Bob McClure won’t be returning as Kansas City’s pitching coach next year, but that’s not for a lack of experience. The 59-year-old former southpaw reliever has plenty of that, having taken the mound in 707 games before joining the coaching ranks. He also doesn’t lack for good stories — nor is he shy about sharing his opinions on the strike zone or why pitchers do, and don’t, succeed. As for his appreciation of parables, that’s to be expected when you count Ted Simmons among your mentors and when you spend quality time with Brian Bannister.
David Laurila: You pitched in the big leagues for 19 seasons. What type of pitcher were you?
Bob McClure: When I was brought up to the big leagues [by the Royals] they needed a left-hander out of the bullpen, so I did that for three or four years. After about 200 games as a reliever, I became a starter. That was in the early 1980s, with Milwaukee, and I did that for three years before going back to the bullpen. Around that time, my velocity dropped, which meant my location had to be better and I had to start pitching a little differently.
DL: Why did your velocity drop?
BM: I’m not really sure, because I was able to throw all the time and never really had a sore arm. The only two times I was ever hurt were off-the-field incidents. Once I tried to stop a golf cart from going backwards and tore my shoulder up a little bit. Another time I slipped on a hill and hurt my elbow.
I once pitched seven innings against the Yankees on a Friday. On Sunday, which was my side day, [manager] George Bamberger asked how my arm felt, because he knew I bounced back fast. I told him that it felt great, and I ended up relieving in both games of a double-header that day. I had that kind of arm, so why my velocity dropped after three or four years of starting, I can’t really say.
DL: Is it ever a blessing in disguise for a pitcher to lose velocity?
BM: It can be, because you learn how to pitch. You learn to locate better, because you have to. With higher velocity, you can get away with more mistakes. A lot of guys don’t really learn how to pitch until they hurt their arm. Not that you ever want to see it happen. What you love to see is guys learn how to go hard-slow when they have their best stuff. Obviously, that happens at different times for different pitchers, and some guys “get it” more than others.
DL: Why do some pitchers figure things out later than others?
BM: If we knew the answer to that question, we wouldn’t have so many guys in the major leagues with good arms who don’t make it. I was fortunate. I had three very good mentors: Ted Simmons, Mike Caldwell and Pete Vuckovich. They were big on feel. Vuck won a Cy Young, Caldwell was second to [Ron] Guidry for a Cy Young and Simmons was my catcher. Learning how to go back and forth was real important to them.
They probably had to teach me to go hard more, when I was throwing soft. They didn’t have to tell me to go soft because I already knew how to pitch backwards. Their point was that I was doing it too much.
It’s very difficult to teach feel. You can teach command, and you can teach repeating your delivery in order to get more command, but how someone’s brain works and how to go slower instead of harder — that’s very difficult. Number one, young pitchers don’t trust that by throwing slower, it’s not going to get smashed. It takes trial and error to get to where you can go slow, then slower, then slower, understanding that you get hitters out in front and mis-hitting the ball. That was their whole point.
DL: It is said that all big-league hitters can hit a 95-mph fastball. It is also said that the fastball is the best pitch in the game. Is that a contradiction?
BM: A 95-mph fastball, or a 90-mph fastball with movement, is still the hardest pitch to square up, because of the velocity. Being able to… every hitter is going to judge how quickly they have to go to the ball by how hard the fastball is. If you’re pitching and your top velocity is 84, and your off-speed stuff is 80, they’re not going to have to think. They won’t have to wait and wait and wait, and time it. But if you’re 94 and can throw your off-speed at 84, they’re going to be out front and they’re going to be behind.
Hitters are judging your fastball first. A starting pitcher is normally going to throw more fastballs than anything. Anywhere from 55 to 70 percent are going to be fastballs. That said, I think that more and more we’re starting to see that even out to where it might be 55-45, 57-43, somewhere in there. Guys are mixing in junk more often than they were, say, 30 years ago.
DL: Why do you think that is?
BM: My philosophy on that is the strike zone. The strike zone, to me, is so small. It’s also lower. Yes, on a majority of your pitches, you want to get guys out down and away. That’s the furthest away from your eyes and it’s the hardest ball to square up consistently. The problem is that you’re not able to use all of your weapons with the strike zone not being from just below the letters at full stride.
