MadFriars Q&A: Burt Hooton

The staff in Ft. Wayne this year has as many high-profile arms as any team the Padres system has ever fielded. The man with responsibility for this group of young potential stars is Burt Hooton, the TinCaps' pitching coach. Hooton was a late addition to the coaching staff after Willie Blair was promoted to the big league club when Bob McClure was unable to join the Padres as bullpen coach.

The long-time big league pitcher and former Astros Major League and minor league pitching coach, is widely regarded as a good teacher – a skillset that the organization definitely wanted with so many teenagers in the Midwest League. We caught up with Hooton for thoughts on his young charges.

Joe Ross, who is repeating the level, has shown flashes but has had trouble with consistency.

Burt Hooton: He started off pretty good and had some real good games early. In this league, having real good games doesn't always translate into wins because you can't go out there and win it by yourself. I've been pleased by his progress and his ability to focus and concentrate on things. He'd had two or three rough games in a row, but everybody in baseball, you never see anyone go five or six months without a rough spot. But he got himself back on track hopefully.

When he stays on top of his pitches, he's very good. When he rushes and gets underneath or over the side of them, it's not very good. Those are the things he's learning, and hopefully by the end of the season, he'll understand all that. The biggest thing I want to teach him is how to make those corrections on his own without someone having to point it out. I think he's smart enough that eventually he'll get that. Everybody says it's a game of adjustments, and you've got to learn how to make small adjustments as you go along and not make them too big. That's where we're working and where we're headed.

In spring training, both Joe and Mike Cather talked about his need to come out of the bullpen ready for the first inning. Have you seen progress on that front?

Burt Hooton: When he started off, he'd pitch real well for four innings, then along about the fifth or sixth kind of lose his focus a little bit. He wouldn't lose his stuff, but he'd lose his focus and pitches would start coming up in the zone. He's given up a lot of runs in fifth or sixth innings. Hopefully he's beginning to understand things like that. He's a good aggressive pitcher who throws strikes – even when he's going poorly, he's probably throwing too many strikes up in the zone and gets hit. I'd rather have that than a guy who tries to nibble or miss their bats. An aggressive pitcher like that, you can do a whole lot more with than guys that are afraid to get hit. Joe's definitely not afraid.

His slider's been good – real good in his last couple of bullpens. If he stays on top of it, it's a real good pitch.

Walker Weickel isa guy who's got a reputation as being really mature and having a strong understanding of his game.

Burt Hooton: You would think so, but I wouldn't give him that much credit just yet. Maybe in life, but pitching's a whole different ballgame. Many times this season, he's shown his immaturity on the mound. Other times, he's shown like he's capable of being in control of everything. The whole idea here is consistency and they need to learn themselves – Walker hasn't really nailed himself down just yet. When he gets it right, it's very good and when it's not right, it's not so good. Young in their careers, those are things you want to focus on, getting them to the point where they know themselves and then they can repeat what's good and eliminate the bad stuff.

He seems like he's a bit of a tinkerer with his mechanics?

Burt Hooton: Well, there's a lot of tinkering to get him right. When you throw the ball several different ways, and you're looking for the right way – by comparison, there's a lot of tinkering going on. His big thing is just balance and staying back and keeping himself lined up and finishing his pitches. He's had a couple of games where he's gotten it right and it's been very good. The other thing is you can only do so much in a bullpen – you've got to carry it into the game.

We have several pitchers who do very well in the bullpen, but when they get out there on a mound, things change themselves mentally. Deliveries change or approaches change. Walker's one of those guys who can throw a very good bullpen and then not carry it into the game – it's like two different guys. Joe's probably better at carrying what he learns in a bullpen into a game than all of them, but you've got to realize where they are. Experience-wise professionally, they're still babies. Hopefully they're getting some good sensible teaching. It's more teaching them how to think and carry themselves because the ability's already there and it's just about getting command of their ability.

Watching Max Fried pitch his last time out, you could see he just wasn't comfortable and his body language on the mound, he looked really uncomfortable.

Burt Hooton: That's more emotions than it is anything else. That's not ability or mechanics - I don't like to use the word mechanics. It's more mental preparation and strength, stamina, focus, concentration – whatever word you want to use. The big thing about these young kids is, sometimes when they feel like they aren't throwing well, their concentration goes out the window and things get worse. I mean, he wasn't throwing very good, but overall, he held up pretty good composure-wise, which is a big thing for him.

Coming in last year, he was supposed to have a great breaking pitch but need some work on the change. His curve was really slow and loopy when I watched.

Burt Hooton: Again, that's more mental than physical. You've got to throw it, and he wasn't. You've got to be aggressive with it – that's more mental than it is physical. That's what I mean. If you're going to go play baseball from the mound, you have to be aggressive with all your pitches. Sometimes, when he wants to throw a strike with his curve ball, he slows everything down and things get worse. He's had games where he threw very good curve balls, throwing them for strikes. That's part of the learning process – learning that aspect and then doing it every game when you go out there. It's better now than it was to start the season. But, last [time], it was lazy and he was throwing it lazy. It almost looked like he was throwing it to hopefully get it over instead of attacking the hitters.

Zach Eflin, on the other hand, has been pretty consistent all the way through. He's a guy who probably is closer to being what he'll ultimately be today than the other guys, yes?

Burt Hooton: Zach's been a pretty good competitor. Stuff-wise, I'd say he's probably at the back of the pack. But competitive-wise, maintaining his composure, he's probably at the head of the pack. Zach to me is a guy that's going to seek out his own level. He's done a real good job keeping his composure and staying within himself and attacking hitters.

You had Justin Hancock out here for the first half of the year, really building on the rebound he made when he had to go backward last year. What was his arsenal this year?

Burt Hooton: He's got a good sinker. We changed his curveball to a slider, and I think it's a better pitch for him. His changeup is inconsistent, but it's a real good pitch when he throws it right. So, he has three pretty good weapons. He's another guy that's going to go out and throw strikes and does a good job keeping the ball down. If he does get it up, his stuff's good enough to get by with it for the most part. His sinker's pretty good. The ball moves when he keeps it down and it's got a little bit of sneakiness to it. I was real pleased with him. He probably was a little bit more advanced than the other guys – he's older than the other guys. He should do fine.

Is his stuff good enough to get away with mistakes at the highest level?

Burt Hooton: The key to getting away with stuff is making enough good pitches, to where when you make that one mistake, you hopefully can get by with it. Everybody's going to make mistakes. The key is not making too many. That's where having good stuff comes in. Having good stuff allows you get by with one or two more than a guy who doesn't have as good stuff.

In the bullpen, Roman Madrid got lit up a little in the All-Star Game and really hasn't seemed to be able to come back from that. Has something changed with him?

Burt Hooton: He was struggling going into the All-Star Break. He started off well in April and May. I think his biggest problem is his inconsistency in throwing all of his pitches for strikes – not just strikes, but good strikes. He gets into ruts where he's trying to make the hitters swing and miss the ball, rather than hit the ball. Nobody in the history of the game's every struck everybody out. He's got to learn how to throw consistently good strikes and make the hitters hit his pitch. Sometimes he makes poor choices in terms of pitches he throws in situations and counts and gets himself in more trouble. He's overthrowing all of his pitches, fastballs and sliders, and that gets him where he doesn't have command of either and takes away from his stuff. Stuff, to me, is not the issue. It's command of his pitches, getting ahead of hitters and then putting them away when he does. He's just overthrowing everything right now.

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