught him, that was his key pitch."
Melvin never knew Peterson until he hired him in Milwaukee, but he had ample input from Macha, Randolph and assistant general manager Gord Ash, who Peterson worked for in the Toronto minor leagues.
Melvin said he had his own eye-opening experience when he was the Texas general manager and saw journeyman Gil Heredia, who was 2-5 with a 5.89 ERA for the Rangers in 1996, spend the next two years bouncing around in the minors. Then, Heredia emerged as a key member of the Oakland rotation in 1999-2000 when he was a combined 28-19, helping them into the postseason in 2000.
"I call him a Pitching Whisperer," said Melvin. "He is a captivating speaker, believes in what he talks about and the pitchers buy into him."