Inside Pitch: What’s the buzz like at Mizzou when you have an alum like Max Scherzer doing what he did?
It’s absolutely awesome!
He is probably one of the most noted alumni we have here at Missouri. I did not have the opportunity of coaching him while he competed here. I was the guy in the other dugout at Oklahoma thinking he was an absolute beast. Max had our whole campus rooting for the Nationals because of what he means to our university and to see the big role he had in them winning the World Series.
The guy is the ultimate competitor. “Mad Max” is a pretty good nickname for him. When we talk about competing on the mound and competing within the SEC, he is the image we see. Missouri baseball has always had a rich pitching tradition with likes of not only Max, but other greats like Kyle Gibson, Aaron Crow and many others. We’re very proud of our baseball tradition.
IP: Is there a way that you think you can teach your guys to be more like Mad Max, or do you think guys have different levels?
It is my top goal to teach all my guys to be like Max but not every guy can be like him in style. They all come to me with different approaches and levels mastery. It is very important for me to learn the type of pitcher I have in my care. Some will be silent assassins that go about their business with actions that are not loud but controlled. I have others that like Max, that when you see them, you know you’re in a fight. They push the battle between a them and a hitter and they are very aggressive. They have only one thing in mind and that is punching tickets.
In trying to teach all my guys to be like Max, you have to look at both types and find the common ground that both can learn and adapt into their style. Bringing up things for example, look at how much it means to Max to compete for his team. Look how he prepares for each start and each season. Look at the relentless work ethic he has in mastering his craft. Understand how all of his preparation gives him the ability to attack with an unwavering belief he has in his arsenal.
IP: What are your bullpens like?
I get opportunities to go and speak at clinics. My topic for this year has been developing a command-first pitcher in today’s pitching ‘pageantry’. You can get caught up with all the tools that these young men have to get better, but the bottom line is, they’ve got to know their stuff. This new technology gets us to know our stuff. Once you know your stuff, you have to put it through the strike zone. We do a number of things to create that. We go from catchnet bullpens, where it goes into the strike zone, that’s a point. So we got to learn to throw a ball through the strike zone over the plate. And a catch-net target doesn’t lie. If it goes in the net, it was a strike. If it doesn’t go on the net, it wasn’t a strike. We learn to throw a box fastball or a through the strike zone fastball.
And then the next part of it for me is when you’re thinking about command, once you essentially know how to box a fastball, now pitching in and out is a directional piece. It’s not a release point piece. For many years, we talked about the release point being somewhere within the diameter of a quarter for in and out. As opposed to doing that, I want my guys to master throwing the ball right through the heard of the plate. Once they do that, then it’s a matter of directing a ball to the inner half, and directing the box fastball to the outer half.
The first thing is to master a box pitch. Then, changing where that box is [located] is going to be the key for us to pitching in and out.
I’m a big two-at-a-time guy – two guys sharing the same mound. I try to give as few cues as I can and limit the conversation. We have a thought process over the mound in terms of mechanics, but we want to ‘put our brain’ over the plate when we’re pitching. Our ‘over the mound’ thought process isn’t done in the bullpen setting – bullpens are for target practice.
With the two-man bullpen, you can make them competitive, and you can simulate the 14-second game-like rhythm between pitches, so you’re having to make adjustments in a more realistic timeframe as opposed to pitch, adjust, throw another pitch in six seconds, repeat. That’s not going to happen in a game.
My favorite pen is the two-out-of-three pen. Our guys will face nine “hitters,” and they have their own chart. I have them visualize the lineup that they’re going to face, so they have nine segments of left or right-handed hitters. I have them determine the first two pitches to each hitter, so they come into the pen with 18 of their 27 pitches mapped out.
