With Larry Rothschild back in the fold for another year, the question arises as to how much difference a pitching coach makes. It's a fair question, but one with no clear answer. Much depends on the team's staff. Coaches often get too much credit for good pitchers and take too much blame for poor ones. As former Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone once said, "When Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz graduate, I may get stupid very, very fast."
One pitching coach who made a difference was Johnny Sain, who pitched for the Yankees from 1951-55 and served as pitching coach from 1961-63. Sain had a solid 11-year pitching career, going 139-116 with a 3.49 ERA, but made his biggest mark as a pitching coach.
Look at what Sain's pitchers did at his various stops:
1. With the Yankees, Whitey Ford won 25 games in 1961 and 24 in 1963, Ralph Terry won 23 in 1962, and Jim Bouton won 21 in 1963. None won 20 before Sain arrived and none won 20 after he left. The Yankees won the pennant three times and the World Series twice during Sain's three years as pitching coach.
2. With the Twins (1965-66), Mudcat Grant won 21 in 1965 and Jim Kaat won 25 in 1966. Neither won 20 before and Grant never won 20 again. Kaat didn't win 20 again until he was reunited with Sain. The Twins won the pennant in 1965.
3. With the Tigers (1967-69), Earl Wilson won 22 in 1967 and Denny McLain won 31 in 1968 and 24 the next year. Wilson never won 20 before Sain arrived and never won 20 again. McLain won 20 the year before Sain arrived but never won 20 after he left. The Tigers won the World Series in 1968.
4. With the White Sox (1971-75), Wilbur Wood won 22 in 1971, 24 in 1972 and 1973 and 20 in 1974, Kaat won 21 in 1974 and 20 in 1975, and former Yankee Stan Bahnsen won 21 in 1972. Wood and Bahnsen never won 20 before Sain arrived and never won 20 again. Kaat had won 20 before, but only with Sain as his pitching coach.
Sain was confident in his ability. "Give me a pitcher who has some courage and can think, and I believe I can help him a bit," he said. Getting his pitchers to think was his No. 1 goal:
I don't know any answers. I don't give pitchers answers. I try to stimulate their thinking, to present alternatives and let them choose.
Why did a coach with his track record move around so much?
He could be a prickly character, believing the pitching staff was his and his alone, and heaven help the manager who tried to interfere. As a result, pitchers were often more loyal to him than to the manager, and this didn't sit well with managers. Sain could be stubborn. He left the Yankees when they refused to give him a $2,500 raise. (Some Yankee pitchers thought so highly of Sain that they offered to pay the $2,500 out of their own pockets. When the Twins fired Sain, Kaat wrote an open letter of protest to the front office).
While the secret of Sain's success may never be known, he did advocate some basic principles:
1. He emphasized the need to change speeds because he felt that even a pitcher with an exceptional fastball will have trouble navigating a lineup more than once at the same speed. He believed a pitcher needed not only an off-speed pitch but the ability to put a little extra on his fastball when needed.
2. He taught a variety of breaking balls because he felt variety kept hitters off-balance. He emphasized a variety of fastball grips to give differing movement to the ball. He had studied aerodynamics as a Navy test pilot during World War II and applied those lessons to baseball.
3. He believed in the psychology of pitching, such as how to use one pitch to set up the next and how to keep hitters off balance. He believed pitchers must be nurtured, encouraged and supported. He was, some felt, as much a psychiatrist as a coach.
4. He believed in adapting his lessons to the individual. One size did not fit all. On a 10-man staff, he said, he might use 10 different teaching methods.
5. He didn't believe in trying to overpower hitters. "The best pitch in the game, even if it's just a lollipop, is the one-pitch out," he said.
6. He was no front-runner and spent more time with struggling pitchers than with those who were going well. Other coaches often focused on their stars so they could bask in the reflected glory.
He also cut against the grain. For example, he didn't believe in running his pitchers, a practice that had been in vogue forever. "If running is so important," Sain once said, "we'd be scouting track teams."