Someone like Jim Palmer, even though he could throw down and away, he would throw pitches letter high and you couldn’t get on top of them. With good velocity, you can’t get on top of that pitch. You’ll foul it, or miss it, and then the pitcher can climb the ladder. If a pitch in that location is a strike, then you go just a little bit higher and it looks like a strike, too.
How many games have you watched where you see a pitch right down the middle, a baseball above the belt, and it’s called a ball? A zillion. Now, the rule states that, at full stride, from the back of the knee to just underneath the letters is a strike. The rules were written a certain way.
We had an umpire the other day — I think it was Ted Barrett — and he was fantastic. He called strikes on pitches letter high, or just a little bit lower, and also at the knees. Guys were able to elevate and utilize pitches up in the zone to get hitters to chase. When that happens, not only does the pitcher have more weapons, there are fewer pitches and the game goes faster.
Think of all the things they’ve done for hitters and put them on a piece of paper. Then list all the things they’ve done for the pitchers. Which is the longer list? They lowered the mound. The strike zone is smaller. The hitters wear gear. You’re warned if you pitch too far up and in. Where are the plusses for pitchers?
DL: Is not getting called strikes on high fastballs really that much of a game changer for pitchers?
BM: Look at it this way. When you throw a cock-shot fastball just above the belt, right down the middle, you’re hoping they don’t swing. A lot of times, that gets hit out of the ballpark. But when it’s called a ball, and it’s a mistake, that’s not right. If you’re trying to raise a hitter’s level, and it says in the rule book that it’s a strike, then why are they calling it a ball?
DL: Randy Jones won a Cy Young award in 1975 with a fastball that topped out in the low- to mid-80s. How was he able to succeed with so little velocity?
BM: It’s funny you mentioned him, because his catcher was our bullpen coach. That’s Freddy Kendall, who is Jason Kendall’s father. He said that [Jones‘s] ball moved like Roy Halladay’s, except lower and at less speed. He could make the ball [move], knee high, with pinpoint control.
When Roy Halladay throws his sinker, it runs away, and down, to a lefty. Against a right-hander, it‘s running in, or he‘s back-dooring it. It has not only side action, but depth. When he throws his slider, it starts out in the same slot and has not only side action, but depth. It’s running with sideways action and depth, in the other direction. His fastball is running across and down, as well.
Randy Jones did that at a lower velocity and knee high. His ball was doing the same thing. That’s how Freddy explained it to me. They were always hitting the top of the ball against him. It was very hard to center.
DL: Tim Collins has a deceptive delivery. Can you teach deception, or is it something you either have or you don’t?
BM: Tim does have a lot of deception. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pitcher throw like him, to tell you the truth. He has good stuff — three quality pitches — but he’s also very unusual.
You can teach it. You can teach deception by having… now, guys might hurt their arms by doing it, but one way is by having them step across their body and drag their arm a little bit, so they’re a little bit late. You can teach that, but I don’t know if I’d recommend it.
When I first started pitching, I couldn’t throw a two-seam fastball. I was kind of high-three-quarters and only had two pitches, a four-seam fastball and a curveball. I was watching This Week in Baseball, and in their game of the week, Ken Holtzman was pitching for the Oakland A’s. He had a great sinker. I was watching him on TV that Saturday morning, and watching how he threw the baseball. What he did was, instead of stepping straight toward home plate, actually step toward first base. The ball was hidden a little bit and his arm was dragging, causing the ball to sink. I started practicing that and was eventually able to start throwing a sinker. You can teach deception.
DL: What are your thoughts on arm angles?
BM: I think that if you see a guy play long toss, that’s his arm slot. If I’m watching a guy crow hop and throw the ball 200 feet, to me, that’s his arm slot. That’s how I watch for where it should be.
You always like angle, coming in. You don’t want the ball flat, because it’s easier to see and easier to hit. For instance, a guy like Jeff Niemann, or a Tim Lincecum, has a very high angle to his pitches. It’s very severe and what happens is that the hitters are seeing the top of the baseball and it’s hard for them to square it up. They both throw the ball straight over the top.
Niemann is 6-foot-9 and his [angle] is pretty much because of his height. He does also have a fairly high arm angle. Lincecum is right over the top and clears his head out so he can do that. The pitch is so steep that it’s hard to see the whole baseball. You’re just seeing the top and I think that’s why his changeup is so effective. It’s coming in straight down.
DL: Do left-handed pitchers think differently than right-handed pitchers? If so, does a left-handed pitching coach better understand a fellow southpaw?
