Only 10 pitchers in major-league history have saved more games (330) than John Wetteland, and of them, it is likely that none have ever been as enamored with physics and the question, “Why?” After breaking in with the Dodgers, Wetteland went on to close for the Expos, Yankees, and Rangers, amassing the most saves in the 1990s. The Most Valuable Player of the 1996 World Series with the Yankees, and the Rangers’ all-time leader in saves, Wetteland currently serves as the bullpen coach for the Mariners.
David Laurila: Why were you a reliever and not a starter?
John Wetteland: I think that it was mainly a character and makeup issue. When you look at relievers, really, all across the board they’re a little different than starting pitchers. Starting pitchers are kind of like the buttoned-down, well-groomed type of people. That’s kind of what their character represents. We’re punk rockers out there. So it just suited my character a little bit better.
I had a hard time… if you send me to the store for four things, I’ll call you and ask, “What are the other two?” I’ve always been like that, so once they put me in a relieving role and said, “Get after this guy,” all of a sudden a career opened up for me. It just suited me a lot better.
DL: As a pitcher, how often can you ask the question, “Why?"
JW: All the time. In fact, I’m always asking that question. I love studying swings, and with certain guys you can tell that they can’t get to certain areas. You watch their swing. You break it down, and what makes it difficult for them to do what they want to do? On the mound, when they take a swing at one of your pitches, you can kind of see the path; you can see what went first and what the end result was. Was he late? Did he get under it? What do you think he was looking for? Where did his body go; did it leak? All those kinds of things. So you’re always asking yourself, “Why?”
I tell the guys, “You pitch with your eyes if you‘re a reliever.” Sometimes you feel him, too. You just feel the hitter. So yeah, I love extrapolating everything out until I get to that one thing that I can have absolute conviction with.
DL: Can you ask, “Why not?"
JW: [Mariners pitching coach] Carl [Willis] and I were just talking about that. Sometimes, when you’re on the mound, you have two things that you could do to attack a guy in a particular count. If you get into the “why nots,” then you’re not devoting all of your energy, 100 percent, to “This is what I am going to do.” You can’t afford to be asking yourself “why not?” about two different pitches on the mound and fully execute the one that you do go with. You have to throw one out, and put the pedal to the metal on the other one.
As long as there is a “why,” I don’t have a problem with anybody and their pitch selection. If they have a reason why, and have conviction in the answer that they gave themselves on the mound, then I’m good with it. They have the best idea, better than anybody in the park, because they’re on the mound.
DL: Are pitchers always 100 percent right about what they should throw in a given situation?
JW: No, not 100 percent. There are some guys that I pitched with in my career, and these are guys who had long careers, who really didn’t know what they were doing out there. They would just see fingers and throw. But they also didn’t get everything they could from themselves in doing so. Whether that was their choice, not to put in the time to understand everything that they’re about, or if they just didn’t have the capacity to… that’s up to them to decide. It was their loss.
That’s kind of why I love coaching, because you see people better than how they see themselves. On a daily basis, that’s the challenge. You see them better, you see them better; OK, now how do we steer them gently to the better, instead of having them keep ramming themselves up against their own wall?
DL: Is it possible to be a power pitcher and cerebral at the same time?
JW: Absolutely. I’ve always said that my best weapon wasn’t [throwing] 100 mph, or anything like that. It was understanding what I was all about out there—who I am. I always ask guys, “Who are you?” and I don’t mean Bob from Omaha. I mean, “Am I a strikeout pitcher?” or “Am I a ground-ball pitcher?” And that’s where we get into trouble, when we try to be somebody else. A ground-ball pitcher gets 0-2 on a guy and he tries to strike him out, and before he knows it the count is 2-2, 3-2, and maybe he‘s even lost him. For me, it’s all about understanding who you are out there and pitching to who you are, and never deviating from that.
DL: At which point in your career did you learn who you were?