Regardless of what happens with the first pitch, you still make your scripted second pitch, with the location based on count leverage. With that third pitch, I want them to understand, for example: “2-0 count, what are we going to throw here – how are we going to get back into the count?” It’s going to be a little different for everybody. In a 1-1 count, we may double up to win that count. In a 0-2 count, we may do a specialty pitch – an ‘extra’ breaking ball that we’re going to bounce to the front of the plate. Or an elevated fastball for chase.
Ultimately, we’re going to throw a pressure pitch and learn about pitch sequences. It helps me to learn how our guys are learning their pitching process, pitching to their strengths, and more importantly, knowing the importance of those first three pitches. The beauty of it is when you add the grading system. You may throw 15 strikes in 27 but how many 2-of-3 counts did you win? Not all scores are created equally.
IP: How in general, do you develop off speed pitches?
I’ve had many arguments with fellow assistant coaches throughout the years as a pitching coach, and I am under the firm belief that hitters can’t see spin, can’t see speed – that a majority of hitters have to make educated guesses to hit. I believe this for two reasons: one is, if hitters could see spin and speed, then catchers wouldn’t have to give signals, and the other is that home plate machine where the ball is shot out of one hole and you change the pitches, that’s hard to hit off of!
With that thought process, the first thing that I teach my guys is how to pitch the front and back part of the plate. We not only throw a fastball, we throw BP fastball. We not only throw a changeup, but we throw BP changeup.
If I have a kid that throws 90, I’m going to teach him a BP fastball at 84. If he throws his changeup at 80, I’m going to teach him a changeup of 76. Before we put any movement on a ball, before we put any different spin on a ball, we try to make the hitter responsible for tracking a broad range of velocity – in this case it would be 76 to 90.
Then depending on the arm slot, we’re going to go with a breaking pitch. Three-quarters and higher, you’re looking at a curve ball and a maybe slider. Three quarters and below, you’re looking at a slider, or some type of sinker and maybe a cutter.
IP: You’ve been able to coach at several different high level places. Are you finding that it’s a little easier when you go to a new place to implement your system?
I’ve been very fortunate that in my coaching career, I’ve worked with more than 220 pitchers who have taught me more than my great mentors like Jerry Weinstein, Brent Strom and Pat Doyle. Having that cache of a box of information and communication has helped me out in a big way.
When I came to Missouri I made a point to not approach it like I did Georgia. For some reason at Georgia, there was a sense that I was the guy that was going to show them all of this new stuff…and I did. I showed them everything that I had, and it made for a very trying start of our season, where it was almost like I had guys pitching to my plan instead of going out and competing and letting me wrap the pitching plan around them. That was a very good lesson to learn.
In my first year here at Missouri, I committed to just observing, watching, taking notes and paying attention to the data. So at the end of that first Fall ball, we’d thrown 84 innings, struck out nearly 100 batters, and we walked nearly 100 batters. I said, “Guys, these numbers are not going to flow. I like our strikeout stuff, but not growing through the strike zone is really going to kill us. And I have a plan.” They said, “What’s that?”
“I’m going to take away our weighted balls and I’m going to take away our long toss.” They thought I was off my rocker. How dare I do any of that?
I’m not opposed to weighted balls, I love weighted balls. I mean, back in 1987, I was part of one of the first research groups for the overload-underload program while at the University of California, so I’ve been with weighted balls from the ground up. But when you’re changing the weight of the ball in your hand, how many throws does it take to get back online to where you can play catch and command? You have to know how your arm feels. You have to know the feel of the baseball. More cannot always be better, and by throwing weighted balls, I felt like my guys were losing their feel.
And with the long toss, I just believe that guys like long toss because they’re no good at playing catch. It’s much easier to throw the ball far and play ‘fetch’ than it is to stay at 70 feet and hit a target over and over and over.
So I kept everyone at or within 90 feet, just temporarily, to focus on hitting a target on a line. So we made those adjustments after I took the time to observe, watch and learn and, fortunately in that first year, we were one of the better clubs in the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
IP: Where do you stand on pitch calling?