BM: I’m not sure that a lefty or a righty can do more for a left-hander or a right-hander. But I would imagine, having pitched for a long time, that I would be able to teach left-handers a few more things. For instance, dropping down like Bruce Chen, and teaching him to change his arm angles on all of his pitches.
DL: Why is Chen a better pitcher now than he was a few years ago?
BM: I think he’s getting the ball down more. He throws more strikes. There’s more deception now. I also think Bruce has a good head on his shoulders. He has feel for pitching and that’s the hardest thing to teach. You don’t run into your Roger Clemens’s — power guys with tremendous command — every day. Obviously, Bruce Chen isn’t Roger Clemens, but part of feel is… if you watch Jered Weaver pitch, he has tremendous command. Command is number one. But his feel for hitters, and how he can go slow, hard, slow, up and in, down and away, slower, harder — it’s tremendous. He has guys so goofed up out there sometimes that it’s amazing.
With Bruce, part of it might just be age and experience. I know that he was getting hit out of that one arm slot, because he was leaving a lot of balls up. By lowering his arm, he was able to keep the ball down, which started to give him a little more success. And then, his brain just kind of works. He’s an older kid, so perhaps it’s just his time.
DL: When are your priorities when working with pitchers?
BM: When they’re young, I’m more or less focusing on getting them to repeat their delivery and letting them go. Very seldom, with young guys with good arms, do I get too in depth with, “This hitter is this type of hitter.” I’m more “pitch to your strengths” than “pitch to their weaknesses.” Stay in the lane, throw strikes, and go from there. Trust your stuff, because you’re better than they are.
With young kids, what you’re hoping for is that they repeat their delivery so their command gets better. The more they can repeat their delivery, the better their command is going to get.
I never understood it when I was told to me by my pitching coach, Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish, but he always used to tell me “Mac, strikes are in your delivery.” I had a pretty wild kind of delivery, a max-effort type of delivery. He would tell me, “:Strikes are in your delivery, strikes are in your delivery.” I couldn’t put two and two together, because I was 23, 24 years old. I really didn’t understand what he was saying, because the game was going so fast for me at that time. Now, as a pitching coach, and even when I was an older pitcher, I understand the importance of repeating your delivery.
DL: You worked with Brian Bannister. How would you describe his thought process?
BM: Banny went overboard. The first year I had him, he was very successful. We worked a lot on command. We’d do two bullpen sessions between his starts instead of one, which is something I’ve done with a lot of young starters to help them repeat their delivery. Instead of throwing 35 or 40 pitches in one bullpen session, we’ll throw 20 [each] in two sessions.
Banny had a heck of a year [in 2007], but it got in his head that the way he was pitching wasn’t good enough. You’re talking about a guy who was third or fourth in Rookie of the Year voting and who won 12 games. He said, “I’m giving up too many fly balls.” I said, “Yeah, but they’re mis-hitting them, because you have deception and because of the way your pitches come in.”
He tried to get guys to do this and do that. He got into the rotation of the baseball. He got into where hitters hit their extra-base hits and what the best pitches are to throw to them. He started subscribing to all of that and getting into the terminology. I mean, he’s a very bright kid; he went to Stanford. He got into things like how the ball was turning, and to me, it’s not that complicated.
As a pitcher, what I’m trying to do is keep you off balance just enough, and locate my pitches. I’m trying to get ahead in the count, keep you off balance, and make pitches. That’s all I’m trying to do. I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that. The first three pitches are the most important ones you throw. If you can get to 1-2 on three quarters of the batters you face, you’re probably going to have a good game.
Banny got a little overboard and tried to do more than he was capable of doing. The next thing you know, his walks go up and his hits go up. He’s trying to sink the ball instead of what he was doing in the first place, which was commanding his fastball and his cutter. It kind of turned into a mess.
Banny was convicted in what he was doing and I don’t think anyone was going to change his mind. Now, that being said, I think that if he was 100-percent healthy… he had some very good points in wanting to sink the ball a little bit and get the ball on the ground a little more. He could maybe not take as many pitches to put a hitter away by getting them to hit it on the ground. He had some very good points, it’s just that we’re dealing with someone whose shoulder, here and there… as far as health, at times it was difficult to do enough work in order for him to get where he wanted to be.
DL: In a more general sense, what is your opinion of using data when working with pitchers?
