When the Houston Astros hired Brent Strom to be their new pitching coach, they didn’t bring on board an old dog. The 65-year-old former big-league lefthander is amenable to learning new tricks. In an organization with an analytical bent, it could be no other way.
For the past seven seasons, Strom has been a part of The Cardinal Way. As the club’s minor league pitching coordinator, he helped nurture many of young arms that helped lead St. Louis to the World Series. His player development experience will be helpful in Houston, where there is no shortage of young arms.
This is Strom’s second tenure in the Astros’ organization. He was a minor league pitching instructor from 1989-1995, and the club’s big league pitching coach in 1996. He was Kansas City’s pitching coach in 2000 and 2001.
Strom — who assumed his new position on October 22 — talked about the pitching philosophy he brings with him from St. Louis, and the importance of keeping up with the times.
Strom on getting hired by the Astros: “I was at instructional league with the Cardinals, down in St. Lucie, and [senior advisor, minor league operations] Gary LaRocque came up and said the Astros had asked permission to interview me. The next morning, I flew to Houston and met with five or six people. A couple days later, I was offered the position.
“I already knew a lot of people over there, like [director of decision sciences] Sig Mejdal, [director of amateur scouting] Mike Elias, and of course [general manager] Jeff Luhnow, who had originally hired me with the Cardinals. It was kind of a surprise, but not a complete surprise, because I had a relationship with these people.
“I was perfectly happy with the Cardinals. They there were great to me, and we had a nice little thing going on. It was a difficult decision, actually. Many people wouldn’t think it would be a hard decision to take a job at the big-league level, but it was. I haven’t been back in the dugout since my Kansas City days [2000-2001]. I’ve been a coordinator, so everything has been about development. Now I kind of have to change my focus to wins and losses. That said, there is still development going on even at the major league level. It’s still a process: one eye on today, the other tomorrow.”
On pitching philosophy: “There are already things in place with Jeff and the other guys having come over from St. Louis. I’m just another piece in that puzzle. I don’t think we do anything you have to write in invisible ink, or anything like that. Our philosophies aren’t anything special. Maybe we have a slightly different take on how we look for pitchers, and how we train them. I don’t know what all organizations do.
“We like to develop some athleticism. We like to understand the value of each pitcher and what they bring to the table. For example, is he going to be a four-seam-fastball type of guy or a sinker type of guy? What type of pitcher is he going to be, and how can we maximize that? Pitching isn’t one-size-fits-all. Whitey Herzog once told me — when I was a minor league pitcher with the Mets — ‘Pitchers need to continue to work on their strengths while hitters must work on their weaknesses.’ I have never forgotten that.
“A great strength the Cardinals have is finding players outside the first few rounds of the draft. They’ve found guys with arm strength and guys who do something unique. Maybe it’s something sabermetric-wise. It could be a guy who is inducing ground balls, or it could be the amount of rotation someone gets on his breaking ball. It could be different things, and that’s regardless of the guy’s record.
“Jeff Luhnow has done an excellent job of looking everywhere he can to find different strengths, as opposed to just pure velocity, for example. That kind of continued this year with the Cardinals. At the top of their draft, they took two lefthanders, one known for his curveball and the other for his changeup. Obviously, you’d like to get a Justin Verlander, but those guys are few and far between. You find the best you can and work with what you have. Being unique, having something to go to is key — be it control, movement, spin, velocity, pitchability, competitiveness, whatever.”
On Randy Jones, finesse pitchers, and left-handed pitching coaches: “I played with Randy and he was a unique pitcher, a special pitcher. He had a great sinker. Guys like him, who didn’t throw hard, have to take a different route to get there. They have to show success at each level, and once they get their chance they maybe have a more limited time window. They don’t have the grace period a guy who throws 97 does. But it ultimately comes down to being able to pitch at the major league level, and there are many different ways to get hitters out.
“Randy was unique in his method. Greg Maddux was unique. Jamie Moyer was unique. Sid Fernandez is another one; he threw 85-86 mph. It’s a matter of being able to stay out of those hitters’ zones — where they like the ball — with something you can throw for a strike.
“For some reason, you see a preponderance of [left-handed pitching coaches]. With the Cardinals, we had about six in our organization. I don’t know what that says about it, perhaps we can’t do anything else. Having a tool box of items to go to with each of one’s pitchers is what is important. Handedness is irrelevant.”
On evolving as a pitching coach: “I think what I teach is based on the belief that I don’t know what I don’t know. I keep searching for better ways. I believe I’m a more knowledgeable pitching coach now than I was a couple of years ago. I’m definitely a lot better than I was 10 years ago. Every pitching coach tries to do the best they can, so it’s a question of, ‘Have you been exposed to the right information and are you willing to make adjustments as you coach? Are you going to move forward, or are you going to be stuck in the one way that was taught to you?’ It’s an ongoing process, because I think teachers are developed, they’re not born.
