When the Yankees hired Larry Rothschild this past offseason, they brought one of the game’s most highly-respected pitching coaches aboard. The 57-year-old Rothschild had spent the last nine years as the pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs, part of a professional career that began over three decades ago. A big-league pitcher for parts of the 1981 and 1982 seasons, he later became the first manager in Tampa Bay history, holding that position from 1998-2001.
David Laurila: You were a player before you were a coach. What type of pitcher were you?
Larry Rothschild: Well, I had to work at it to figure out how to get people out. I wasn’t blessed with tremendous ability, and I think that’s probably what headed me into coaching. I had to figure things out to be successful, things that work, things that didn’t work, and I talked to a lot of people. I was around a lot of coaches. I was fortunate early in my career at Florida State to be around a really good coach in Jack Stallings, and with the Reds, in the minor leagues, I was with Ron Plaza. They weren’t pitching coaches, but they were baseball coaches. When you have to learn the business instead of having great ability, where you don’t have to learn the little nuances early on, I think it helps you to teach it.
DL: What do you know about pitching now that you didn’t when you were on the mound?
LR: The importance of consistency. As a young pitcher, you always want to have great stuff and throw the great curveball, the great slider, or an overpowering fastball, but when you get to this level, that’s really not what it’s about. It’s about executing pitches time and time again, and how often you can do that—how often you can repeat. Obviously, if you have great stuff and you can repeat, those are the guys at the top of the line. But everybody can’t do that.
I think in a lot of ways it’s similar to playing golf, in that you have to hit good shot after good shot to have a good score. It’s the same way with pitching: You have to make good pitch after good pitch to have a good game. It takes guys a long time to understand that it’s just a matter of going out and executing the pitch at hand and being consistent with it. If you’ve got a great curveball that you throw for a strike one out of five times, it’s meaningless because the hitters at this level are going to discount it; they’re going to take it out of the equation because they know you’re not going to throw it for a strike. But if you have an average curveball that you can throw where you want, take them out of the strike zone with it, throw it for a strike, back-door it, front-door it, and you can do it four out of five times, that’s going to be successful. That’s the difference, I think.
DL: Do you have a reputation as a pitching coach?
LR: I don’t know. You’d have to ask other people. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, I try to keep it individual, because each guy is different. There are certain things you want to see across the board, but how you get there is done individually. I don’t know if there’s a cute little box you can put it in and say this is what Larry Rothschild does. I like to look at guys individually and work at it that way.
DL: Are most pitching coaches are the same animal, or are there differences across the game?
LR: I think there are a lot of differences; I think guys attack things differently. According to personality, according to needs, there are different methods to get there.
DL: Many veteran guys can cite a point in their your career where they went from being a more of thrower to understanding how to pitch. As a pitching coach, can you speed up that process?
LR: You try. You try to make guys understand, but when they get out there, it’s a different animal. Until it’s really convincingly in their head, it’s different. By educating guys to those facts, you can expedite the process.
DL: What’s the primary role of a pitching coach at this level?
LR: Simply put, it’s to get the most out of each guy. How you do that is where the complexities come in. Different pitchers handle things differently and you need to analyze it differently. The job is to get guys to the top of their performance, or as close to that as you can get.
DL: What are you doing to get the most of A.J. Burnett?
LR: He’s worked hard to get to where he’s gotten to, and there’s still a learning curve there, but he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s been great with it. I still think that he can push through even more than what he has been able to do up until now, and he’s done fine. He has a chance to a really good year.
DL: Are you able to elaborate on what you’ve asked him to do?
LR: Not particularly. I don’t really want to get into the details, but I will say that one of the things is to just clean up his delivery and get him on line, so that he doesn’t have to [unintelligible word] his delivery so much and he can let the ball go the way he should. We want him in a position to do that.
DL: Does organizational philosophy dictate what you do as a pitching coach?
LR: It matters a lot. I think the continuity—this is my first year here—and the way things are taught throughout a system can certainly help get a guy here and be comfortable when he gets here, if you know what is being taught to him, and how it’s being taught, and the specifics of things. Yeah, I think it is important.
