In his fourth campaign as an instructor in the St. Louis Cardinals player development system, Jason Simontacchi reiterated the word "process" as he is in the midst of his second season as Springfield Cardinals pitching coach.
An advocate of the mental approach, Simontacchi’s pitching staff is adjusting to the rigors of competing in a notorious offensive minded league as his group is third in ERA and middle of pack in WHIP in the Texas League. The staff's ERA ballooned from 3.14 in April to 3.57 in May, and has suffered some growing pains with a pedestrian 4.25 ERA for the month of June.
In the following exclusive interview, Simontacchi talks about improving as a coach, keeping his players focused on the process, pitching philosophy, outlines his staff's pitching performance, along with individual impressions of his starters and relievers.
Derek Shore: Now that you've been around the organization a couple of years and been taught the ropes as a coach, how could you continue to improve as a coach?
Jason Simontacchi: "As far as the coaching aspect, I think you learn to develop more patience. The longer you coach, you see different attributes from different players and what they bring to the table - then their personalities. So, you learn to have patience and learn that there's a process that they need to go through - whether it's good or bad.
"I think the main thing is just having patience."
DS: When one of your guys begins to press due to lack of results, how do you keep the focus on the process?
JS: "I think that's exactly it. I understand the numbers will be on the back of baseball cards. But, every single player that has been in the big-league has gone through this process of developing who they are as player, who they are as a person, and being in the right frame of mind to make the right decisions whether it's on the field or off the field.
"When it comes to facing adversity during the season, it's staying focused on the task at hand, 'Look, we've got to be better tomorrow than we were today.' 'In two weeks, we've got to better than we are now. In a month, we've got to be better and at the season of the season, we've got to be better than what you are.'
"You've just got to get better, and that's a part of the process. During the long season, guys will take steps backwards, and their numbers will skyrocket. Then they will find it; they will gain knowledge; they will gain trust, and gain confidence. Then, eventually by the end of the season -- even though their numbers might not be there -- hopefully, they are better and lot further along in the process than they were in the beginning.”
DS: Every pitching coach has his own philosophy. What type of approach do you preach to your pitchers?
JS: "Just throw strikes, keep the ball down, mix speeds, pitch in for effect," he said chuckling. "They are all clichés, but they are all clichés because they have been there for hundreds of years of what you got to do to be successful as a pitcher. You could ask any pitching coach, and they will say that.
"You're trying to pitch to contact unless you need a strikeout. The bottom line is as a pitcher to just give your team a chance to win. At this level, you just got to get better. If you fail - although we don't like to accept - you have to, you have to learn to move on, and learn something from it.
"The philosophy of pitching for me is pretty much cliché you've heard from every other pitching coach."
DS: The first half of the season is behind you. How would you characterize your pitching staff's performance to this point?
JS: "I would definitely say we are moving in the right direction. I think this league has opened a lot of guy’s eyes - positively and negatively. I think the guys struggled at the beginning, but they have started to catch up to the league a little bit. They are getting a little more confidence and realizing what they need to do as a pitcher.
"For the guys who have been doing good, they've stubbed their toes a little bit too, and that's a process everyone has to go through, but I'm happy with them. I can't fault anyone's effort. I know what they have been doing on and off the field to prepare them to be the best they can be on the field.
"I think that it's just a staff there all in different stages of their career, but they are all pretty good teammates. They've stuck together and picked each other up. Obviously, we've failed a couple times here and there, but they are a hard working group."
DS: Could you give me an impression on some of your starters, starting with Mike Mayers (who is now with Memphis)?
JS: "I think Mayers towards the end (of last year) picked up right where he left off before he figured out he had that thoracic outlet syndrome. He realized he was healthy, jumped off that bridge and let it go. A bulldog guy, but kind of quiet. He just goes after guys and is aggressive and attacks hitters. Very smart."
DS: Andrew Morales (Cardinals Player of the Month for April who has adjusted well in his second go-around of Double-A).
JS: "I think there's no doubt (he has adjusted). He didn't have the year last year we all wanted to see him have. By the rebound he had, he's definitely learned a lot. It's just showed with his numbers and how he pitched at the beginning of the season. He didn't really walk anybody.
“He was a lot more aggressive and had a lot more competitive pitches. Was down in the zone; worked ahead, and pitched in. There I go with those clichés. It's his second year, and he's just been more aggressive and had more confidence in his stuff."
DS: Daniel Poncedeleon (who has had rough patches, but quite a few bright spots).
JS: "That's one of those guys, who wasn't sure he would be here - I'm sure he wanted to be here at the beginning of the year. He makes the team, and right away he throws pretty good for us. Then finds a couple of rough patches.
