The Genius that is Darren Balsley
You’ve got the outfield acreage. You’ve got the early-season marine layer. You’ve got dead-man’s land in left-center field (397 feet from the plate) and in right-center field (399 feet).
You’ve got a list of reasons as tall as Alexi Amarista as to why Petco Park is a pitcher’s park.
Just make sure you don’t overlook the most important reason of them all.
It is the guy quietly sitting to manager Bud Black’s right, the guru who game-plans each night with the acuity of a jewel thief, the genius who can diagnose a flaw in a pitcher’s delivery with the precision of a master mechanic.
"He is really smart," veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit says. "The scouting reports he provides are really on point, I’d say, 98 percent of the time."
"He’s been the biggest difference in my career," budding ace Tyson Ross says. "Coming to San Diego to work with Balls and having a manager who also pitched and understands what I’m going through, the growing pains, has been huge to me."
This is San Diego, so Darren Balsley’s work naturally falls under the national radar. Which is to the Padres’ everlasting benefit.
Hey, the more things stay quiet, the more the tourists (and pitching-coach poachers) will stay away.
"There are so many good things to say about Darren as a pitching coach," Black says. "He has a great understanding of a major-league pitcher and what it takes to be successful. He does a great job instilling confidence in each and every pitcher.
"I think there is a genuine belief that he knows these guys are good, and when guys are going well he can instill in them that they can be better, and when guys are struggling he can instill confidence in them that they can be better."
His might not be a household name, but there it was in July, echoing across the hills of Cooperstown, N.Y.
My first couple of years here, it rang pretty loud to me when Maddux, Jon Garland, Aaron Harang, Randy Wolf, guys who had been elsewhere and had other pitching coaches, talked and Darren’s name would come to the top in a lot of those conversations.
Bud Black on Darren Balsley
"I learned more about throwing a changeup a better way from Darren Balsley," Greg Maddux said during his Hall of Fame induction speech.
Talk about an expert opinion. Greg Maddux? It’s like Henry Ford complimenting some young entrepreneur for helping to improve his assembly line.
"That was 24 years after first learning from Rick Kranitz," Maddux continued. "Just goes to show you that no matter how old you are, you’re still looking to get better."
Young pitcher or old, Balsley is just the man to help a guy get better.
He joined the Padres’ organization in 2000 after a decade in the Blue Jays’ system as a minor-league coach and major-league advance scout. He was the pitching coach at Class A Lake Elsinore in ’01 and ’02 before moving on to Double-A Mobile in ’03. That didn’t last long: In May, ’03, the Padres fired Greg Booker and promoted Balsley to the big club.
He’s been a fixture at Petco Park ever since.
You don’t hear much from him because he’s quiet and enjoys talking about himself only slightly less than yanking out his own fingernails with a pair of pliers.
Maddux’s Cooperstown comment?
"Aw, he was just being nice," Balsley says. "He dropped a lot of names."
The pitching staff’s overwhelming success since during Balsley’s 12 seasons?
"You need talent," he says. "Whatever GM is in place has always got to make sure there’s good talent. And secondly, you have to have good athletes, not just good pitchers."
That way, he says, he can be "more imaginative with their deliveries, and in what type of pitches they throw."
Balsley, 49, is "imaginative" in the way that da Vinci was when painting "The Last Supper." Since the start of his first full season in 2004, Padres pitchers had posted a 3.93 ERA, fifth-best in the majors, into this season.
No question, Petco Park gives Balsley and his pitchers a home-field advantage.
But we’re not talking crazy, distorted splits like Colorado in and out of Coors Field.
Into Tuesday night’s game in Dodger Stadium, the Padres’ staff ERA ranked third in the majors at 3.23 overall. It was 2.61 at home (best home ERA in the majors) and 3.89 on the road (tied for 15th in the majors with the Angels, who owned the best overall record in the majors).
Benoit, 37, ranks Balsley along with the Rays’ Jim Hickey and the Tigers’ Jeff Jones as the best pitching coaches he’s had during his 13-year major-league career. Ross, 27, calls Balsley the best.
Just as telling is the fact that when Black replaced Bruce Bochy in 2007, he made no move to change pitching coaches. This from a new manager who had just come off of a seven-year stint as pitching coach with the Angels, and a guy who previously had worked 398 games (296 starts) as a major-league pitcher.
"My first couple of years here, it rang pretty loud to me when Maddux, Jon Garland, Aaron Harang, Randy Wolf, guys who had been elsewhere and had other pitching coaches, talked and Darren’s name would come to the top in a lot of those conversations," Black says.
"He’s got a good eye for delivery and arm action. He can break down a pitcher’s delivery, mechanics-wise. Good pitching coaches have that eye where they know each pitcher’s delivery.
"From a strategic standpoint, he does a good job with scouting reports and implementing a game plan for the pitcher and catcher to go into a game with."
That last part, that might be Balsley’s favorite thing to do. It must come from the old advance scout in him. Here, the word "imagination" pops up again. Figuring out a hitter’s weakness, and then working with his pitchers to exploit it.
"Like someone else doing crossword puzzles," he says, smiling. "It’s one of my hobbies."
That, and Balsley’s eye for detail, make it no accident that so many pitchers have had their best years under his eye.
The Padres bought low on Ian Kennedy last year when he was in decline following a 21-win season in 2011. Now, Kennedy is seventh in the NL with 184 strikeouts and has posted a 3.75 ERA, his best since ’11 (2.88).
Heath Bell? He wasn’t much as a Met, was fabulous with San Diego, then quickly declined in Miami, Arizona and Tampa Bay.
Ross’ season started with nine walks in his first two starts. Balsley noticed that the 6-5 right-hander’s stride was too short and that he was arching his back a little too much.
Result? Ross’ posture is now much better, he’s staying more erect on the mound and he pitched his way onto the NL All-Star team.
Mmm-hmm, posture. A pitching coach sometimes has a little of your mother in him, too.
"It’s rare when you’re in the bullpen and someone tells you to try something new and the very next pitch is executed," Ross says. "But he gets down to the lowest common denominator."
He speaks a language that somehow becomes universal to those he’s trying to help.
"He gives you a road map to a game," Ross says. "He knows what kind of pitcher you are and exactly what you need to execute. He takes all the guesswork out of it.
"I know his word is truth. If he tells you to execute a certain pitch in a certain zone to a certain hitter, you know it’s going to work."
For 12 summers now, far more often than not, it has.