Steve Stone knows a lot about pitching. A savvy right-hander for four teams from 1971-1981, he hurled 43 complete games, and augmented a 101-93 record with a rock solid 3.97 ERA. Stone was especially stellar in the 1980 season, garnering 25 wins for the Baltimore Orioles and taking home the American League Cy Young Award.
He doesn’t lack for opinions. Given his current job, he’s not supposed to. The 71-year-old has been in the broadcast booth for 30-plus years, the last 10 of them with the White Sox. As fans of Chicago’s South Side team can attest, Stone knows his stuff, and he’s not shy about sharing it. Agree with him or not, he’s rarely boring.
Stone sat down for a wide-ranging interview — one that offered some blunt commentary on players and trends alike — during a visit to Fenway Park midway through the 2018 season.
Steve Stone on learning as a young pitcher: “I pitched with Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. I pitched with Jim Palmer and Mike Flanagan. I pitched with Wilbur Wood. One thing I learned … I was very young when I was with Marichal and Perry. I didn’t have Hall of Fame talent, so it was hard to assimilate what they had to show me. Plus, Gaylord wasn’t forthcoming about anything that made him the pitcher he was. Marichal probably would have been, had I been able to understand how he did certain things.
“Perry threw a spitter. He wasn’t going to share that. Not unless I brought $3,000 to the park. That’s how much he said he’d charge to teach me the spitter. I was taking home $8,500. I didn’t want to give him 40% of my yearly take-home pay to try to learn a pitch that very few people can master.
“I didn’t learn as much from pitchers as I did from the assorted pitching coaches. One guy I learned a lot from was Ray Miller, with the Orioles. Ray told me a couple of different things. One was to work quickly. I had a tendency to work slow.
“I was in Baltimore — I was their first free-agent signing — and I remember he came running out to the mound with nothing going on. This was in maybe my second game with them. I asked Ray what he was doing out there. He said, ‘I have a message for you.’ I said, ‘From who?’ He said, ‘From your infield. They want you to throw the ball. They’re falling asleep.’
“He threw in a few expletives along the way, so I figured that working quickly was how they liked to do in Baltimore. It worked. When I started to work more quickly, I became more consistent. It was easier for me to repeat my motion, and my fielders were on their toes.”
On setting up hitters: “Ray also mentioned that I had a tendency to throw all of my pitches to every hitter, in every sequence. I was giving away certain things I didn’t have to give away. Ray said to take my fastball and one other pitch — usually my curveball — and establish them first. Then I could slowly integrate my other pitches into the performance. I threw a slider and a cutter, and three speeds of a curveball. I never could throw a straight change.
“Let’s say you have a hitter who has a problem with a low-and-away fastball. Ted Williams used to call it ‘The .240 zone,’ and if he hit .240 on that pitch, you can imagine how difficult it is for mortal hitters. So, let’s say a guy’s soft spot is low and away. If each and every time up, you go low-and-away fastball, then low-and-away slider, you’re tipping your hand. Two outs and nobody on, early in the game, is a non-critical at bat. There’s no reason to give away how you’re going to get him out with runners on base in the late innings.
“Another thing I learned is to always go to my strength until the hitter showed me that he was better than my strength. My strength was inside fastballs to a right-handed hitter, outside to a left-hander, and then breaking balls away to both. All things being equal, I was going to go there before I went to the scouting report. Ideally, my strength is his weakness and then he doesn’t get many hits against me.
“The avocation is called ‘pitching.’ If you’re calling it ‘throwing,’ then you can throw as hard as you can, early, and try to blow everybody away. With ‘pitching,’ you don’t go max effort every pitch. You’re setting guys up for the third time through the order.”
On third time through the order: “Pitchers were actually expected to go deep into games in those days. Now they’re expected to go as hard as they can, as long as they can. They’ll usually come out by the middle of sixth inning, leaving their bullpen to get the rest of the outs. That’s one of the reasons starters don’t have as many wins as they could — they’re not going deep enough into games to do that.
“You need to learn how to go through the order multiple times. Let’s say you try to shoot free throws in the NBA without ever practicing free throws. If you’re not expected to make free throws, you’re probably not going to be good at it. You have to convince guys that there’s a benefit to going a third time through, and hopefully a fourth time through, the order. If you yank somebody at the first sign of trouble, he can’t possibly become good at it.
“Third time through the order has a lot to do with how many times you threw the ball the first two times through the order. If you’re at 85-90 pitches, you’re probably not going to be as lively with your arm as you were at 65-70 pitches. If you struggle the first two times, you’re really going to struggle the third time. Plus, pitchers today aren’t used to going through the order a third time. We’ve seen a couple of guys … Reynaldo Lopez has fantastic numbers third time through. He’s a guy whose velocity doesn’t diminish. He’s still throwing 96-95 mph late in games. Extra velocity helps a pitcher get away with a few more mistakes than he would at 93.”
On velocity and max effort: “Earlier in his career, Justin Verlander threw 98-99 mph — but he would throw 93 when the game started. Bob Gibson did the same thing. You might be able to pull the ball against Gibson in the first inning, but he faces that same guy in the ninth inning, maybe with the game on the line, and now he’s throwing 98-99 mph. He had that in the first inning, he just didn’t want to show it. Verlander doesn’t show you his big fastball early unless he’s in trouble. He understands what pitching is all about. He keeps that 98 in his back pocket until he needs it.
