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Arm angles and head games

The unique challenge of the pitching coach

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — There was a moment in August 2008, as Clay Buchholz stood on the mound at Camden Yards, hours away from being sent down to Double A, when the mental meltdown could be seen and felt and heard. His confidence in his ability to throw a baseball in the right place at the right speed was dripping away, replaced by the torture of failure.

His talent was undeniable. The psychological weaknesses also were undeniable. And so, by the time Buchholz returned to the major leagues in 2009, certain things had changed. He knew, for example, that he could no longer be intimidated by the overwhelming presence striding purposefully through the clubhouse. He needed to talk to John Farrell.

Because Farrell, like pitching coaches across the league, does not deal only in mechanics. That is where the job description starts, with the ability to break down film and diagnose an altered arm angle, to watch and analyze a bullpen session.

“It goes beyond the fundamental side and the physical side and then it becomes the mental side,’’ said Farrell, the former Red Sox pitching coach who now manages the Blue Jays. “When does the emotional spike happen in certain situations and how do they react and respond to those? That’s all part of it.

“So, yes, you’re part psychologist, you’re part strength coach, you’re part tactician. That’s what makes it so rewarding and so challenging.’’

They are, for the most part, former pitchers who had varying degrees of success. They are charged with game planning, with combing through scouting reports, with tinkering with mechanics, with working through health issues, with molding young players into veterans, with sports psychology. And all of this happens with their job on the line every season, with the instability inherent in a position that hinges on the success of others.

Part of that is delving into the inner workings of a pitcher’s head. Like Buchholz’s. Becoming not only his mentor on the mound, but also his therapist.

“Or used car salesman,’’ said Sox manager Terry Francona. “When a guy comes through that gate at 7:10, you want them feeling good about themselves, even if they may not be.’’

Complex relationship The scene is familiar in the clubhouse: the pitching coach and the starting pitcher and the catcher, chairs in a triangle, heads bent over a binder and sheets of paper, voices at a murmur. They are going over the opposing batters, strengths and weaknesses, hot zones and cold zones. They are going over the pitcher, what he throws well, what he throws poorly, how he should face each batter and each inning and each moment.

“Their work is done without anybody seeing it,’’ said Sox catcher Jason Varitek. “That’s where they’re most valuable.’’

It’s about the baseball, about the mechanics of throwing it correctly and placing it correctly. It’s about everything else, too, about where the pitchers are in their lives and how they learn. It’s about communicating with them in a way that gets through their stubbornness and their pride.

It’s about developing a philosophy — “pitch to contact, develop pitches that produce ground balls, understand what the value of a strikeout is and when it is not important and when it is important,’’ according to St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan — and getting the pupils to buy in, to trust.

“I think, in the end, you’re an educator,’’ Farrell said. “Whether a pitcher’s just starting out his career in A ball or whether he’s got 10 years in the big leagues, the biggest challenge to the individual is themselves, understanding who they are as a performer, understanding what their limits are and how to work within that framework. So you’re educating them on themselves.’’

Some veterans want nothing in the way of mechanics out of their pitching coach. Former Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, for instance, reached the point where he knew what he was supposed to do, he knew what he wanted to do. He just needed someone to bounce ideas off, someone to listen to him, someone to relax him.

“I think it’s fundamentally important, because I think it’s often overlooked from afar that they’re human beings playing the game with insecurities and emotions and fears and thoughts and feelings that they carry with them to the mound between every pitch and after a bad game and after a good game,’’ said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. “And how they respond to those results and control their thoughts and emotions on the mound is certainly an important part of pitching.

“I think pitchers oftentimes don’t turn to the manager for help and they can’t turn to the position players for help and it’s a small circle they keep — the catcher, the pitching coach, and at times their fellow pitchers. Having a pitching coach who can be a bit of a father figure and a mentor and a wise man and a sage is really a nice thing to have.’’

He has to be there for them. He has to talk to them. He has to support them. And he has to do all of this while massaging fragile egos.

“I think you’ve got to be willing to get on a parallel with the pitchers,’’ said Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux. “If you hold yourself above them, you’ll lose them. You can’t look down at them.

