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September 24, 2004

Prospectus Q&A

Tom House, Part II

by Jonah Keri

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Continuing from Part I of the discussion...

Baseball Prospectus: You've worked with some interesting characters over the years. What lessons did you learn from Bobby Valentine when you worked with him in Texas?

Tom House: He's a perfectionist. He helped me create a preparation base as a pitching coach. One time I'd planned the rotation out to a certain day. He'd say that's not enough, tell me out to this day; five presentations later he finally gave it his stamp of approval. It was never enough, he was never just satisfied with what he had. His search for perfection and a better way to do things are second to none. He made me a better pitching coach.

One thing with Bobby, if you ever see his left eyebrow start to go up and down, that means he's going in for the kill. I've seen him reduce people to protoplasm. Even when I see him in Japan now, sitting in a group, the minute you see the eyebrow start to move, that's an explosion about to happen. We probably fought every day. But his pushback helped me look at baseball differently than I ever saw it before.

BP: You talk about fighting with Valentine--what can pitching coaches do when the way they want to teach clashes with the philosophies of the manager, or the front office?

House: It requires a sit-down--not a confrontation, but a compromise. You can't let ego get in the way of good sense. The organizational philosophy would start with the GM. Another item on my wish list would be that all coaches would be able to have and to teach a consistent approach, from rookie ball to the big leagues, on what the organization would expect from pitchers, in terms of physical preparation, mechanics everything. Under Bobby Valentine's regime, when Tom Grieve was the GM, they made sure the rookie pitching coaches were taught that same approach. The Dodgers traditionally have always had an organizational philosophy with pitching. My generation's Baltimore Orioles had one too.

BP: You also worked with Nolan Ryan in Texas. The rumor was that Ryan tipped his pitches--was he really tipping his pitches?

House: When someone would say that to him, he'd say: 'I don't care. If I make my pitch to my location, they're not going to hit it anyway.' He was never bothered by that type of head game. All hitters think that they can pick up pitches. But even if they think they're picking up pitches, in the final analysis, good pitching beats good hitting.

BP: Craig Wright was also there in Texas at the same time you were, and of course you wrote The Diamond Appraised together. What did you learn from that experience, and how did you regard Wright at the time, as a sabermetrician working in the front office at a time when that was still pretty rare?

House: Craig Wright is on a parallel with Bill James, he's just not as publicized. That book put the two of us in an eclectic situation. The net reaction, from people who did read it, was that there was some pretty good stuff in there. Catcher ERA, pitch totals, plenty of stuff that holds up today. It was a neat little format. Craig is one of the few people who at the time could walk into a baseball environment and hold his own as a sabermetrician.

BP: Obviously Wright brought some different ideas to the organization, and that's something you've always done too. One of the drills you like to emphasize is throwing a football. How does that help a pitcher develop?

House: Throwing a football, a baseball, hitting with a tennis racquet--it's the same neural pathway. I do many of the same things working with a quarterback in football as I do with a pitcher for baseball, the same physical preparation and mechanical movements; (San Diego Chargers QB) Drew Brees is a current client....

BP: ...If it's the same motion, though, why not just use a baseball. Talking to Tommy John a couple years ago for instance, he pretty much said that baseball is played with a baseball, football with a football, so why would he teach pitching using a football?

House: Tommy and I have known each other for years. Tommy John helped me learn to do distance running as a way to train for pitching. That's what he did when he was rehabbing from the surgery. Of course aerobic conditioning now is as important as all the other stuff.

As for throwing the football, especially when people see it being done in a baseball uniform, you get criticized for it, but the practice is legitimate. Throwing a football is 13 ounces, a baseball is five ounces; so you're overloading, building arm strength. At the same time, throwing a football with maximum effort, you won't tear down the arm. If you try to do that with a baseball, you can't build arm strength the same way, and you're putting added stress on the arm.

BP: You disagree with Tommy John on that point. And then there are so many other topics related to pitching, where a lot of other people--coaches, instructors, whether it's Mike Marshall, Dick Mills, yourself--will also disagree on topics, to the point where things can even sometimes get nasty. Why do you think there are sometimes such strong disagreements, even confrontations, in how people differ in their approaches?

House: In baseball, people have a tendency to point fingers and say how bad everyone else is to make themselves look better. Or they may think they know best, so no one else can be as good. With Mike Marshall, I respect him for his passion, and there are good things that he teaches. But he's angry--the way he lashes out at everything is not productive. I don't think he's a mad scientist, I think he's an angry scientist.

BP: And of course good things can come out of being wrong, if people learn from their mistakes. What are some of the mistakes you've made, and what did you learn from them?

House: One of my phrases that I used to talk about was "tall and fall". Now we know that staying tall doesn't have anything to do with a pitcher's release point. You look at creating an angle with the release point--as tall as Randy Johnson is, he throws sidearm. Staying on top doesn't work for his mechanics. I used to talk about the captain's wheel, where you pull the glove and the throwing arm through in the motion. But if you look at pitchers now with the better technology we have, you can see how the glove side stays firm and in front of the torso, and the arm snaps straight. The eyes see the glove moving, when in fact it's still. I used to think you had to go from ball of the foot to ball of the foot, and now we know that's not the case either.

