Inside Pitch Magazine, March/April 2021

Inside Interview: Kirk Saarloos

Bringing Big League Savvy

By Adam Revelette

Kirk SaarloosThe 2016 D1Baseball.com National Assistant Coach of the Year, Kirk Saarloos, joined the coaching staff at TCU in 2012 as pitching coach and added Recruiting Coordinator to his resume the following year. He was an elemental piece to the Horned Frogs’ four straight trips to the College World Series from 2014-17, and has developed the reputation as one of the brightest pitching minds in the country. He joined Jim Schlossnagle’s staff after two seasons as the pitching coach at Cal State Fullerton, where he helped the Titans win a pair of Big West titles. Saarloos spent seven seasons as a big league pitcher after a playing career at Fullerton that saw him set a school-record with 127 appearances. In 2001, was named first-team All American, Big West Pitcher of the Year, and picked in the third round (86th overall) of the MLB draft.

Inside Pitch: Is there a set amount of time that you need, or would like to get for each guy to build up and gear down, and how do you navigate that?

Kirk Sarloos: A lot of it is from my playing days, and then tweaking it here and there over the years, but really it's always the start date and then go backwards. And I really like to have about six weeks long toss before our guys step foot on a mound in a game setting. Sometimes that window gets shortened up a little bit. A lot of these high school kids get thrown pretty frequently by their high school team, so I really try to give them the full month of June and half of July off where they don't pick up a ball – to “reset” them – and then give them six weeks from the middle of July until the end of August to long toss.

IP: How about a set amount of rest?

KS: One thing I have changed is we used to completely put the baseball down during that rest time. And talking with our phenomenal strength coach, Zach Dechant, our head trainer Danny Wheat, and others, we all sat in a room and said, "Why do we do that?" What we do now is we throw three days away during our “rest periods.” Our guys will play catch at 60-90 feet, really light, just to keep the range of motion in that shoulder, because during that downtime from throwing, they're really in the weight room hitting it hard.

IP: How do you progress from long toss to bullpens as you prepare for the season?

KS: Our guys started throwing on December 3 in preparation for the season. And they’d been doing the 90-foot toss every other day. Before, when we had totally shut guys down, there was about a 10-day period where it was just trying to get them to get that range of motion at 90 feet. Most of them got on the mound exactly a month later, on January 3. So it was all throwing program for a month, and then the week leading up to that bullpen, we did flat ground, some box bullpens with catchers up front, and they're off the mound. From that point forward, it's about getting them ready for team practice [January 29] and ultimately for opening day [February 19].

IP: How about bullpen execution?

KS: We do a lot of scripted stuff, where I'm telling the catcher what to call and trying to get it as game-like as possible, instead of the pitcher just saying, "Hey, I'm going to go glove side fastball here for five and then spin some." I'm trying to get them to practice in the bullpen what they're going to be doing in the game. There aren’t many times that you’re going to throw five consecutive fastballs down and away in a game. We have to be able to work in sequences. We’ll also have catchers call it, so they get used to that rhythm.

We'll do some bullpens where it's more competitive, whether it be a game of HORSE, like you play in basketball. We'll do that with two guys. They're competing off one another. And that's usually in the fall where we'll have a HORSE champion over a month period in terms of having a match against a guy, and ultimately winner take all at the very end.

The worst thing I see is the anaerobic bullpen where a guy's almost out of breath by the time he's done because he's just firing rapid fire, pitch after pitch. So just really try to encourage them to work their routine, work their breath. And for it to be a professional bullpen. You go watch a guy in the big leagues throw his bullpen and it's under control, it's thought out, it's got some rhythm to it, and it's not just a chuck and go.

IP: How are you developing the mental game?

KS: We've used Brian Cain every year that I've been here, and I also knew him from Cal State Fullerton. We’ll watch games with our guys and go through different things, and we'll take video and show the body language, because a lot of guys don't even know when they’re out of control, wheels spinning. I would say that to a guy, and he'd look at me like I had three heads, "Coach, I was totally in control."

We go back and watch the video, and next thing you know he'll be like, "Yeah, in my mind that's not what I look like. I can totally tell what you're talking about now." These guys are really visual learners.