Ideally, I want my catcher doing that. I think all coaches out there would love to have their catcher doing it. But these kids, they go from weight [room] in the morning, to class, to practice, to tutoring, to studying, and then they go to bed. And by the way, most of them are finding some time for at least some type of social life in college. So then I’m going to ask my catchers to check out LSU, figure out their hitters and then take our pitching staff through that. As coaches, we’re on Synergy, we’re on video, we’re watching and making a game plan with our pitchers strengths in mind, so ultimately I think the best option is to call the game for our guys.
One thing I think you need is a wipe system. If you don’t have one, I’ve found that pitchers have a tough time being accountable. Coaches are typically going to call the highest percentage pitch to the highest percentage location, but more importantly, we want to throw the pitch that we are committed to, right or wrong. What makes a pitch right or wrong is the commitment to that pitch. So, when they see a fastball to a location and they say, “I don’t know about that,” they better wipe to the pitch they want to throw. The wrong pitch with confidence is better than the right pitch with doubt.
IP: What’s it like in the room for a player who is getting recruited by Fred Corral?
Well, obviously competing in the SEC really allows you to seek out higher talented athletes. But we also want to see what type of competitor you are. If you have those ‘tools’ and you can throw strikes, that’s a big plus. But I think with our system, I believe that we can get guys into the strike zone. The toughest part is getting to the kids who are already inundated with the information and the technology that’s out there, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not the primary thing. The primary thing is punching tickets, blowing up hitters.
I have extensive conversations with them. We not only talk about baseball, but we talk about other things. We talk about other things that may make up one’s character. I really seek out guys that know that they’re doing it for something that’s bigger than themselves. When you can find a guy like that, you can find a warrior, when they know that they want to be part of something bigger than themselves.
IP: How would you describe your overall coaching journey?
I jokingly say that, if they made a Forrest Gump movie about a pitching coach, I think I could play that role because I’ve been very lucky. A lot of it comes down to having enough guts to ask Jerry Weinstein if I could coach with him, because he was my arch-rival. I contemplated Jerry’s death many times while playing and coaching at Delta College. It was very tough because you think, “Man, that guy is so successful, he’s got to be cheating.” And then when you work for him you realize, “Oh my, this guy works harder than anybody, and still to this day he does. This is why they’re so successful.”
The ABCA Convention has – without a doubt – been one of the greatest resources for me as a coach. When Pat Doyle took me for my first time, then attending them with Jerry Weinstein, sitting in meetings and hearing Charlie Green and Bob Bennett, all these guys talk about pitching…it’s been invaluable.
Listening to guys like that at the ABCA Convention, it’s kind of funny how it all moves in a big circle – what goes around comes around. It may be a 20 to 25-year process, but the whole ‘drop and drive’, to ‘tall and fall’, to this and this because of that and that. It’ll always be that way because we are imperfect beings trying to figure out something. Science will never be exact, and the opposition of science will never be exact because it’s all operated by imperfect beings coaching imperfect beings. If we had all the right stuff, we wouldn’t have conventions, and life would be boring.
One of the worst things ever said in our society was, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” We need to recognize that this statement was probably from some disgruntled wife who had some sloppy husband who kept doing stupid things and never changed. The truth of the matter is, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Jerry Weinstein is evident of that. I think all the consummate learners out there are evidence of that.
What you cannot do is teach young dog old tricks. A young coach has to learn those tricks from time, and by the time he learns them, he’s going to be an ‘old dog!’
Brent Strom hit me with it in my first year of coaching: “before you become a master teacher, you have to become a master learner.” That is something that will stick with me forever. So going to the ABCA, seeking out mentors, maintaining my ground on all the new stuff, I’ve got to know that. But I’ve probably been one of the most blessed coaches of all time because of the places that I’ve been and the people I’ve worked for. I wouldn’t trade any of it anywhere for anything. You’re always at the right place at the right time. IP