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June 3, 2007

Prospectus Q&A

Rick Langford

by David Laurila

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Currently the pitching coach for Toronto's Triple-A affiliate in Syracuse, Rick Langford is a believer in finishing the job you started. Pitching for the Billy Martin-managed Oakland A's, Langford led the American League in complete games in both 1980 and 1981. In 1980, a season in which he threw 290 innings and won 19 games, he completed 28 starts. Langford has been a pitching coach in the Blue Jays organization since 1996.

David talked to Langford about his heavy workload in Oakland, pitching to contact, and knowing who you are on the mound.

David Laurila : When guys you're working with ask you what kind of a pitcher Rick Langford was, what do you tell them?

Rick Langford : Basically that I was more of a control pitcher. I wasn't a power pitcher, but rather someone who commanded the ball fairly well, and worked both sides of the plate. I liked to pitch inside, because that helped me to locate down and away more effectively. That's one thing I've coached the last 12 years--if a starter can establish the inside over the course of six or seven innings, the bullpen doesn't have to. They don't have to set guys up as much; they can just come in and hunt outs.

DL: In 1980 you pitched 290 innings and had 28 complete games. Did you pitch too much that season?

RL: No. I was in very good shape, I was on my game, and I rarely threw more than 100 pitches in a game. I was fundamentally sound. But again, I was a command pitcher and wanted to get balls in play early in the count. I relied on good movement and let my defense make the plays behind me.

DL: You were one of five A's pitchers to throw over 200 innings that season. Were any of you more likely to be negatively-impacted by a high workload because of your arm-action or any other factor?

RL: I don't think so. Everyone on that staff was young and fit, and we were fortunate to be with a manager who trusted us, believed in us, and let us work. That's why we finished so many games. Billy Martin ran the staff, and Art Fowler scheduled us and made sure we did our work. Art kept us throwing and made sure we did things right.

DL: What was it like working with Art Fowler?

RL: I really enjoyed the time I spent with Art. He was a pitcher who had longevity, too. Back in those days, he'd come over and throw sides once in awhile just to show us that he could still do it. He'd throw sliders and show us that he could still put the ball wherever he wanted it, regardless of how old he was.

DL: How much of your pitching to contact was Art Fowler's influence?

RL: It was just my style. I think that every pitcher has a particular style, and he needs to understand what it is. He needs to say to himself, "This is what kind of pitcher I am," and get as good at what he does as he can. If you sink the ball, cut the ball, and throw a lot of changeups, that's going to dictate what you do. Your approach is different than that of a power guy who throws 95 to 97. But either way, something I don't ever want to see is someone from my hands--someone I worked with--trying to throw three strikes before they throw four balls. Unfortunately, that's the way it's become with a lot of players. Today you see pitchers being pushed a lot more quickly, and they get promoted without as many innings or as much feel as you'd like to see. They get pushed to the big leagues out of necessity, and consequently you have a lot of guys with great arms who haven't polished their pitching skills yet.

DL: How would you describe the Blue Jays' pitching philosophy?

RL: A lot of it is what I've been talking about. We want to have our guys understand who they are; what their style is. We have pitch counts for our starters. In Double-A and down, it's 100 pitches; in Triple-A it's 110. In the big leagues they can go 120, 125; whatever it takes. One reason we have pitch counts is that it helps guys learn how to pitch deeper into games. It's, "How can I get 21 outs, or 24 outs--whatever it is--in 100 pitches?" To do that, you have to throw the ball over the plate and get quick outs. The philosophy I have is that when you have to turn the game over to your bullpen, you want to be giving it to the set-up guy. You don't want your bullpen to have get any more outs than they need to.

DL: All pitching coaches stress the importance of getting ahead in the count, but are there different ways of going about it, or teaching it?

RL: Well, we spend a lot of time with pitchers, early in their careers, getting their deliveries down. We try to get them fundamentally sound, so that by the time they get to this level, to Double-A and Triple-A, we're not trying to get them to throw strikes as much we're talking about pitching. We want to be able to work on things like how to improve a pitch, how to read hitters, situational pitching. We want to work on having a feel for what's going on out there--when to add a little or take a little off. But as for pitching to contact, we want everyone to pitch to contact. If you have a good feel for pitching you can do that effectively.

DL: What does the term "pitching to contact" mean to you?

