Pitching Coach Pep Boys

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How much of what a pitching coach says to his bosses when analyzing a potential trade target is legitimate and how much is said for their validation and consumption?

Is it accurate when a coach says, as Rick Peterson reportedly did when the Mets were considering trading Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, that he could fix Zambrano “in ten minutes”?

Is it the arrogance inherent in so many coaches, managers, executives and players?

Or is it bluster based on reputation?

Needless to say, Peterson did not fix Zambrano in ten minutes. Nor did he fix him in ten months. And he wouldn’t have fixed him in ten years.

On Thursday, the Nationals completed a trade for Athletics lefty Gio Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s wildness has been well documented and is in black and white for all to see. 183 walks in two years speak for themselves.

Did the Nationals hierarchy discuss Gonzalez with big league pitching coach Steve McCatty? And did he tell them the truth as he saw it or was he influenced by the club’s clear desire to get their hands on Gonzalez at whatever cost?

McCatty famously slammed his hand into the dugout wall when Stephen Strasburg threw that fateful pitch in 2010 in which he tore his elbow in an injury that required Tommy John surgery. I’ve long said that because Strasburg was injured while the Nationals were following organizational edicts and stringent limitations on his innings and pitch counts, no one could be held responsible for the injury; this made it something of a relief when he did get hurt. There was no documented evidence of abuse; no outrageous pitch counts; no “arm-shredding” reputation for anyone.

This in spite of the fact that then-Nats manager Jim Riggleman was the manager in charge when Kerry Wood was overused and abused during the Cubs run toward the playoffs in 1998.

Somehow the onus for Wood and Mark Prior fell two Cubs managers later and Dusty Baker.

It’s about perception.

Will altering Gonzalez’s mechanics give him better control?

Perhaps.

But will doing so make him easier to hit?

Sometimes when a pitcher has funky mechanics and doesn’t know where the ball is going, it contributes to him getting hitters out. Not only does Gonzalez walk a lot of hitters, but he strikes out a lot of hitters as well; and he doesn’t allow many hits or homers.

The funky motion and wildness could be a large portion of that, so making a change that the pitching coach sees as “fixing” him could damage him.

Such was the case with the Pirates when the fired Joe Kerrigan.

Kerrigan was fired, in part, because of the mechanical adjustments he made to former Pirates number 1 draft choice Brad Lincoln.

The main transgressions on the part of Kerrigan were: A) that he was a quirky personality who made his presence felt and imposed on his already weak manager, John Russell; and B) the changes didn’t work.

What did they hire a name pitching coach for if they didn’t want him to do what a name pitching coach does in trying to address issues he may see in a pitcher’s mechanics and approach?

If he didn’t do anything and the pitchers didn’t improve, would he have been fired for that?

Of course.

Anyone can stand there and do nothing.

For years, Leo Mazzone was seen as the “brains” behind the Braves brilliant starting rotation. Then he went to the Orioles and couldn’t repair their pitchers; he hasn’t been able to get a coaching job since.

Why?

Maybe it’s because you can’t make an Astrovan into a Ferrari; you can’t make Kris Benson and Daniel Cabrera into Greg Maddux and John Smoltz.

Peterson and Tom House have theories, stats, stick figures, computer simulations and innovative techniques to help their charges, but they’re also selling stuff.

It’s hard to take people selling stuff at face value.

In spite of his documented and long history of success, Dave Duncan has never auctioned his services to the highest bidder; he’s never sought a managerial job; he’s shooed away anyone who even approached him with the idea that he manage.

He’s a voice you can trust because he’s not hawking a load of junk.

The others? I have my doubts.

I wouldn’t want a yes-man overseeing any part of my organization; nor would I want someone whose main interest is maintaining a reputation at the expense of doing his job. The attitude I prefer is “don’t ask me a question you don’t want the answer to” and with today’s pitching coaches, I wonder whether they’re of the same mind and working to make their charges better or hiding behind a curtain of agreeable self-protection by interpreting what the front office wants to hear and tailoring their responses to that in order to save themselves.

And that’s not how a team should be run.

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Be Careful With Gio Gonzalez

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Athletics’ lefty Gio Gonzalez is the hot pursuit of multiple teams this winter.

But there are red flags that would tell me to steer clear of him.

In fact, there are similarities between Gonzalez and other lefties—Jonathan SanchezOliver Perez and Rick Ankiel—who have or had great stuff, but were at risk of disintegrating at a moments notice.

Two of them did.

His arm lags behind his body and he has trouble maintaining an arm slot and release point; he barely uses his body and the entire stress of generating arm speed falls on his elbow and shoulder; he lands on a stiff front leg and throws slightly across his body.

These flaws could be a problem as his career progresses or they might not be—hindsight tells all with injuries; they’re probably a factor why he strikes out and walks so many hitters.

This is not atypical among lefties who rack up a lot of strikeouts and walks, in part, because of their lack of control and a funky, deceptive, ball-hiding motion. They miss bats, but they also miss the strike zone.

It’s much easier for a hitter to get comfortable with a pitcher like Greg Maddux, Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay (even with their willingness to knock hitters down) because he at least knows they’re going to throw strikes; there’s almost a surprised aspect to the games in which a Gonzalez, Perez or Sanchez have their control; by the time the hitters realize they’re not going to be walked, it’s the eighth inning, the boxscore makes it appear as if they’ve been dominated and the starter’s out of the game.

When a team is paying for incremental improvement and potential while ignoring landmines, they run the risk of doing as the Mets did and overpaying to keep Perez only to flush $36 million down the tubes.

Billy Beane—for all the mistakes he’s made in the journey from “genius” to mediocrity and worse—is not stupid.

He saw from across the San Francisco Bay what Jonathan Sanchez was; he knows that Gonzalez’s value is never going to be higher; Gonzalez is arbitration eligible under “Super 2” status and is going to get a big raise after consecutive seasons of 200 innings pitched and that he’s a rising “star”.

But trapdoors are rampant.

Sanchez has talent and it made sense for the Royals to acquire him; they only surrendered Melky Cabrera. The Royals knew that they had replacements at the ready for Cabrera and he would never again be as good as he was in 2011.

The phrase, “Gimme a break, it’s Melky Cabrera,” is a viable excuse to trade him.

But Beane’s not asking for a Cabrera in a deal for Gonzalez.

He asked the Marlins for Mike Stanton.

Few are looking for an underlying agenda in the shopping of Gonzalez because Beane has plenty of reasons to do it.

Under the guise of “I have no choice” Beane can mask the intent of why he’s trading Gonzalez if anyone asks. There are several simple answers to give and all are effective subterfuge to the issues listed above.

“He’s arbitration-eligible and we can’t pay him.”

“We’re not getting the new ballpark, so I have to tear the thing down.”

“He’s one of our most valuable assets and we’re trying to maximize him with multiple pieces.”

Responses like these will assuage any concerns that Beane’s selling the interested party a product that he might not want in the first place.

But if the Athletics were in a better position, Beane might still be looking to trade Gonzalez. This just makes it easier to do and get more in the process.

The fall of Beane has had some interesting side effects in his dealings. Since he’s no longer considered a “genius” who’s going to pick their pockets, opposing GMs won’t be as reluctant to trade with him; and with the legitimate reasons for putting Gonzalez on the market, he can get some quality in a trade and dispatch a pitcher who could come apart if one of his mechanical or control problems manifests itself and swallows up the talent therein.

If I were an interested team and the A’s demands remained on a level with Stanton, I’d wish Beane a good day and move on from Gio Gonzalez. There are too many concerns to give up a ton for a pitcher who’s hair trigger to implode at any time.

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