DL: How long does it take to learn a pitcher?
LR: I think it takes going through some rough times before you really get to know a guy and how he’s going to handle things. The ideal thing is that they don’t go through any rough periods, but you learn more about a guy when they’re going through the tougher times than you do when they’re going through the easier times, the better times.
DL: What is Phil Hughes’ status as of right now?
LR: Like I’ve been saying publicly, he’s just getting his arm strength back to where it needs to be, and that needs to be a natural process. It happens. This is the earliest, as a starter, that he has been asked to pitch in the major leagues. Last year he didn’t start until the 15th, which is coming up in the next few days, so he had extra innings and extra time.
DL: Do you have any concerns?
LR: There is always a concern until you see it [improve], but there is no reason to panic.
DL: Are there specific pitchers whose careers you’ve had a notable influence on?
LR: You’d have to ask them. I don’t like to get into what I’ve done for different guys. I think it’s more guys helping themselves with a little coaching.
We’ve all been in this game long enough to know it can be… I don’t know, it can go against the grain of what you do. I think there’s superstition to a certain extent. You don’t like to talk about it.
DL: How valuable was your managing experience to your current role?
LR: Probably less than what most people would think. I think more so of the interaction, and to understand the interaction with people when you’re the manager rather than a coach. But as far as dealing with a pitcher differently because I managed? Maybe a little bit, but not I don’t think to a great extent.
DL: Is it just as important for you to have a good rapport with the catcher as with the pitchers on the staff?
LR: It might be more important. If you look at high schools and a lot of places, even in Little League—I’ve seen it, high schools and colleges for sure—pitches get called for pitchers and catchers in a lot of cases. The learning process has changed. When they get into professional baseball, there’s a learning process there that you didn’t used to have. It’s a learning process for a catcher as well as a pitcher, but I think catchers tend to take to the learning of that more than the pitcher—what they need to do.
Pitchers in today’s day and age, until they get past this point, throw what is called. That’s how they’re taught and that’s what they’re comfortable with. In the old days—and it’s not too many years ago—you wanted to be the guy who called the pitch. You knew what you wanted to throw. You didn’t want to have somebody, for instance the catcher, put the sign down twice. That would aggravate a guy. Now I think it’s more comforting in some cases.
DL: Do catchers have pitch-calling tendencies that you need to pay attention to?
LR: There are catchers that will call what they don’t hit well, in a lot of cases, especially when key pitches and important pitches are made in the game. They’ll tend to go with what they don’t hit in some cases—not all cases—but once in a while you’ll run into that. The catchers that make a difference are the ones that care about that part of the game as much as any part, maybe more. It’s wearing on a guy, because you look over the years it’s become an offensive-minded game, and because of that they know their livelihood is based a lot on offense. It’s human nature to become that way. The good ones still understand what they do, and maybe they can do both, but they pay close attention to what they have to do behind the plate.
DL: How much has the statistical revolution impacted your job?
LR: Quite a bit. There’s sabermetrics, with information about injuries and pitch counts, and pitch selection and different things. It’s been interesting because you can look at things and be less subjective and more objective, in that these are the facts of what goes on, whereas years ago you didn’t have these numbers to deal with. I’d say in an awful lot of cases it’s stuff that the numbers back up what you thought, but every now and then you see a number you have to look at a little differently. It’s a part of the puzzle, but it’s by no means any more than a part of the puzzle. It’s not the whole puzzle; there are too many more ingredients that go into it.
DL: To what extent do you use statistical analysis?
LR: I use it as part of the information; I use it quite a bit. But, there are times where the information is great, but everybody can’t do what the information says you need to do. You know, so you kind of have to fit it to what works for each guy individually.
DL: What about video?
LR: I use a lot of video. It’s another tool that works to analyze hitters, to see what they do: to see a series before, who’s hot and who’s not, how they’re swinging the bat as compared to what you’re used to seeing. Pitchers’ deliveries, side-by-side video—you can use it to analyze guys when they’re good and when they’re not so good—all of those things. It’s a huge tool of the game and has been now for years.