As a pitcher you need to know what the hitter is seeing. We talk about body language, we talk about never showing your back to the hitter, about always having your eyes up, and about acting differently than you feel. So when a guy doesn't quite have that, we'll show it. "Hey man, this is what hitters are seeing. They're stepping in the box right now and knowing that you're defeated."

We’ll show them a lot of positive reinforcement as well, because baseball can be super negative. There will be guys that after each week, we'll sit down in our classroom and I'll put a video together of all the pitches that were really, really good. So we’re showing them what success looks like.

If you're in control yourself, then we can be in control of the baseball. If a guy's not in control of himself, I never talk about his performance. It's more about, "Hey, I shouldn't expect you to be having a great performance if you’re not in control of yourself." It’s a daily battle. You can't talk about it one day and then expect it to happen if you don't coach it and talk about it every day.

IP: What's your philosophy on calling pitches?

KS: First and foremost, you’ve got to know your pitcher's strengths. We're not quite the big leagues in terms of knowing all the data, all the analytics of what guys hit in which counts, and their hot zones. But it's getting closer to that, and we’re getting a lot of video we can use to scout our opponents. But it's more about what my guy does really, really well. If that matches up with something that the hitter doesn't do well, then that's gravy. But if the hitter likes the ball away, but we can really execute fastballs, cutters, and our other stuff away, I'm always going to go to our pitcher's strengths even if the hitter's strength is the same thing.

I think pitching inside is probably one of the most important things that you can do as a pitcher, so we really need to establish that we’re not going to just throw to both sides, but we need to have the umpire to be able to call strikes on the inner half. That's when you get respect from a hitter. Just because we throw a fastball in and it's a ball doesn't mean that the hitter has to respect that. We all know hitters that go, "Oh, there's the token fastball in, here comes down and away breaking ball."

I’d say the last piece would be knowing the situation coupled with who you have to give in to, and know who you can't give in to. You might have to give something up right now to maybe beat a guy later on…two outs, nobody on to the three-hole hitter, maybe we're not going to show him everything that we have, because we might have to get him out with the bases loaded in the fifth. Keep it simple, read hitters, know what your pitcher does well, and attack. That’s pretty much it.

IP: How do you teach command?

KS: Everything shows up in your catch play. We get to get on the mound probably twice a week for a bullpen, once a week in terms of a game. So we're on the mound maybe three times in a week. So how are we going to get better at being a professional target hitter? And that's our catch play. Every day is going to be different in terms of what that day's prescribed catch is designed for, but I always feel like you can teach yourself a lot by playing long toss. And it's about having a mindset – okay, that guy's 300 feet away, my goal is to be able to get it to him maintaining first baseman responsibilities, I want to make sure that this guy can act like a first baseman and “stay on the bag.”

Until you can play really good long toss, I can’t hold you accountable to commanding the baseball on the mound. And all the best pitchers that we've had loved to long toss and were really good at it. They didn't always start that way, but they understood what I expected.

Some days I'll walk out with a guy as he keeps going back out, some days I sit in the visitor's dugout and act like I'm not paying attention and see, okay, what's going on down there? I don't want to hover and be a helicopter coach, and maybe I’m not even there if I’m gone recruiting. What's that going to look like?

IP: Any mechanical staples that you find yourself repeating pretty often?

KS: When I originally started coaching, I coached kind of like I pitched. I was a sinker baller, slider, changeup, who could really field his position. At first I’d see guys I thought were out of control: “he's falling, and he's finishing over to the first base side,” so we’re hammering direction and balance point.

But what I’ve learned to look for is that arm action, where the arm is when our front foot lands, and work backwards from there. Why is it late? Why is it outside of 90 degrees? Why are we in that position?

I try not to get super technical and super deep into the mechanical side of things, because I never want that to be a crutch for a guy in terms of, “man, I had a bad outing,” or “I didn't command the ball...it's got to be something mechanical.” Now do I want them to have an understanding of what they do mechanically? Hundred percent! My job is to make sure that they're their best pitching coach by the time they leave here, because once they get to pro ball, you get one pitching coach a year until you get to the big leagues. You need to know what makes you you, and how you perform at your best.


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