The day after the season ended, the Diamondbacks parted ways with pitching coach Mike Harkey. Last night, Nick Piecoro reported that former Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher is likely to be hired as Harkey’s replacement, and while the role of a coach is especially hard to analyze with our site’s particular brand of analysis, signs still point to this as a very good move for the team [ed: the Butcher news is official].
If a pitching coach’s impact is always hard to fathom, it’s especially hard here; Harkey’s hiring in December 2013 was precipitated by the hiring of Dave Duncan the preceding month as a special assistant to GM Kevin Towers and a pitching consultant. Under their tenure, we saw the team adopt a ground ball focused pitching plan that had the team’s pitchers pounding the bottom of the zone relentlessly and relying more heavily on sinkers — with results that appeared mediocre at best. Another common trait of the pitching staff in the last two seasons has been inconsistency with breaking balls. Both things contributed to the underwhelming nature of the 2015 pitching staff, in particular, if not the one that broke camp in Australia in 2014.
My goal here is not to shovel [redacted] on Harkey — I don’t think any of us are in a position to do that anyway. While Harkey has been replaced, Duncan has not; of all people, maybe we can expect that Tony La Russa would appreciate any contribution that Duncan can make. And while I can’t offer data to back up this assertion, I think it felt in 2015 in particular like the staff was held to pitching plans in a rigid fashion, as if a general was calling plays from a far away field and his lieutenants had little authority to alter them. We’ve done the ground ball thing to death, probably, but suffice it to say, it looks like it was less of a natural fit for some pitchers (Josh Collmenter, Chase Anderson, Jeremy Hellickson, Randall Delgado, Addison Reed) than for others (Andrew Chafin, Zack Godley, Rubby De La Rosa).
And there were successes for which Harkey deserves recognition, if we were to assign credit or blame. You could say that Robbie Ray is a (flawed?) success story, as he went from “most overrated prospect” status to one of 2015’s most shining successes. Chase Anderson’s improbable entry into the rotation in 2014 and the success that followed were also under Harkey’s watch. Evan Marshall broke out in 2014 in a huge way, and Chafin provided an even better encore in 2015. Daniel Hudson has made a mostly successful transition to the bullpen, and Collmenter made a similarly seamless transition to the rotation in 2014. Brad Ziegler was somehow even more elite. And while I’m even less certain about who should get the credit for Enrique Burgos‘s violent change in results, relatively speaking, that might be the biggest “coach-ey” success in the last two years.
There were, though, more misses than hits, which was to be expected in the wake of the front office’s Statue of Liberty approach to staff building. Allen Webster is in danger of being written off forever, in any role. Rubby De La Rosa found some good things, but adjustments were slow and probably inadequate. And then there’s all of that breaking ball silliness. Harkey was not handed a fleet of Cadillacs — the front office collected an oversized group of functional cars, and Harkey was asked to make the best of it. The front office’s focus was tools (ooh, that horsepower though!) and quantity. That’s a vivid dream for a pitching coach, but it’s part nightmare — thinking that the D-backs would have most of its acquisitions improve would be completely unreasonable. Expecting half of them to work out might have been unreasonable.
On the outside looking in at a position with even less to measure than a manager, it looks like Harkey did a reasonable job, but not an outstanding one. No matter. Even if his replacement were not better at being a pitching coach, a change in pitching coach was still a good idea.
A Shift in Approach
But consider this: the D-backs blew up their pitching staff to the extent practicable at the end of April 2014, and completely splintered what remained last offseason, with a new front office. Last year was the year of pitching experiments, and with respect to the experiments that have worked, Harkey was undoubtedly a big part of that. But 2016 will not be a year of pitching experiments: the front office is unlikely to take a shotgun approach to staff building again this offseason. And yet there’s ground to make up.
The pitching staff still needs to improve, and even if the team adds one big arm this offseason, that’s unlikely to get the rotation to 15 wins or more. That’s where a new coach comes in: there may still be pitching experiments in 2016, but they won’t be personnel experiments. The best case scenario is that the team retains the gains made under Harkey, but makes additional ones, too. So long as Harkey isn’t critical to keeping the good things he helped to build, replacing him was probably the best way to accomplish that.