BM: It depends on what kind of data. I think that makeup… where is the data on makeup? Where is the data on a guy being able to throw the ball real slow in a situation where there are 40,000 fans yelling at you, with the bases loaded on a 3-2 count? That takes feel, conviction, and an understanding of how to pitch.
DL: Using Luke Hochevar as an example, let’s say that numbers show he gets hit hard on fastballs away in a certain count,
BM: It’s interesting that you say that, because pitchers do fall into patterns. Hoch is a good name to bring up, because sometimes he will fall into patterns. I’ll give you an example — he knows, because we’ve talked about it. When we played Detroit, Miguel Cabrera struck out on a sinker down and in. The pitch ran in, toward his feet. Then, Cabrera comes up in the fifth inning with two men on. Hoch’s first pitch is right in that same zone, except that it’s more of a strike, because it’s an 0-0 count and on the strikeout it was 1-2. Cabrera was looking there and rifled it right up the middle.
That kind of data, as far as mixing it up — pitch him a certain way the first time through and maybe a little different the second time, and then more the third time through — has something to it. Establish your fastball, if you can, to as many hitters as you can. Don’t let them see all of your pitches early. Of course, when you have the bases loaded in the second inning, you break out the kitchen sink to try to get out of that jam.
Data is a useful tool, but pretty soon you have to feel it. Feel for pitching — feel for hard and slow, in and out, up and down… you don’t have to have great stuff in order to be a good pitcher. You just need good command and good feel.
DL: When are you most typically communicating during a mound visit?
BM: It’s always different. Sometimes it’s, “Why don’t you start this guy off this way; this is how I would go on this pitch.” Sometimes it’s just, “I’m just giving you a breather for a second; step off the mound and relax for a second.” Sometimes I’ll tell them that they have something hanging from their nose, just to get their mind off what just happened. A lot depends on who the individual is, and how well you know them. It’s not just the situation.
DL: Is staying focused and composed the key to executing a pitch?
BM: Yes, and that’s where young guys sometimes get caught up. People will say, “Why can’t this guy do this, why can’t this guy do that?” Well, imagine yourself in a car, in an arena with 40,000 people, and all of them are yelling and screaming. There’s going to be some vibration going on. Now, make that car a convertible. The crowd gets louder. Now, make that car a convertible, on a racetrack, and you’re going 200 mph. Then, with 40,000 people yelling and screaming, you’re in that convertible — that race car — going 200 mph and you have to make that first turn fitting in between two other cars. When that becomes an everyday job, you’ve got it.
DL: You mentioned earlier that Ted Simmons was a mentor. Did he think any differently than other catchers?
BM: Teddy is probably the most interesting person I’ve talked to in baseball. He taught me in parables. He’d tell me a story about a giraffe, a zebra, and an elephant, and by the end I’d be thinking, ‘You know, that elephant sounds just like me.” It was very, very interesting, and it helped me tremendously. Talking in parables is such a good way to teach, because it’s almost like watching a movie.
Here’s an example of Ted Simmons: One year — and we had a pretty good team — they put me in as the fourth starter. Teddy told me, “If we’re going to win this thing, you need to pitch well. The other three guys are going to pitch well and you need to, too.” Well, there were some games where I wasn’t doing it the way he thought I should.
We were in New York, and it’s about four o’clock in the morning, and my phone rings. I pick up the phone and I hear, “Get to my room.” Then, click. We didn’t have a rooming list, so I had no idea where Ted Simmons was. I had to go downstairs and talk to the bell man. I had to show my ID and tell him that I had to see one of my teammates. He took me up there and said, “Here‘s the room.“
The door was cracked, so I walked in. The room was pitch black. All I could see was the tip of a cigarette burning. He said, “sit down.” I walk over, sit down, and he immediately starts in with, ‘OK, here is the inning, here is the count, here is where the runners are, and here is the score. What are your options and what are the red flags?”
With Teddy, if you didn’t know what your options were — if you got it wrong — you were going to be there until daylight. Until I understood it, until I got it… he was going to make sure I got it. He was going to make Bob McClure a better pitcher.
Teddy made baseball interesting. He made it more than just going out and competing. His thought process was amazing. He taught our entire Milwaukee Brewers team how to win. We had a lot of talent, and when Ted Simmons came, he knew how to make it one. He knew how to make us a winning team and not just a team that had talent. He made me a better pitcher.
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.