Prospectus Q&A: Rick Peterson
by Jonah Keri
Rick Peterson has melded biomechanical research, psychological principles and Eastern philosophy during his five-year tenure as pitching coach of the Oakland A's. Under his guidance the A's have developed All-Star pitchers Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, acquired and polished hidden gems like Chad Bradford and implemented a minor league regimen that's yielded several promising pitching prospects. He recently chatted with BP about organizational communication, the virtue of empty-headedness on the mound, and the all-mighty data.
Baseball Prospectus: How do you train and develop such a young pitching staff?
Rick Peterson: The goal is for every pitcher to master the delivery. We have a comprehensive program based on drills and throwing programs to teach that. The core of efficient delivery theory comes from the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) lab of Dr. James Andrews. Last year, we had Tim Hudson and Barry Zito down to work with Dr. Andrews. This year, we've got Hudson, Zito, Chad Bradford (which should be interesting, because we've got no data on guys who throw sidearm), Joe Valentine, John Rheinecker and Rich Harden. Who we send is based on availability, plus targeting guys we want to go. We actually had a high interest in about 15 guys going.
BP: Can you describe some of these techniques in more detail?
RP: We break down mechanics into four compartments. The first is segmenting movements. We break the delivery down to components so pitchers can isolate on each step in the process and learn what feels right and what doesn't. Second, we have them go through movements in slow motion, so they feel the pace of those movements and can tell if they're going too slow or too fast later on.
Next, we deprive individual senses. We do a lot of work with guys early in their careers with their eyes closed, just training the body to move efficiently. We'll deprive them of sound or add sound like loud music so they can get a feel for working under those conditions. Finally, we teach pitchers to understand the rhythm of their movements. The windup has three beats, the stretch has two. This way they become aware of their time to home plate, or realize when their rhythm is off.
BP: We've heard how you combine elements of psychology with teaching mechanics and proper delivery. How do you link those approaches?
RP: The way to visualize it is to draw triangle for achieving peak pitching performance. On one side you've got the fundamental skills. Those are delivery, grips, holding runners, fielding, that kind of thing. Then you've got physical conditioning--we have pitchers do focused exercises. So since hip rotation velocity directly correlates to fastball velocity, we have them work on exercises to improve that rotation. We do strengthening exercises for the rotator cuff and elbow to prevent injuries. That's on top of more conventional throwing programs and running programs.
But there are also mental and emotional skills relating to performance. Talent does not equal performance. Talent plus mental preparation equals performance. My job as the head of this program is to design a program that untaps potential.
BP: How do you do that?
RP: We did personality factor tests to learn more about each player. When we first rolled out these tests, there were norms for people like teachers and lawyers, but not for professional baseball players. For example one test measures whether a person is self-motivated or works better through instruction. What we found is that self-motivated, practical thinkers tend to fare well in baseball. By keeping your motivation up, you overcome the fear, worry, and doubt which can hurt performance. Then we look at an umbrella of skills in 12 major areas. Those include: keeping things in perspective, self-knowledge of strong points and limits, discipline, and ability to learn.
We want to quantify as much of the process as possible, whether it's mechanical or psychological. The expression I like to use is: In God we trust, all others must have data.
BP: Does this mean you need to be incredibly smart to pitch for the A's?
RP: No, not at all. Think about it like this. When your lead foot strikes in your motion, you want your knee at a 125-to-140-degree angle. If the knee's locked as the pitch releases, that's a red flag. Now do you think Mulder, Hudson or Zito think about this when they're pitching? Of course not.
This isn't a psychoanalytical model, this is a cognitive behavior approach, a way to untap a player's fullest potential at the major-league level. When people perform at the peak of their abilities, you might say they're in the zone. What you're really doing is performing outside your conscious mind. You're using the right hemisphere of the brain. If you ask a pitcher to use the left side of his brain, and he's in the middle of the game, with Bonds at the plate, and he's thinking about the bend of his knee, he's going to have serious problems.
BP: Are there more specific methods you teach as a plan of attack against hitters?
RP: We had an interactive presentation with the major-league pitching staff, talking about the four basic elements of pitching: 1) pitch movement, 2) location, 3) velocity, and 4) changing speeds. So we ask them what they think is most important. Most of them say location. Some say changing speeds or movement, and velocity comes last. But when you're out on the mound and your foot touches the rubber, does everyone pitch this way? In practice, people pitch as if velocity is more important than location all the time. I asked the pitchers if they ever overthrow, and they say yes, all the time.
When a scout's looking at an amateur, the first thing he always looks for is velocity. When you're signed they gave you a check for velocity. After that, you never make another damn dollar for velocity, it's all on location. High-end velocity still has value, but somewhere along the line the pitcher's own attitude has to change, so he's not worrying about throwing hard. Pitching coaches just need to rewire them. Guys like Mulder and Hudson understand that pitching at 90% effort puts you in a rhythm and balance that will give you location and movement but still yield your highest-end velocities.
BP: What do the A's use for a between-starts regimen?
RP: We like to maximize as much time as we can at making pitches. That can be done on flat ground, or off a mound. We're big believers in long-distance throwing. We try to maximize the use of all our drills and cycle intensity levels. We're also big believers in studying the opposition and matching up to our strengths. There's a tremendous amount of preparing that goes into every series. We've traditionally been a young staff, and there's a definite learning curve that goes into learning the opposition. The video coordinator does a great job of providing resources, and we look at a tremendous amount of data. It's a reflection of how times have changed that we've got so many tools at our disposal we can use to prepare.
