Bettors handicap coaches in all sports, especially in football. Head coaches often call the plays and put together the game-plans, at least on one side of the ball, so it makes sense to include them in your handicap.
However, assistant coaches play a big role too. If a baseball manager is akin to a football head coach, then the pitching coach is the defensive coordinator.
Pitching coaches carry a lot of weight, especially in a market where betting lines are largely based on the starting pitchers. Pitching coaches are tasked with taking each day’s most important player and setting him up for success. It always comes down to execution, but planning and in-game adjustments can make the difference.
Hall of Famer Warren Spahn once said, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” That sounds a lot like a defensive coordinator running various blitz packages and disguising coverages, right? Why don’t we consider pitching coaches more often?
White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz was Lucas Giolito’s high school pitching coach. The two reunited about a decade later when Katz helped Giolito generate more velocity, leading to a bump of 2 mph on his fastball from 2018 to 2019. Giolito went from a 6.13 ERA with a 5.56 FIP in 2018 to a 3.41 ERA and a 3.43 FIP — plus a big boost in strikeouts — in 2019. The relationship helped get Katz hired by the White Sox and helped Giolito become one of the AL’s best starters.
Katz has also worked his magic with Dylan Cease, one of the AL Cy Young front-runners. Cease had the raw tools, with high velocity and strong spin rates, but no idea of how to use them at the MLB level. Katz smoothed out Cease’s delivery and command, plus helped him increase his spin rates and improve his location. The result is a dominant starting pitcher with high strikeout rates and elite Whiff% on all of his pitches.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of seeing things from somebody else’s perspective. The Rays hired 6-foot-8 Kyle Snyder as their pitching coach and he was an integral part of Tyler Glasnow’s development. The difference? Glasnow is 6-foot-9, so it was easier for him to work with Snyder on his arm angle and delivery.
Pitching coaches help individuals and teams. They bring different ideas and different approaches that help pitchers tap into their potential. Whether that means adding velocity or creating more spin, learning a new pitch or a new grip, or simply attacking hitters with a different strategy, pitching coaches can be invaluable.
Here are some thoughts on two pitching coaches in their first year with a new team who are making an impact already:
Brent Strom (Diamondbacks)
Tom Verducci recently wrote an excellent article for SI about Strom and the impact he has had on the Diamondbacks. Strom came from the Astros organization, where increasing spin rates and velocity were big parts of the formula for success.
Another notable part of the formula in Houston, which Strom is now teaching in Arizona, is what he calls “top-shelf fastballs.” With today’s emphasis on increasing launch angles, a proven formula for scoring more runs, the Astros countered with an emphasis on throwing high heat to limit the opposition’s power production.
Remember watching baseball a few years ago when commentators and analysts went on and on about how pitchers needed to keep the ball down? It was all about trying to get ground balls and letting the defense do the work. Well, the game has changed. Hitters around the league have a hole and that hole is the top of the strike zone.
Admittedly, I had no hopes for Arizona’s pitching staff this season. Why would I? The Diamondbacks had a 5.15 ERA with a 4.88 FIP last season and a 4.84 ERA with a 5.00 FIP during the shortened 2020 season. There were no indicators this staff had the talent or the capacity to improve.
Then Strom was hired and things took off. The Diamondbacks have one the lowest strikeout rates and the bullpen has the lowest strikeout rate in MLB, but the staff also has the third-lowest Barrel% and a Hard Hit% against that is down more than 3.5% from last season.
While Strom would welcome more strikeouts, Diamondbacks pitchers have the team’s highest infield fly-ball percentage (IFFB%) since 2013, and pop ups are effectively strikeouts.
The offense is still a work in progress, but changes to location, pitch usage and pitch sequencing are why the Diamondbacks are more competitive than expected.
Ruben Niebla (Padres)
Niebla was a tremendous loss for the Guardians, whose pitching staff is allowing the highest Barrel% in MLB this season, and a big gain for the Padres.
Coming into the season, Niebla’s biggest task in San Diego was to help fix Yu Darvish. Darvish battled injuries in 2021 but also spiraled out of control after the crackdown on spin rates. His cutter was completely ineffective, as opposing batters hit .342 on that pitch with a .627 SLG. This season, Darvish’s primary pitch is back to the four-seam fastball, with a .129 BA against and a .226 SLG. Darvish’s extension is closer to home plate and his improved health has allowed his fastball velocity to tick up.
Niebla is widely regarded as an excellent communicator. In a data-heavy organization in Cleveland, Niebla made the information easy to understand for his pitchers. In San Diego, where the Padres have an aggressive general manager and a lot of players come in and out, Niebla’s calming presence should be a huge lift for the pitching staff.