Thursday, August 10, 2006

White Sox Lesson Part Four:
Don Cooper's Coaching Practices  

In this fourth part of the interview with Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, we got around to the way he customizes his coaching for different individuals. Cooper's staffs have featured what I think of as an unequaled number of pitchers who had (a) had adequacy or success, then (b) were seen to have failed, and then (c) had years as good as or better once they came to the Sox and worked with Cooper and the rest of the staff in Chicago. The examples in my head are Freddy García, Esteban Loaiza, Javier Vázquez (at the time I interviewed him), Dustin Hermanson, José Contreras. Vázquez' first ten starts had him 6-3 with an ERA a whisker under 4.00, and while he got incinerated in a pair of losses, he had no cheap wins. He's subsequently turned back into the second-half of 2004 New York Yankee version of Vázquez, that is, a pumpkin.

JA (Jeff): Let's talk a little more about the success pitchers have had coming to the White Sox, and being on your staff. Mostly guys who had had success before, not necessarily out of nowhere guys, but pitchers who'd had some good times in the past, like Contreras…

DC (Don Cooper): Contreras…I'll tell you what I've seen since I've known him, and I've known him a little bit on the Yankees and certainly a whole lot here. I don't believe he's ever had the success he's having right now…he's doing this against the best players on the planet. So what he's doing and the amount of improvement he made in the course of a year in the big leagues (and against even the worst team, if you don't have your thing together, you're going to take your lumps) is great. I've never seen a guy improve that much and he deserves the credit because he worked his ass off, and if you believe hard work equals success, he pays that price. You have to pay a price for your success, you have to work hard. And if you work hard, you deserve that success. And if you work hard that should be a suit of armor, of confidence, around you, knowing you've covered that part of it. Hey, pitching in the game is like a test in school; if you prepare every day for the tests, you walk into the classroom saying, "Hey, give me the pencil. I'm gonna ace this because I know the material". That's part of the mental preparation.

JA: What about Loaiza and Vasquez?

DC: Loaiza was this - I looked at video when we first get a guy to see if there's anything mechanically we've got to do or talk about.

I don't jump into their world. I'll ask the pitcher, "What do I need to look at for you?" I'm asking them, because I think maybe right away, that my be helping the trust part the belief part, and they have a say in all this. Nobody's trying to force anything on them. And I'll get my point across if and when I need to. I'll look at video, and then I'll look at numbers. I'll look at his career. And say wait a second. Look at Loaiza - hell, he's got good stuff, but his hits are 20 and 30 above innings, sometimes 40. Alright. Simple. That means we've got to attack this hits column.

In general, but especially when the talent is the product, teachers and coaches get better success when they elicit the student's opinion than when they just dump advice on the victim like a Monty Python 16-tonne weight.

"Why are you giving these hits up?" I told him this the first day. I said, "You're giving up 30 or 40 more hits than innings, you are seriously underachieving with the stuff you got." Now, I said, "Are you giving them up early in the count? Because if you are, we've got to look at the quality of those pitches. Are you giving them up ahead in the count? If you're giving them up when you're behind in the count, we have to turn it around so you're not pitching in those counts.

He said, "No, I'm getting ahead in the count, I'm throwing strikes", and I suggested he's leaving too many pitches (over the plate) when you're ahead. So we have to dissect when you're giving up those hits.

It came down to he was throwing too many strikes, not pitching inside, and not trying enough to get guys chasing pitches when he was ahead. So that's how we tried to focus on affecting the hit column. That year, it was unbelievable, he turned it around I want to say about 30 hits below innings. And the same number of walks with a lot more strikeouts. Why, because he was smarter about letting the hitters get themselves out, too. "Here's that slider in the dirt...Go Fish for that".

He threw too many strikes, he didn't pitch inside enough and he wasn't letting the hitters chase something.

He took it as a bit of a slap in the face when I told him he was underachieving. But I did that for a reason. I asked him, "Why? You tell me?".

JA: You're letting him put the lesson into words, do the analysis himself…

DC: I don't want to give people the answers. I want the pitchers to give it to me because if they give it to me it means they understand it, and if they don't, then I'll fill in the blanks.

Let me tell you something. I'm a coach, I deal with personalities. In a lot of ways, you're a teacher. And you have to get your students trained. Here is the Major Leagues it's so different from the 16 years I spent in the Minors - I paid my dues, I like to think, learning the craft - it was so mechanical down there. You have to get their bodies into the correct position to be able to throw the ball where you want. Focus comes on top of that. I'm blessed to have some of the guys with the best talent, and so all we're talking about is focus, the mental side. It's not as much physical. I'm going to say my work is 95% on the mental aspects.

You gotta play the mental game, and you also have to keep a carrot in front of their mouths. You ask them, "What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve?"

Pitchers are competitive guys. It starts with playing catch - can you do that right. When you warm up. Your routines need to be done a certain way. We can change the routine - it doesn't run us, we run the routine. And we're trying to make the best use of our time when we're playing catch - working on things, instead of just standing there, saying, "C'mon Moose, let's do this". We're going to go out on the field and play catch 15 minutes. Then we're going to shag (flies), then we're going to get up in the bullpen - starting pitchers gotta go first. The best players have a routine, but they run the routine, the routine doesn't run them, and you can set your watch by it. I know what each of our starters are going to do on their sideline, how they run it, and how they run their game, and I think you can get your point across sometimes without them even realizing it.

I certainly don't have all the answers.

JA: Do pitchers ever teach you stuff?

DC: YEAH. I watch the games and I see what they do. They're teaching you what they can and can't do, where the work needs to be. And the highlight of my game is watching the other team's pitchers.

And here are an exaltation of additional coaching tips from Cooper's toolkit.

  • Not only is it true that no-one has all the answers, it's critical for a coach or manager to (a) know that, (b) act upon it, and (c) in the general case, admit it.
  • Always have achieveable and reasonable goals in front of the staffers' eyes. Make sure you plan in advance for the next objective after the one each staffer is presently working on. Challenge them to succeed, but be supportive.
  • Have staffers run their routine, not be run by it. In business especially, stand practices become unconscious routines, just acted through autonomically and not embraced in each repetition. Real teamwork in baseball and beyond doesn't happen in that mindless zone -- it's too brittle. Real teamwork happens when everyone is paying attention, knowing the routine can come off the tracks but also that one can get it back on track.

There's more of Don Cooper to come in a subsequent entry.

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