BP: How much emphasis do you place on preserving the staff's young arms?
RP: We're very cognizant of volume, of pitch counts. We monitor those throughout the season. We'll watch pitch counts incredibly closely, where we count pitches thrown in the bullpen, in pre-game routines, all of that's taken into account. We had only two starts all year over 120 pitches--we're very conservative in that regard.
We work hard to prevent injuries. Our trainers do a tremendous job of using proactive elbow and rotator cuff conditioning programs--they're working at preventing injuries before they happen. We're also proactive in maintaining the delivery. If something's off, we'll stop everything and make sure to fix it. You hear people in baseball all the time say if it's not broke, don't fix it. My question to them is: Do you change your oil every 3,000 miles? Do you check the tread on your tires? Why would you wait until your engine blows up or you get a flat? It's tough to be a good pitcher in the big leagues if you're not pitching.
BP: You mentioned earlier you work closely with Dr. Andrews and his clinic. How did you first develop that relationship with him?
RP: After coaching with Pittsburgh and then Cleveland, I went to the White Sox and ended up as the pitching coach in Birmingham. Dr. Andrews opened his lab there at the same time--I was one of the first uniform personnel in the lab. They started a biomechanical study to reduce the risk of injury and improve performance. I brought a high percentage of Birmingham's pitchers in there. The White Sox were very progressive at the time; all the minor league pitching coaches would go to Andrews' seminars. It was literally like going to graduate school for pitching. Now every year we learn something new.
BP: You talk about having people from every level of the organization trying to get on the same page back then. How are the A's in terms of communication and cooperation?
RP: We're all very close in this organization, and I think that gives us an edge. Having worked with teams on both ends, what I've seen is that small- and big-market teams are run so differently. There have been times when I was in other organizations, that it took five steps to get my message to the top of the chain. Some people feel they can't be inundated with every little detail.
Small-market teams have budget restraints, so they don't have so many layers of management between say, a pitching coach and the general manager. I have daily physical contact with Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta, which obviously makes for open communication. It gives them more insight into daily organizational activity. From my perspective I can see and have input into what the team's bigger goals are.
BP: Do you have the same closeness with the minor-league pitching coaches and instructors?
RP: Yes. It's a continuous education. We always evaluate and reevaluate our program to see what we need to improve on. We have daily routines and responsibilities throughout the organization that everyone must carry out. I work very closely with our pitching coordinator, who (was recently) in Atlanta at an ASMI seminar for injury prevention. I want all of us to understand the same things, teach the same principles and practices. We want the same drills being used, the same curriculum being used all the way through, from rookie ball to the majors.
BP: Obviously high turnover of personnel has been a feature of recent A's teams. What can you do on the pitching side to get good talent on the field at a low cost?
RP: There's a great core competency here in getting those diamonds in the rough, polishing up those stones, then putting them in the right setting. We've had guys come over here, earn opportunities to perform, and then perform exceptionally well. One thing (Beane) and (DePodesta) have done a great job with is getting diversity in the bullpen at a low cost. Billy Taylor was just above sidearm. We've had power arms like Isringhausen, guys like Mecir, Doug Jones, they're all different. Our philosophy is to take a look at what are our individual pitchers' strengths.
With (Bradford), we discussed how he wants to attack lefties. Last year he did much better at it. Almost everyone who pitches well in the big leagues does so because they have excellent fastball command, since in the big leagues they're all great breaking ball hitters. We wanted to make sure he could repeat his delivery to improve command of his fastball. Then he'll throw all these different looks at a batter. He pitches from the stretch all the time, but he'll change up his tempo. We've really worked on maximizing his strengths.
BP: One of the areas where the A's have also done well is the draft. How involved are you when the team's considering certain pitchers?
RP: (Beane) gives me a list of potential picks. He has me look at videotape to make sure there are no red flags in a pitcher's delivery. Every year in baseball there are so many guys with great arms that get drafted, even though they had big delivery problems. There are certain things in a delivery that are almost impossible to fix, and if they show up, we'll pass on the guy.
My job is to isolate things like hip rotation, which as I mentioned earlier is directly correlated to fastball velocity. About 60% of that rotation is done through the core of the body, from the rib cage to the knee. So a college guy that throws 92, we want to find a way for him to generate more hip rotation, and there are usually ways to make it better. Another guy that throws 91, if his delivery's tremendous, there's not a whole lot you can do to improve that. Hudson tops out at 95-96 now. When he signed he was in the low 90s.
BP: If you had total control over personnel, would you push for a four-man rotation? Do you see any advantages for one system over the other?
RP: I did research on this going into the playoffs last year to see if we could use a three-man with that day off in between. After I pulled together as much information as I could find, I had a conference call with Dr. Andrews and his staff. We looked at the biomechanical data on Hudson, Zito and Mulder. From what we could gather we concluded that short-term, going to a shorter rotation would be a non-factor from a physical and injury standpoint.
Long-term though we'd be concerned about pitch volume. Also, something like this probably has to be an industry move. The value of contracts for pitchers could change a lot, and agents could have a big say. The dynamics are much greater than one organization looking for a way to win as many games as it can.
Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.