“Set the bar high, explain your expectations to them, but they have to be accessible. If you ask someone to go out and win the Cy Young, you can’t control that. But you can expect somebody to go out there and bust their tail and be prepared.’’

Keep it fresh When Farrell headed north for Toronto this offseason, the Sox had an opening for a pitching coach for the first time in four years. They decided on Curt Young, late of the Oakland Athletics, a man without the forceful style of Farrell but with similar rave reviews from pitchers.

“I think we needed somebody who had inherent authority; whether that inherent authority came in the form of an established track record or in a strong personality with conviction and strong communication skills, it didn’t really matter,’’ Epstein said. “In Curt’s case, I think it comes in the form of an undeniably strong track record, a history of developing relationships with all different kinds of pitchers.’’

Despite the praise lavished on Farrell, his tenure in Boston was not perfect. While Jon Lester, Daniel Bard, and Buchholz stood as his great successes, there were questions about the difficulties of Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Jonathan Papelbon. Where was Farrell on them?

“We have to be open-minded to be a little creative to keep it fresh,’’ Farrell said. “So when you’re with a pitching staff or a given pitcher for four, five, eight years, you’ve got to find ways to wrap your message and make it new, rather than it being mundane, droning on, and losing its effect. You’ve got to be willing to share and find different ways to pierce through that shield at times.’’

Does that mean that sometimes the pitchers just stop listening?

“Yeah,’’ said Farrell, “and there might have been guys in Boston that stopped. That very well could have been the case. Maybe that’s for lack of creativity, I don’t know.’’

When the Sox set out to find the next man to steer their staff, they didn’t look for a Farrell clone. They sought the best available person. And that, in their mind, was Young.

“He’s very avuncular, he’s very consistent, he’s very easygoing, very Midwestern in his approach, but doesn’t miss a thing and is razor-sharp,’’ Epstein said. “So we thought that would be a really nice fit for veteran pitchers who can be a little skeptical at first of the new voice coming in.’’

The fall guy But how much of a difference can that new voice make? Other than to be the guy that “reassures you here and there,’’ as Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett put it, it’s difficult to quantify the differences between a good pitching coach and a great one, or even a good one and an ineffective one.

“Unless you’re super young, where you haven’t quite yet understood your mechanics or what you’re trying to do, a pitching coach really can’t help you a whole lot,’’ Pettitte said. “He can talk to you about the adjustments, tell you what you need to do and what you can do, but you have to be the one to make those adjustments.

“I think sometimes unfortunately pitching coaches are kind of the fall guys for a lot of guys that aren’t mentally and physically able to make the adjustments that they need to make.’’

Sure, part of the job is teaching pitchers to make those mental and physical adjustments, readying them for the grind that is the major leagues, developing them into the players the organization has lusted after and worked toward for years. But that isn’t always possible. So Epstein must factor in the process along with the results in evaluating pitching coaches.

But, still, as San Francisco pitching coach Dave Righetti said, “You’re always coaching for your job in a sense, whether you know it or not.’’

Even though the trips the pitching coaches make to the mound are purely for counsel and advice, they often take the blame for throws that don’t come from their hands. They don’t have the authority to acquire talent. They can’t guide an arm in the pitching motion they have preached over and over. As Farrell said, with a laugh, the difference between a good and a great coach is “the talent that’s on the mound.’’

And when that talent fails?

“It’s never the pitching coach’s fault,’’ said Red Sox reliever Dan Wheeler. “That drives me nuts, when the hitting coach and the pitching coach get blamed for what the hitters and pitchers are doing. They can only do so much. They can’t actually make you swing at that fastball down the middle of the plate or make you throw the curveball in the dirt.

“I’ve still got to take that information, process it, and then do it physically. It’s definitely on us, on me, on the pitcher. He can only do so much. He can’t make the pitch for us.’’

But he can — and tries to — get each pitcher to the point where he can guide himself, in essence coaching enough so that the pitcher can take it from there.

“When it all comes down to it, you want that pitcher to be his own coach,’’ Farrell said. “To me, if that’s the pinnacle, that you can help that pitcher become his own coach, then you’ve been successful.

“It’s not a matter of who got credit for what or who’s responsible for this. If you’ve been able to turn that pitcher loose and have him become free of any other needs and he can function on his own, job’s complete.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.

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