BP: What about some of your success stories--which ones stand out for you, and what are you able to take away from them?

House: Some of it has been pretty well documented. When Nolan Ryan came to the Rangers, we changed his (pitching) posture, and we also changed his nutrition. He was supposed to stay for one year--it went from one year to six. Randy Johnson in 1992. Nolan and I had just completed a workout, and we watched (Johnson) in the bullpen. He was having trouble throwing strikes. We spotted a few things, suggested a few things--five weeks later he had the game with 19 strikeouts.

Barry Zito, we put him on a conditioning program and helped with his mechanics. He spent two winters in San Diego, leading into his years at USC. I honestly believe the conditioning he got from our group, I believe it made him better. Cole Hamels, when he came to us, he was still in a sling, with pins and screws from the broken arm he had his junior year of high school. We helped with his mechanics and his conditioning, and he became a number one draft choice with the Phillies.

Dan Giese, he's a pitcher in the Phillies organization. He's a kid who couldn't make the (University of San Diego) club--he was throwing 81 to 83 miles an hour. He's friends with Mark Prior, so he ends up over here. He went to a tryout, a scout with the Red Sox signed him, he was traded to the Padres, then to the Phillies. He's throwing 89 to 93 now. This year he led all Triple-A relievers in wins, had a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk BB ratio. This is a kid who didn't even make college ball team.

But ultimately, unless a kid takes responsibility for what he does, no amount of coaching is going to help. So in each case the kudos lie on the kid's shoulders.

BP: Since you mentioned him, what's different about Mark Prior?

House: Some of the youngsters that are bursting on the scene right now are the recipients of better information earlier in their careers. Mark is the poster child for it. Prior, Zito, (St. Louis Cardinals farmhand) Anthony Reyes--a bunch of youngsters we've had have around this type of information since age 14, 15...Mark's been involved with us since his freshman year of high school. It comes back to those factors: mechanics, physical, mental, nutritional. Virtually every staff in baseball now has one or two pitchers who've taken this better information that's out there now, matched it to their genetic potential, and are doing well with it.

BP: Going back to a younger age, what advice would you give to a younger kid, say in Little League? How can kids pitch, have fun and improve at a young age, without putting their arms at severe risk for injuries?

House: We try to educate every pitcher, from Little League to high school, college and the pros. Each pitcher has to become his own best pitching coach and conditioning coach. You try to give them the best of medical, coaching and exercise science--we give them little tool kits to help. But it's up to them to follow the process, to be assured that they have a chance to minimize injury and maximize performance.

Three things can help keep them healthy: mechanical efficiency, usable, or functional strength, and monitoring pitch totals. Every get-together we have, we come up with a pitching model, look at balance and structure, hip and shoulder preparation, proper release point and follow-through. They're given drills to support each of these mechanical variables. Most instruction takes place on flat ground; research (from Children's Hospital in San Diego and Johns Hopkins) shows that puts less stress on the arm. Mounds supposed to drop one inch for each foot from the rubber as you go toward home plate; the average Little League mound will drop about 11 inches in less than 4 feet--Little League mounds are, on average, almost twice as steep as a mound built to code, and that puts more stress on a kid's arm. My wish list for parents would include making sure mounds are built to code, and that they would count pitches. Parents talk finding ways to get involved and help--that's one thing any parent could do.

BP: Parents can try to get involved, but wouldn't the concern be that coaches would be the ones overusing the kids' arms? What steps can you and do you take to educate coaches?

House: Everyone who comes to one of our camps, we encourage to have their parents and coach come with them. They participate, and we encourage them to interact. We also encourage parents to meet with coaches, to tell them that their son will work his rear end off, but he'll only pitch 15-20 pitches an inning, no more than 50 or 60 total pitches for a kid 12 and under, 60 to 75 the next step up. The key is to interact so that everyone's on the same page. As a parent, you never want to shoot yourself in the foot with the coach, but it doesn't hurt to be assertive, just be up-front with them. I honestly believe they're not bad-intentioned coaches out there, just misinformed coaches.

BP: Pitch counts are a controversial topic, of course. Baseball Prospectus has done a lot of work on the subject, as have others. Where people often get bogged down is in figuring out exactly the right number of pitches. Given how different pitchers are, how different game situations can be, how can pitching coaches best keep their pitchers healthy while also getting the most they can out of them? Where does the balance lie?

House: Pitching is really a combination of science and art. Dr. Andrews likes to say that there has to be common sense used with every pitcher. You take the quantifiable information, and combine it with the intangible. What you want is erring on the side of caution. Anyone who thinks pitch counts don't matter has his head buried in the sand. But you also have to listen, sometimes, to your pitcher. If it's a Nolan Ryan and he's 115 pitches and he's saying he's got 15 more left, you have to listen. If you're at the mound talking to Greg Maddux in the sixth and he says he'll get the last out of the inning, but then you have to get out of there, you have to listen.

The process, the protocol has to stay consistent. Trust what you teach and you can draw conclusions. If it's not a consistent application of the core principles, you're just rolling the dice. Settle on a series of pitcher preparation protocols, hold those constant, watch those pitchers and see what develops over the course of days, weeks, months. There are too many variables to quantify this perfectly. But there are enough out there that you can regress for the ones with the most impact. Those are the ones you try to manage.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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