First off, welcome back!
Well thank you!
The last time you and I talked, it was down in Mobile and you were the pitching coach for San Diego's Double-A team. Now you're back with the organization where your career started. How did this all come about?
Well, obviously there were differences with the (Marlins) front office and with Joe. With that, they decided to part ways. Being one of the guys Joe hired to come with him, usually those guys are the first to go. When you're in this game long enough, you understand that these jobs are not forever. They can last anywhere from one day to one year, so it wasn't a surprise to me. I have no hard feelings toward the Marlins or anything that they represent; it just had to be that way.
Did the Cubs contact you about a coaching position, or was it vice versa?
Actually, it was more of a word-of-mouth type thing. Rick Kranitz, who had spent 20 years in their organization, happened to be talking to Oneri Fleita, their minor league director, and he had mentioned that I was available. He told them that they were looking for a Triple-A pitching coach or a pitching coordinator, and with Kranitz, I told him that I'd be a good hire for them. So I actually credit most of it to Rick Kranitz.
How much does it mean to you personally by getting the opportunity to return to this organization?
I tell you what, to me, this is kind of like a homecoming for me. Believe it or not, I'd always seen myself coming back to the organization in some capacity; just not knowing what it was. When this opportunity came up, I definitely wanted to give myself every chance to get it.
Mike, what do you know about the Cubs' pitching prospects coming in?
The only pitching prospects I know of the Cubs besides the ones I got to see when we played against them this year – the Sean Marshall's and the Rich Hill's – was the Nolasco's, the Pinto's and the Sergio Mitre's that we got in the trade with the Marlins. That's all I really know about the Cubs.
I want to ask for a little explanation on your pitching philosophies. What are some of the things you teach?
I don't really have a real "philosophy," because I think with philosophies comes a little bit of – well, you don't have the opportunity to make adjustments when you have certain philosophies that are strictly to do with, say, developing a curveball, or developing a slider. If you don't do those things, you're not going to have success. To me, number one, it's getting guys to believe and trust that having good fastball command will allow them to get to the big leagues. Number two, developing a second pitch to throw over the plate any time is what's going to keep them there. With that, it becomes pretty easy to pick and choose spots where you add certain things, and subtract certain things for that matter, to help guys have success.
Whether or not the guy has success, I think has all to do with trust. Number one is trusting themselves and their stuff. Second, and way behind that, is trusting their pitching coach and understanding that what he says to them is not something that's a guarantee, but something that's an idea where if they trust and believe it, maybe they can pick a little something out of it that might help them be successful. I think there's really a fine line with how much a pitching coach really has to do with developing a young pitcher. I think the best coaching we do is something we don't say a lot of times. I think we have a tendency, as coaches to number one, over-coach, and number two, over-analyze. We have to understand that nobody pitches the same and that nobody's mechanics are the same. We as coaches and teachers have to be able to find out what it is that this kid's strength is and try to make their weaknesses better.
Your predecessor at Iowa, Alan Dunn, is now the Cubs' Pitching Coordinator. One of the things I know about Alan is that he's very aggressive in having his pitchers attack the strike zone and limit the walks. By contrast, I think the common perception with the big league team – be it accurate or not – is that Larry Rothschild is someone who likes his pitchers to nibble a little bit. Do you have a preference on those two philosophies?
Well, I was just with Larry over the last week in our organizational meetings. From hearing Larry talk, I got the impression that that's not how he is. I think he is a guy who does believe in attacking the zone. But having pitched in Wrigley Field for three-plus years, I can tell you it has a tendency to change pitchers. It has a tendency to take an aggressive pitcher and turn him into somebody who has to become a guy that tries to pitch on the corners. Then again, you look at the pitchers who have come through Wrigley. Kerry Wood, most of the time, he was going to strike you out, but he was going to average three or four walks during a game. Carlos Zambrano is a guy who doesn't give into guys. But when you have a lot of strikeouts, sometimes it's OK to have a few walks in there if a guy has the ability to strike a guy out.
Yes, you'd love to see a guy pound the zone, go nine innings, throw about 80 pitches and just throw sinkers all day like a Brandon Webb, but this is the part of it where we have to understand that a lot of guys don't have that ability. A lot of guys don't have three dominant pitches like a Kerry Wood, a Mark Prior or a Carlos Zambrano. You might have a guy that might have an average fastball and a below-average off-speed pitch to where he needs to pound the zone. He cannot afford to get behind 1-0, 2-0, or 3-1 all the time. There are going to be instances where Kerry Wood, Prior and Zambrano can get behind in the count 2-1 and throw a fastball on the outer half and get away with it, whereas the other guy might not. I think that's the part of it where guys are different.
I think at the minor league level, it's important for us to emphasize to all the pitchers that they need to make sure they do pound the zone and be aggressive. Eventually, that's what's going to get them to the big leagues. Having a manager like Lou Piniella, he's seen a lot of games at the minor league level and he knows what it takes to be successful as a pitcher, so he's not even going to be patient with a guy that can't throw strikes. I think that's definitely going to be emphasized at the minor league level and it's certainly going to be emphasized by me at the Triple-A level next year.
What are some of the other things that you might emphasize with some of these pitchers?
One of the biggest things that I always try to emphasize is reading swings. They need to learn how to read the swings and come up with a better pitch selection based on how the last pitch went. You know, how did he swing at that pitch? Was he ahead of it? Was he behind it? Did he take it like he was looking for it, or wasn't looking for it? That gives you a better chance to pick the better pitch.
Then, when they get accustomed to being able to read swings, the pitch selection comes quicker to them. A lot of times, you see guys throw a fastball and the hitter pulls it 40 feet foul and then they throw them another fastball when right there, that dictates that you now have a great opportunity to throw a breaking ball down and out of the zone. You really try to get these guys to where the answers come quicker to them. It's like school; you have to study. You have to work at it.
You were talking earlier about Wrigley Field and how it can often change a pitcher. Realistically, Wrigley Field itself hasn't changed all that much from when you were pitching there. Would you ever try to prepare a pitcher for Wrigley while he's at the Triple-A level?
No, I would never try to coach a guy on how to pitch at Wrigley Field. I would never do that because number one, if the guy is a flyball pitcher in the minor leagues, yet he wins 12 games and his flyball to groundball ratio is 4-to-1, why would I change that? Why would I try to teach him a two-seamer now just because he's going to Wrigley Field and he's going to pitch when the wind blows? There's no reason why you can't get flyball outs even when the wind is blowing out at Wrigley Field.
You have to understand that a guy still has to hit the ball on the nose in order to hit it out of the ballpark. That's what I was saying before when I said that we start to over-analyze things which realistically we can't control. If he's a flyball pitcher at Triple-A, there's a good chance he's still going to be a flyball pitcher by the time he gets to the big leagues.
Thanks for your time. I'm glad we could catch up again. Welcome to the Cubs!