JW: Jay Howell helped me; this was when I was with the Dodgers. That’s when I first kind of became aware of how that’s a big deal. They kept trying to make me this sinkerballer, a hollow of the knees-on-down kind of guy. I was in the rotation with Fernando Valenzuela, Tim Leary, Orel Hersheiser, all of these guys who were great sinkerballers, worked the corners, kept the ball down, and all that kind of stuff. And Ramon Martinez. I came up with him and he was the same way; he was a power guy, but with a sinker down here. All of them had great success, so they were trying to make me that, but I couldn‘t throw a sinker to save my life.
Once I got put in the bullpen, Jay Howell kind of took me under his wing, and I’ll never forget. He said, “Son, we’re going to form a club, and it’s going to be called the brain-dead-heavers club.” We had certain club rules, like you never need to read a scouting report; there’s no distinction between a slider and a curveball, you just throw as hard as you can and twist your wrist at the end; a changeup means you throw harder. Our club motto was, “Everybody else is just a pitcher.” But I understood what he was doing. He was saying, “You’re about power. You can carry a fastball up here and get it by guys. You can do that, so stop trying to be someone you’re not.”
When I got traded over to Montreal… I always got to spring training early, and Joe Kerrigan was there; he was our pitching coach there. We were at the park and he goes, “Do you want to throw?” I said, “Yeah,” so we got all geared up and went out to the mounds. We got loose and now I’m ready to pitch. I let go of one and it‘s up here, high. I let go of another one, crack!, high. Another one, crack!, high. After the third one—and they were firm—he takes his mask off, puts it under his arm, and starts walking towards me. I’m thinking, “Oh, no; here we go.” I figured it was going to be, “Get the ball down, blah, blah, blah.” But when he met me on the mound, he put the ball in my glove and said, “Your fastball really explodes, upstairs; we’re going to have fun with that.” That’s when I went, “Oh, that’s OK.” That was another big part of me understanding what I was all about, what my strengths were.
DL: Did that serve as a good sports psychology lesson for you?
JW: Yeah, I guess so. I don’t read any of the books, and I don’t talk to any of the people, but I certainly teach it a lot. But I teach it by experience; I know that word. I don’t buy somebody who hasn’t been through that telling me how to think.
Even in science. Just because somebody has PhD next to his name, I don’t just sit there and nod my head. That’s one of the things I hate, and one of the things that really disappoints me about us as a society. We seem to be so spoon fed. “Spoon feed me the information and I’ll nod my head and go on about my day”—disseminate it without even thinking about it. The Big Bang Theory. How come particles exceed the speed of light in the amount of time that they do? Now, you have to take half, because it comes from a single point; it can’t go one end to the other. It’s relative, so you take half. But it still exceeds the speed of light. We all know that. There’s a convenient explanation, but it doesn’t tell me anything.
There’s electromagnetism, there’s gravity, there’s strong-nuclear force, there’s weak-nuclear force… there are also only four forces in the cosmos, but the explanation is that during the time when there was supposedly this infinitesimal point of heat and light, all four of those forces were combined into one thing which is called a super force, and modern physics didn’t apply. That’s convenient, but it doesn’t really tell me anything.
I want to know, you know. Even the questions I know that I’ll never answer. That’s why I love Michio Kaku. He has this book that I read about things we thought that we would never do, like go to the moon, fly in an airplane, and yet we did, mostly over the last 100 years. What’s in store for the next 50 years that isn’t a part of our reality now? I mean, who would have thought 20 years ago that ion engines are something we’d be using now? And that’s really cool to think about, because we need alternate sources of fuel. You can’t do solids if we’re going to do any real traveling up there. The problem is that you have one hydrogen atom per 10 square feet of outer space. So there are all kinds of things. Garrett Olson and I were just talking about that. We spent about three innings, me, him, and Brian Sweeney.
DL: When Garrett Olson throws his curveball, you can presumably explain why it breaks, but can you explain Mariano Rivera’s cutter?
JW: I can, because I threw the same one.
DL: Perhaps, but yours didn’t move like his does.
JW: Well, I didn’t want it to. It started out that way, but I wanted something that had a little more depth. So I did the same thing, but I used my legs to kind of bring it down, because I liked striking people out.