RL: What I watch for is the tilt of the ball from the mound to the plate, because you want a downward plane. If your mechanics are good, you'll do a better job of staying on the bottom half with your pitches. And you want the ball to look like a strike coming down the channel, because that's what gets a hitter's hands starting to move. Of course, you also need to elevate; you need to get the ball above the hands. You need to work upstairs to change a hitter's eye-level, because you don't want him to keep his eyes right where you're working. You need to take him off of his game. But when you get back in the strike zone, you want to tilt the ball again and get back down by the knees.

DL: Is it possible to throw too many strikes?

RL: I'm sure it is, yeah. But it's not just throwing strikes; it's the action you're getting on the ball, and in today's game, if you don't have action on the ball, you're not going to be around too long. The hitters are bigger and stronger, and they're more patient, so without movement and location you're going to be in trouble. And you need to change speeds; changing speeds disrupts timing, which is what pitching is.

DL: Warren Spahn once said that it takes two pitches to get a hitter out; the one he's looking for, and the one he's not looking for. How much truth is there to that?

RL: Well, I don't know. You want to upset timing, but I used to get hitters out by making my pitch. A 3-2 slider for a strike with the bases loaded can be a good pitch, but it's more about the tilt of the ball, having an ability to work the corners of the plate, and getting some sort of action on your pitches. You can get hitters out without tricking them if you have good movement and location.

DL: How are today's pitchers different from when you played?

RL: Today's athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster, but I don't know if their baseball skills are as good as they were in my generation--at least not when they're younger. We all spent our time in cow pastures playing ball, while today's modern athletes have so many different things to occupy their time besides baseball. For me, command of the baseball was never an issue, because I had been doing it since I was about six years old. Things like my delivery, and throwing strikes, was never an issue. When I got to pro ball I simply needed to learn the nuances of pitching, thinking things through, like, "How am I going to get this guy out?" Younger guys today aren't as experienced when they get here, because they've lived a different life than we did in my era.

DL: Outside of pitch counts, how specific are the throwing regimens throughout the Blue Jays organization?

RL: We allow our pitchers to be individuals, as to their specific styles and arm-slots, things like that. However, their side-work, their long-toss, their flat-ground program, their conditioning: those are all monitored specifically. But whether they're four-seam guys or two-seam guys, the goal is to make them better. We find out what they have, and if we think they need to add something, or change something, then we'll work on that.

DL: What does Dustin McGowan need to do to establish himself as a solid big league pitcher?

RL: He just needs innings. Most guys don't have an opportunity to stay in the minor leagues for five years to fully develop, and he just needs to get that experience. He needs to find his comfort level, because he's definitely a major league pitcher, and Dustin is getting that opportunity now. He's improving, and he's getting more comfortable with what he's got. He's got an above-average major league arm, and major league stuff.

DL: How similar is Jesse Litsch to you when you were pitching?

RL: I haven't actually worked with Jesse, but he's a sinker/slider guy. I know that he commands his ball and lets his defense take care of its business. The guys behind him know they need to be ready. That's what we want--we want our guys to be aggressive on the mound and to work with a rhythm and a tempo. We want them to control the clock. In other words, if you need to step off the mound and slow the game down, you do it. You don't let someone else dictate that for you. There are similarities.

DL: Of the pitchers you've worked with, who do you feel you've had the biggest impact on?

RL: I've been fortunate. I've worked with the Blue Jays for 12 years, starting from the days of Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay, Kelvim Escobar, and Billy Koch, to name just a few. I've been blessed to be around a lot of talent, but there have been a lot of people working with them. I don't think it's ever just one guy. There are pitching coaches at every level, and our pitchers are picking things up from everyone as they go along.

DL: How valuable are veteran catchers to a minor league pitching staff?

RL: It's all about experience, and any time you can introduce experience it's going to help younger players. There's a certain confidence level that comes from working with an experienced guy. I think it's important for pitchers to learn to make decisions, and trust is a big part of that. There's one thing you want to do in the major leagues, and that's win. That's why it's so hard up there. It's very hard to win, and it's easy to lose.

DL: Do you have a role in helping young catchers better understand pitching?

RL: We work closely with our catchers. Not on the skills of catching, but on the feel of the game and situations. Helping the pitchers know when to throw softer, when to come up and in, identifying swings--those kinds of things. Every day before the game I meet with my pitchers and the catchers, to go over everything. We go over last night's game--what went right, what went wrong, what did the catcher see back there behind the plate. We want to share that information. Back in my era, we were a little bit more on our own. There was a lot less information, so we needed to figure things out for ourselves. There's a lot more information to be put out in today's game, and I like for my guys to learn, so I talk to them every day about their games. Like I've been saying, it's important for players to understand themselves. I think that's one of the key parts of the game, especially with pitching.

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