“You need to not only have a knowledge-base, you need to be able to adjust to each individual within whatever your philosophy is. If you can’t do that, you won’t bring out the best in them. I am still finding out new information every day. This is an exciting time for me — late in my coaching career — to be honest with you.”
On self-assessment and developing a changeup: “I think the biggest thing for a young pitcher is to be truthful with himself as to who he is, and what he is. For me, to succeed at the highest level is to have control and command, and the ability to change speeds. Understand sequencing, hiding pitches etc. If different pitches look the same coming out of your hand, they don’t have to be as crisp. Hitters don’t hit the radar gun and they don’t hit the break on the ball. They hit what they see or don’t see. If you can disguise your pitches, you’re halfway home.
“I always advocate to young pitchers that they develop a changeup as quickly as possible. Come up with one you can be confident in, as opposed to a maybe-pitch you don’t look forward to throwing. That alone will make your fastball better. The threat of that changeup makes a mediocre fastball play. You see it all the time.”
On split-finger fastballs, cutters, and deception: “There are a lot of organizations that don’t like the cutter, but there are a lot that don’t like the split-finger, either. I ask myself, ‘I wonder how many minor leaguers haven’t been as successful as they possibly could because an organization took a particular pitch away from them, one that was possibly a good pitch?’ Obviously, it can be injurious if you throw any pitch wrong for a period of time. But the split-finger essentially saved Shane Reynolds’ career when he was a minor leaguer. He was in Double-A, going nowhere, and he turned that one pitch into a 12-year, major-league career. It made his other stuff better. But again, it all comes back to fastball command.”
On Sid Fernandez, Jenny Finch and keeping hitters off balance: “Sid Fernandez, who I had as a Triple-A pitching coach with the Dodgers, sat down as he went into release, throwing the ball from a low angle like a softball pitcher. If you took Jenny Finch and ran her out to the mound right now, to pitch for the Astros, she’d be pretty tough on these big-league hitters. She’d be coming from a different angle that they were not used to seeing. The brain is an interesting thing. It gets locked into a certain vantage point — a certain look — and you make decisions based on that look. If you get a completely different look… I think that is one of the reasons you can use a submariner or a side-arm guy for a short period of time. They’re effective until a team becomes adjusted to them. That goes back to basically finding ways to keep hitters off balance.
“I think the Astros have aligned themselves particularly well, as opposed to many other organizations, with highly-qualified people in the sabermetrics area. They’ve brought some people over who have provided me with a great deal of information. The numbers don’t lie. It really does look like some of the old thoughts we’ve had, we need to reevaluate. For instance, how many times should we allow a starter to go through the order? There are some guys who will become better, but a lot of others get worse. That’s an area I need to become very well-versed in. You can ride a horse too long or you can take him out too early. With the people we have in Houston right now, I get the best information available.”
On the process of learning the pitchers he’ll be working with in Houston: “Right now, I’m scouring scouting reports. I’ve talked to the front office, [2012 pitching coach] Doug Brocail and manager Bo Porter at length about each pitcher. I’ve gotten a great deal of information from all of them, and I’m in the process of calling each pitcher to introduce myself and talk to them about who they are and how I can be of any help to each of them.
“When I go in to work with these guys, I won’t be trying to reinvent the wheel. I’ll be going in to work with them. This is a give-and-take. One of the biggest things as a pitching coach is knowing when to say something and when not to say something.
“Another big thing will be to talk to Jason Castro and get his take on everybody. In many ways, a catcher has a better feel for things than a pitching coach does. He has a feel for the action of each pitch, how a hitter is reacting to it, and a sense of the pitcher’s mental state at any given time — he recognizes any trepidation a pitcher might have on any given pitch. To me, the catcher is the most important guy in this whole equation. I need to talk to Jason, because he knows these guys.”
On biomechanics and health: “There is no definitive literature on the perfect delivery, because you can’t get inside the body. But there are certain movement patterns — modeling — and developing a kinesthetic feel by the pitcher that can help. That is part of the development process. We must view this process as injury prevention being our #1 priority, as without health we can’t get the number of repetition necessary to improve our skill level. We want to make sure a guy stays healthy, or at least do what we can to give us the best chance of keeping him away from an injury. There’s obviously an injury risk with any pitcher, but there are certain guys we’ll look at, like a Zack Greinke, a Cliff Lee, a Clayton Kershaw, a Justin Verlander. These people do things remarkably well and we can learn a great deal from them.
“How a pitcher moves, where his body position is at any given time, where the stress factors are — there are things we can help enhance. There are also things we have to be careful about. If you try to do too much, you lose the uniqueness of a pitcher. It’s a balancing act. That is what makes this such an exciting place to be at this time. The Astros have provided the talent to all of the pitching coaches, from the majors down to our academy in the Dominican Republic. We need to work in a smart way to create as many capable major league pitchers as we can.”
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.