"He's one of those guys who needs to go through the process and in the midst of succeeding or failing - he needs to fine-tune his effort, fine-tune his mental approach, fine-tune his mechanics or delivery and learn the game of baseball as a pitcher. Then learn to keep pitching. There are just times when the game speeds up with him, but the passion's there, and he wants to do good and be successful.
"Sometimes, there's just some things in kids you just can't teach - he has those attributes."
DS: A follow-on question: You alluded to fine-tuning the delivery; what mechanical adjustments have you made to him?
JS: "To tell you the truth, the main thing we've focused on was staying fluid and directional towards our target. Having a better tempo and really focusing on his release point of what his hands and fingers feel like when the ball releases out of his hand, so he can get there and repeat that.
"He's got a lot of moving parts - everybody knows that - he's got a lot of deception in his delivery, but if he can just get to the end result of having a consistent release point, then he allows himself to be successful or at least competitive."
DS: Trey Nielsen (sinker, who is struggling a bit right now, but had a strong May).
JS: "He's another guy who hasn't been pitching very long. I think this is his third or fourth year. He's come up into a league right away where he realized he had better get the ball down. That was the biggest adjustment he couldn't get away from being in the Florida State League.
"That was the biggest focus - getting the ball down and getting some more athletic looking movements towards home plate instead of being more mechanical. He's very smart, absorbs very well, is a competitor, and has shown progressions of making adjustments during the game. His mechanics are pretty sound, but he was a little more robotic at the beginning of the season, and now he looks a little more fluid.
"It's just a matter of him going through the process as well, too."
DS: Luke Weaver (off to a tremendous start).
JS: "He just came out of the gates running. It was nice he had everything working his first game. His second game he really did battle. He didn't have command, but what he had was grit, and he just worked through it and kept our team in the game. When he's got his stuff working, it's fun to sit back and watch him compete."
DS: What results have you seen in his cutter in the time you've worked with him?
JS: "I wouldn't say I worked with him on his cutter. I actually just watch him throw. I think maybe Paul Davis and Tim Leveque down (in extended spring training) were working with him. He got here and said, 'I'm going to throw four-seamers and cutters.'
"Then when he goes out there and throws eight innings and punches out ten guys, you don't say much about it. You kind of pat him on the back and say, 'Alright, go get them next time.' I think even in spring training with him was just staying on top of the baseball and not get underneath it where his ball stays flat.
"It's the same thing with his cutter where he gets behind it or on the side, it stays flat, it stays up, and kind of just spins instead of breaks."
DS: Would you take me through your bullpen - John Brebbia (Memphis), Josh Lucas, Chris Perry, Ronnie Shaban, Corey Littrell (now with Memphis, but he has been exceptional in transition to relief), Kevin Herget (Memphis) and Pedro Echemendia?
JS: On Brebbia: "He's a pretty hard-thrower. He just introduced a sinker, so that is a nice little movement for him. Coming out of the pen, he throws 94 mph has a heavy fastball, good changeup, and nice little hard late slider."
On Lucas: "Lucas, a low-arm slot, low three-quarters. He's got a tall frame and has some good downward depth. Good sinker, good hard late slider to the back foot on lefties, and a pretty decent changeup as well.”
On Perry: "Deception. He's been very good as of late. He's really got his timing down with his delivery. The deception of his fastball and curveball worked really well, and it's really hard for hitters to catch up on the spin."
On Shaban: "He was really consistent for us last year. This year, he's had a little bit of tendencies with his elbow or arm and it kind of threw his arm out of whack. He's fighting back to get where he was. He's a fierce competitor, he's not going to back down from the baseball, and wants to be in there to pitch.
"He really commands his fastball; his changeup has come a long way a plus pitch, and then mixes in that curveball."
On Littrell: "No question. I think he only gave up two hits to left-handed hitters while he was here. He really spotted up his fastball, had a lot of command of his fastball well, threw inside to lefties and righties, and has a good change to right-handed hitters as well."
On Herget: "He started down as a closer in Palm Beach and literally didn't give up a run the entire time he was down there. He earned a spot up here. He's caught some traction and is locating his fastball well got a little more confident and felt good about himself.
"His curveball is coming along. He actually throws a pretty good one, when he throws it for strikes and his changeup is good as well."
On Echemendia: "There's a guy who throws three pitches just like Herget. He's quiet out there, doesn't have a lot of emotions, and doesn't really fold under pressure. He's done a good job for us. He's picked us up a couple of times throwing three or four innings.
"He's a guy you can bring late in the game and can bring him in for middle relief. Really does command a fastball, curveball, and changeup. He's got a good arm slot, pretty good deception with that stuff, and moves it on both sides of the plate."
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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