It isn’t easy being the pitching coach for the Colorado Rockies. The reasons are multitudinous, and well-known to fans and physicists alike. Coors Field is simply not conducive to suppressing offense.
Jim Wright is currently entrusted with helping Rockies hurlers succeed in that hitter-friendly environment. He can’t do anything about the effect of altitude on batted and thrown baseballs, but he can help his mostly-inexperienced staff approach the challenges in a productive manner.
Wright, who pitched for the Royals in 1981-1982, has previously served as a minor-league pitching coach, roving pitching coordinator, and bullpen coach. This is his 17th season in the Rockies organization.
Wright on his pitching philosophy: “My philosophy — our philosophy — is dedicated to getting people out. What we consider our identity — what we like to see out of a Rockies pitcher — is to throw strikes, keep the ball down, keep the ball on the ground, hold runners on first base, and deliver the ball in a timely fashion. That’s our philosophy; that’s what we want out of them.
“There are many descriptive terms I could use, but I want them to reflect the attitude of their pitching coach, too. While I’m in this position, that is to pitch inside, be aggressive, pitch to win — learn how to pitch to win — and never have any fear, or any excuses, about anything. I want fearless competitors, knowledgeable competitors. At this level, intestinal fortitude has to be a given, so you have a chance to learn.”
On innings and experience: “I think a lot of pitchers today are… I don’t know if prematurely is the right word, but they’re here sooner than they should be. Normally, you’d like to see a guy get 500-700 innings in the minor leagues, and they’re getting maybe 300.
“I don’t want to stall a guy’s career either, but pitchers need to have some sense of baseball pitchability. It’s not scholarly knowledge, but it is pitching wisdom. That comes through logging innings and the experience of being out there, start after start after start. They need some level of intelligence as a starting pitcher.”
On pitching at Coors Field: “Mental toughness has to be there to pitch in Denver, because there are certain things that might show up. Your sinker may cut a little bit instead of sink, or your breaking ball may not have the same bite. You have to figure out ways to pitch around those parameters of your repertoire. The main thing is to be really good at pitching down in the strike zone. That works anywhere, but getting ground balls in our ballpark is the key to success.
“It’s a different type of mindset as far as attacking a hitter; you’re attacking down versus in-and-out, up-and-down. I mean, there are places for that, and times for that, but as a general rule, I want these guys to learn to pitch down in the zone. And to do that, they have to pitch to the catcher and not to the hitter. If you pitch to the hitter, you’re going to pitch up in the zone.
“We see a big difference when we come here with guys — with their movement, the bite on their breaking ball and the consistency of the rotation. It’s different. That’s an adjustment for them, but they’re pros, so they should be able to adjust.”
On if Rockies pitchers should pitch differently on the road than they do at home: “No, they shouldn’t. I think that once you buy into the down… if you asked me, when I pitched, “How do you pitch?’, I pitched in-and-out, but always down, and then up when I wanted to. And I think in the past — because of Denver and our venue — they’ve focused on being down in the zone, but then they get on the road and see their better stuff, and they want to throw instead of still pitch down. You have to pitch the same, no matter where you go. Our ground-ball ratio should to be similar at home and on the road; it shouldn’t be one good and one bad. That’s what happened with us last year. We want that same attitude and same approach of keeping the ball down in the zone.”
On pitch movement at Coors: “A slider doesn’t have the same bite here. At times it does, but there’s more bite on the road in a more humid environment. The sinker doesn’t sink as sharp. So I’d say, basically the sharpness of the movement is not the same in Denver as it is on the road. You’ll find a lot of guys that pitch against us come in and try some breaking balls, and they’re not working. so they go to a lot of changeups — fastballs and changeup. That’s another one of our absolutes, the changeup percentage we have.
“Cutters aren‘t impacted as much as sliders, but it’s not a pitch we teach initially. It’s a little tough on the arm. I think sliders and cutters are in general. The concern is that the extra pronation, to the side of the ball, can affect an elbow if it’s not thrown properly, or if you’re gripping it too tight. But it’s something we’ll add to the repertoire if it’s needed, maybe later on when their arms are developed and their delivery is sound enough.”
On mechanics and focus: “My view on mechanics is that they’re important for health. But in general, when his foot lands and his arm is in position to throw the ball, I’m not going to mess with him much. The last thing I want my pitchers to be dependent upon is their mechanics. The more you have your thoughts around yourself, and not where the catcher is… it’s pretty hard to switch them.
“Learn to trust your eyes and your hand. Develop a level of concentration that’s a higher standard and focus. I believe concentration is a learned habit. I’ll have drills where I’ll put a target down, with no catcher, and have them throw at it. It’s kind of like in the circus when you’re trying to knock the bottles down, or you’re trying to dunk the person in the water tank. You want be able to focus on something and throw at it without thinking about how to do it.
“These guys are in their twenties and thirties, and have been throwing a baseball since they were 10 years old. Most of these guys had pretty good rhythm and deliveries, and got signed without thinking about that stuff. Then they got to pro ball and were taught so much about deliveries that they kind of lost focus on how to compete to the target.
“Mechanics are important to keep the guy healthy, and there are certain things they do, but I’ll pay more attention to their focus, how they’re competing in the game, and how they’re pitching to a batter — you know, have they changed the sequence? I’ll look at the film, and if he’s getting hit, and 99% of the time he’s not hitting his target… you know, once he starts hitting his target, and he’s still getting hit, now we’re going to look at his sequences. When the sequences are changed, now I’ll look at his mechanics to see if he’s tipping pitches, or something like that.”
On video and reports: “We’ve invested a lot of finances in our video; we’ve got state-of-the-art equipment. It’s very good, at times, to go back if a guy has gotten into bad habits. We can take video and put [them] side by side to see when he was throwing low, and when he wasn’t, and see if there are any mechanical discrepancies. Maybe it’s something subtle. We can pick up through video what maybe your naked eye can’t see. I’ll use it to find out if their arm is on time. And for scouting purposes, it’s huge. But here again, it’s a tool that’s good as long as it’s not overused. You can overuse video.
“With reports… let’s say were looking at how [an opposing hitter] has been hitting sliders. The reports are grouping in a lot of different types of sliders. It may be that the guy isn’t hitting the good ones, or even the more average sliders, he’s mostly hitting below-average sliders.
“In general, the more you can focus on making your pitch — then you just have to find out if your stuff is good enough in the zone, or if you have to maybe go out of the zone a little bit with your strikes. Or do you need to pitch in a bit more, to open up away? Scouting reports are good, and I used them when I pitched, but once I went out there, sometimes I saw I could get a hitter out a different way. It’s important to understand that reports are a foundation to go of off, and then you build from that.”
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.