DL: It has been said that what Rivera does can’t be taught. Do you not agree with that?
JW: OK, and here is something they’re not thinking about, too. You can take Jamey Wright and me; Jamey Wright cannot throw a ball straight. Every time he throws it, it’s a huge sinker. You can show me the exact same grip—and I tried my whole career to throw a sinker—and I can throw it the same way, and it goes perfectly straight. We’re all put together a little different. There are certain things that I’m just genetically predisposed to, so I can’t do that. There are other guys that can’t make a fastball hop, and that was my bread and butter. There are some guys who can’t throw a 12-to-6 curveball. Sweeney and I can. There’s always a little sweep to it, but we can get it straight down.
That’s another beautiful thing about coaching. Everybody has their own parameters to work with, and that’s so fun to watch. You can watch a guy run, or field ground balls and throw, and you can determine a lot about pitching… how he looks as a pitcher, and how he might be better. There are a lot of guys that get on the mound and they get their arms way up high, and they don’t have any command. What I like to do is take them out and put them at shortstop and say, “We’re going to throw about five balls to first base.” You roll them a ground ball, they field it, and they throw. Well, that’s their natural arm action. Then they get on the mound and they do something completely different. It’s not how they’re built. So often times you find their natural arm slot and you go, “Hey, that’s it,” and all of sudden everything gets right.
DL: Along with understanding mechanics, it‘s important to communicate your message effectively.
JW: Absolutely. It’s important for you to know, as deep as you can, the man—their character. Where did he come from? How was he raised? You need to know how to speak to that person. In a physical sense, which is easier to understand, you could tell a guy—if he’s a righty and you want to keep him closed—“Drive your left shoulder to the plate,” and it doesn’t speak to him. But if you tell him, “Drive your left hip to the plate,” all of a sudden he does it. With another guy, it works just the opposite. You’re saying the same thing, but one guy will respond to one and one guy will respond to another. To know which to do, you have to know the man.
That’s why I love having the kinds of talks with them that I do. Maybe I tell Garrett something about pitching, and I can get a little more analytical about it, because he enjoys listening to that. He enjoys breaking things down. Other guys, like a Sean White, I want to avoid any mechanical discussion whatsoever. Nothing about mechanics. I want to say, “Throw that sinker right down the middle of the plate and have fun; let the ball do the work.” That’s not to say that he’s simple, but if he goes somewhere else he gets worse and worse; he gets all knotted up.
DL: Getting back to the question, “Why?” is there any one thing in baseball that you’d really like to know the answer to?
JW: Yeah. Why does the other team get rewarded on a third strike that I throw in the dirt and it gets past the catcher? Why does he get to go to first base? People can say, “Well, it’s an unearned run,” but that doesn’t matter to me. The other team got rewarded. You threw a pitch because you knew that he was going to swing at if it was in the dirt, so you did everything right, the hitter did everything wrong, and he gets rewarded. He might even end up scoring a run that helps his team win. That’s when the pitcher did everything he was supposed to do and the hitter has done absolutely nothing to help himself.
Not only that, let’s say that you give up three hits after that. People look at hits to innings pitched at the end of the year, and they base decisions, and sometimes those decisions are monetary, on those statistics. Even an unearned run. Why is it that [pitchers] get hits credited against us after that? It’s always about the run, but that third-strike thing… explain to me why we have to wear it—as a team, not as a pitcher—when you give up a bunch of hits after it happened.
DL: To close, what kind of playing career did you have in the big leagues?
JW: A wonderful career. I loved it. There is nothing where I look back and think, “I wish.” I try to address every aspect of it, mentally, psychologically, physically, to be better today than I was yesterday. And that’s fun.
The game is a great teacher. Just going through it, feeling the sting of blowing games when people count on you—we all know what that feels like, but you have to deal with it, as well. You have to move on. You have to be good the next day, so there are mechanisms that you have to put in place to help you navigate through [the down times] so that you can get back to [the good times]. I had a lot of those. At least I did in my own mind.