In my humble opinion, I’d like to see the team back off this ground-balls-way-or-the-highway strategy that few pitchers were exempted from (if anyone was, it was probably Robbie Ray). Just guessing, though: that didn’t come from Harkey, although he was assuredly tasked with implementing that plan. That’s probably not going to change in a big way. There can still be change.
It’s the breaking balls problem. It’s not like Harkey never had success with breaking balls; Randall Delgado started throwing a slider with regularity in June 2014, and he’s had much more success with that pitch than he’s had with the curve. Rubby De La Rosa’s 2014 experiments with a slider were tremendously unsuccessful, but in 2015, it was RDLR’s best pitch. On the flip side, though, Josh Collmenter moved toward a curveball as part of his entry into the rotation in 2014, and in his bid to stay there this season — and it was pummeled to the tune of a .571 slugging percentage in 2014 and an otherworldly .800 SLG in 2015.
In other words, maybe Robbie Ray is allergic to breaking balls in some extreme and extremely unusual way; maybe it’s less that Harkey wasn’t able to teach it, and more that Ray wasn’t able to learn. Either way, though, a new pitching coach can only help (and we’ll still suggest a Dan Warthen slider). Piecoro has reported that the D-backs interviewed several internal candidates, but this could be a situation where continuity is not a good thing.
Instead, the priority in hiring a pitching coach might be a different method than what the organization has had to date. Maybe Butcher has a different way of teaching breaking balls. And while the Angels pitching staff hasn’t been a perennial terror to the rest of the American League, he’s at least shown that he knows what he’s doing, and he has some success stories under his belt.
Kevin Towers may have loved Mark Trumbo more than fish love water, but the mechanics of that trade seemed to be motivated, in part, by a fear or a recognition that the D-backs organization couldn’t “fix” pitchers. Tyler Skaggs was offloaded while he still had some redeeming qualities (exactly the type of starter the D-backs targeted the following offseason), and he was put in the hands of Butcher. And as some guy named Jeff Wiser explored in great detail in a great way, the mechanical problems that had plagued Skaggs were markedly improved in a short time (before his elbow blew, but… yeah).
Skaggs will most likely return to the majors in 2016 (but will he be traded to the Mariners? Stay tuned…), and we’ll see if he ends up looking like one that got away. Jerry Dipoto, himself a former pitcher (like Dave Stewart and Butcher and Harkey), “had noticed Skaggs had shortened the stride in his delivery,” according to Bill Shaikin from the L.A. Times. From the same piece about the former minor league roommate of Mike Trout:
It sounds minor, but pitching coach Mike Butcher said a choppy stride could minimize the power of the legs in driving toward home plate, alter the spot at which the pitcher releases the ball, and accelerate the delivery.
“There have been a series of adjustments we’ve made, from the feet up,” Butcher said. “It’s by no means an overhaul. It’s just to get him in tune with his body.”
This is the man that helped make Joe Saunders serviceable, and who helped Jered Weaver excel with barely more than smoke and mirrors. C.J. Wilson has defied the fate normally reserved for #2-ish starting pitchers who sign long-term free agent deals. And it’s also probably worth noting that while John Lackey was a perfectly good starter before Butcher joined the Angels (his career up to that point looked a bit like Wade Miley‘s does now), it was under Butcher’s tutelage that Lackey earned a “near-ace” label.
Of course we don’t know what the future holds. But it’s worth noting that the Angels pitched down in the zone this year less frequently than the average team, and if I could pick anyone to help Chase Anderson, it might be Jered Weaver’s long-time pitching coach. We might see a lot of tweaks. But if slow adjustments were part of how the 2015 pitching staff failed to inspire, a coach with enough experience to take and hold his own authority seems like an especially good idea. Bottom line: as students of the game, the 2015 D-backs pitching staff was constantly fascinating because so many of its members were new or trying new things. The addition of Butcher might give us a new strain of adjustments to watch, and if that turns out to be a matter of finishing touches — that would be much more entertaining.
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