“I think one reason we’ve seen (Stephen) Strasburg go through a lot of arm injuries is that he was always max effort on every pitch. Young pitchers with really good arms go through this max-effort phase. If they don’t grow out of it, they end up getting hurt. If they do grow out of it, maybe they can have a long career.
“You’ll see a lot of max effort guys flying off the mound. When you’re flying off the mound to one side or the other, you can’t field your position. Before we saw all these massive shifts, the biggest hole in the infield was back up the middle. It used to behoove pitchers to be able to field. I’ve seen fewer good-fielding pitchers as they’ve gone to the max-effort approach. I prefer the Jim Kaat, Greg Maddux types. You don’t have to win Gold Gloves all the time, but squaring off your delivery keeps you centered and allows you to make plays defensively. It also helps you have a long career, because if you’re not max effort you’re not putting extra strain on your arm.”
On splitters and keeping pitchers healthy: “I think a lot of pitchers will learn the lesson of Ohtani, who is on the shelf and looking at Tommy John surgery. It’s the splitter. A splitter is destructive. There aren’t a lot of guys who can thrive with it over the long haul. Roger Clemens threw it. Jack Morris threw it. There are a few guys in history who have thrown it well. But then you have Roger Craig, who completely decimated the San Francisco organization by teaching everybody splitters. The entire pitching staff broke down. It’s a wonderful pitch to get people out, but it takes velocity away from you and is ultimately destructive. If you want to shorten your career, throw splitters.
“We’ve had a healthy pitching staff here in Chicago. We have a very good pitching coach (Don Cooper) and the scouts place a lot of value on arm action. An exception was made with Chris Sale, and he’s held together outside of an elbow thing earlier on. For the most part the organization has been a pitching organization, and yes, we’ve had fewer guys break down than most. Some of that might be a matter of luck, but it’s also a matter of scouting.”
On Reynaldo Lopez, Carlos Rodon, and Lucas Giolito: “Reynaldo’s ceiling is to be a No. 1 starter on a very good baseball team. His stuff is that good. He’s a very young pitcher with a lot of growth in front of him, but one thing you can’t teach is a great arm. He’s also got a sense of competitiveness that you can’t teach. He does have a tendency to throw flat fastballs, because he’s kind of a short-armer, and occasionally he’ll open up too quickly in his delivery. But he’s got the fastball, a good slider, a really good changeup for a young pitcher. I think Reynaldo’s upside is unlimited.
“Reynaldo doesn’t have the best stuff on the team. That would be Carlos Rodon — when he’s completely healthy. Rodon’s slider is un-hittable. If he and Reynaldo stay healthy, we’re looking at two guys who can pitch of the top of anybody’s rotation.
“(Giolito) can be good, but he dropped three mph in his velocity. I don’t know why. He’s got a very good curveball; he doesn’t like to throw it. I don’t know why. He has a tendency to fall off the mound and yank the ball three feet wide of the plate. I don’t know why. I’m not his pitching coach; I don’t have to know why.”
On strikeouts and sinkers: “Are strikeouts overrated? Tell Nolan Ryan that. Tell Tom Seaver. Tell Don Sutton. If your stuff is good, you’re going to strike out a lot of guys. If it’s not, you generally won’t. Guys who don’t have big fastballs or hard breaking balls … they call that ‘pitching to contact,’ which is a pseudonym for ‘your stuff is marginal, so you better hit your spots.’ There are also sinkerballers. Very few sinkerballers strike out a lot of guys. They live and die with ground balls.
“Is the sinker dying? Maybe, but in baseball everything dies and then it comes back. It’s back to the future. Dylan Covey throws two-seamers that sink and run, and I don’t think he’s going to abandon that any time soon. If a two-seamer is good enough, there’s no reason to go away from it.
“There is an infatuation with four-seam fastballs that stay up in the zone, and this year umpires are calling a higher strike, bringing that pitch back into play. Eventually, what’s going to happen is everybody will throw that same pitch, hitters will adjust to it, and somebody will come along and teach the true sinker — teach it well — and pitchers will throw that again.”
On openers and fifth starters: “Is pitching the same animal it’s always been? To some people it is — to some coaches it is — but more times than not, it’s not. You have organizations like Tampa Bay using a reliever to start the game. Many times it’s the closer, so who is going to close? You need a closer at the end of the game. If starting pitches could close, they probably wouldn’t be starting pitchers — they’d be closers. Let’s see how this experiment goes. I don’t think it’s going to work out very well in the long run.
“The six-man rotation, to me, seems stupid. I believe that some forward-thinking organization is eventually going to go back to a four-man. They haven’t used that since the Mets came up with the five-man in ’69. I think you should.
“I did a breakdown of pitching from 2001-2005, and No. 5 starters had 6.4 wins per season. They had 8.6 losses. Why have a five? If you’re only going to have guys go into the sixth inning, and that’s it, why not go with four starters? Then put another quality reliever in your bullpen. That’s where the game is going anyway. It’s a bullpen game, so why not have one more pen-man and one less starter?
“Of course, what it ultimately comes down to is that you need good pitchers. If you don’t have good pitchers, they’re going to get blown out regardless of what they do. You could have somebody stand on his head and throw nickels over his shoulder, and he’s still going to get hit. You need to have good pitchers who know how to pitch.”
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.