Dave Righetti was a good pitcher. In a 16-year career spent mostly with the New York Yankees, he threw a no-hitter and saved over 250 games. He might be an even better pitching coach. “Rags” has held that position with the San Francisco Giants since 2000, and in the opinion of many, he’s among the best in the business.
Righetti’s reputation is well deserved. Under his tutelage, Giants pitchers have made 22 All-Star teams, won two Cy Young awards, and thrown five no-hitters. More importantly, the club has gone to the World Series four times and captured three titles.
Righetti talked about his philosophies — and the repertoires and pitch selection of members of the Giants’ staff — when the team visited Fenway Park in July.
Righetti on location and changing speeds: “Changing speeds on any pitch is essential, even if it’s a 95-mph fastball. If you can’t back off on it at times and throw it 90, people are going to time it out. The last thing you want to do is throw your hardest fastball every pitch.
“Same thing with a slider. In Sergio Romo’s case, it’s not a 92-mph Robb Nen slider. It’s 77-80, basically, so he needs to slow it down once in awhile, throw it tighter, smaller, quicker. It’s essential to change speeds on your best pitch, no matter what it is.
“Changing location is just as important. A fastball outside and a fastball inside are essentially two different pitches. By eyesight, if you’re a hitter… it’s just common sense. A ball closer to your eyes looks different than a ball farther from your eyes.
“The fastball is a pitch that needs to be controlled to all four corners of the quadrant. It should be the main pitch going into every game, in terms of having to throw it for a strike. Dave Stewart, Curt Schilling, some of those guys got rid of their breaking balls and pretty much threw fastballs and splits. So what was their best pitch? It was a combination of the two.”
On fastballs and pitch frequency: “We had Barry Zito, whose best pitch was his curveball. He probably didn’t throw it often enough. It just wasn’t engrained in his head, or in anyone else’s, to do that. The fastball is supposedly your best pitch.
“We used to get that when I pitched. When I went from being a starter to a reliever, Billy Martin [yelled] at me, ‘You’ve got to get beat with your best pitch.’ I said, ‘Well, my best pitch against that guy is probably my slider.’ They’d always say that if you had a good fastball, you’ve got to throw it.
“Bartolo Colon throws mostly fastballs, but he cuts it, sinks it, runs it a lot. He works on the outside of the plate and he can control it. It’s amazing how some guys don’t want to use their fastball enough. Would they control it better if they threw it more? It’s quite possible that they would.
“If you’re starting a ballgame and throwing 115 pitches — that would be the upper limit — I think 70 fastballs should be around the norm for most. But if you’ve got a guy who can get away with throwing 40 splits or curveballs… not curveballs, you won’t see that. Or cutters… although is that a fastball or just a hanging changeup? That’s all it is half the time.”
On throwing a higher-than-normal percentage of secondary pitches: “I don’t have a problem with that, particularly if you don’t have a good fastball. You have to do what it takes to get guys out. Get people off balance. Change speeds. Changing speeds is still the No. 1 part of the game, and fastball command is part of that.
“Your fastball doesn’t have to be 95. We just spent the last four-to-five years with our highest arm, in terms of speed, being Madison Bumgarner at 93. [Matt] Cain, occasionally. [Jake] Peavy, [Tim] Hudson, [Chris] Heston… the people we had here the last few years… Lincecum was down to, really, the high 80s. They had to throw their secondary pitches more often. That’s just the way it was. And in any given game, a guy’s best pitch might be what is normally his third best. He should lean on it to get through those six, seven innings.”
On Madison Bumgarner’s cutter and logging pitches: “With Madison, most of those are power cutters. He doesn’t throw a lot of sliders. If he’s got more than a couple of lefties in the lineup, you’ll see a true slider, but if you’re seeing 87, those are just baby cutters. It’s almost like a natural cut. To him, it’s an offset fastball that comes in 87-89. Those aren’t sliders, at least not true sliders.
“I look at all the [data] but also keep track of pitches. When I look at Inside Edge, a lot of time they’re wrong. Like Peavy tonight. He’s going to throw a bunch of baby cutters that look like his fastball. The way I know is simple: I ask the catcher when he walks in and I write it down. On 0-2, was it slider, changeup, back-door fastball, whatever. I keep an eye on what’s going on. One, I want to know what he’s throwing. Two, if he’s getting away from something, or we’re going somewhere too much, we’ll talk about it.
“You can usually tell a change, but with Tim Lincecum you couldn’t. Everybody called it a split, a forkball. Sometimes he got so high — like a (Clayton) Kershaw — Timmy got so high that he threw his slider and it would spin the other way, and everybody would go, ‘What was that?’ It was actually a slider, but it didn’t break, in your eyes, to the left, away from a right-handed hitter. The damn thing would go straight down and everybody called it a changeup. Posey would tell me, ‘No, that was a slider.’
“With Jason Schmidt, I said, ‘We’re not going to throw a changeup; we need a ground-ball pitch.’ He was fastball with a lot of long counts. I said, ‘Why don’t you move your fingers apart a little bit and basically just throw a fastball down in the zone and see how it reacts?’ It was an 89-mph changeup. Nobody knew what it was. They thought it was a split or a fork, but we were just trying to get something to move down late and get a ground ball for him.”
On data showing that Giants pitchers throw a lot of cutters and sliders, and not many changeups: “That’s not a philosophy, it’s about who our pitchers are. It’s changed over the years. We went from a high-strikeout team with a lot of walks to a team, the last three-four years, that has cut down the walks quite a bit.
“Cueto is starting to use his changeup a little bit more than he had in the past. But the majority of our relievers… you don’t see a lot of them. They’re going to rely on their first two pitches, and neither of them is a changeup. My job is to get the best out of each guy, not to give them a pitch or take one away. They need to use what they’re good at, see how it matches it up against the hitters, and go from there.
“If you look at our guys… for Bumgarner, that’s his fourth pitch. He might throw five changeups a game. Samardzija doesn’t have one; he throws a split, so let’s not call it a change. But I could see those percentages changing for us down the road, no doubt. It depends on the makeup of your staff.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.