The story of how Brent Strom came to be the pitching coach for the Houston Astros begins with a cartoonist for the New Yorker named Mike Witte. Witte had played high school ball with some of the St. Louis Cardinals owners, and as an adult studied the pitching motion until he was qualified to serve as a consultant to major-league teams on pitching deliveries. During Jeff Luhnow’s first year as farm director in St. Louis, Witte told Luhnow that of all the pitching coaches he had observed, Brent Strom had the best feel for the principles Witte was discovering in his research.
“I asked him to come to St. Louis, the dead of winter, and meet me,” Luhnow recalls. “Poor guy showed up without a coat and took the subway to and from the airport and it’s like 30 degrees out. But we immediately connected. We started talking about pitching and deliveries and all the stuff that he’s an expert in, and I knew I was talking to someone that had probably has much knowledge as anyone in the game, and had a passion for it. And was most importantly open-minded, and willing to learn new things.”
When Luhnow went to Houston, he hired Strom to be the major-league pitching coach. “This game changes,” the Astros GM says. “There are a lot of truths to this game that never change, but there’s a constant evolution of getting more information, the ability to use that information and gain new insights. Strommy’s as good at that as anybody I’ve seen.”
Late last season, Evan Drellich spoke at length with Strom about the life of a pitching coach, and his own approach to it.
Energy wise, how do you feel? You’ve been around the game for so long. Is it draining?
Oh yeah. It’s more mentally draining. I live and die with every pitch. I live and die with every win and loss. I live and die with every pitcher that goes out there. It’s fatiguing in that sense, but it’s, you know the joys of seeing a (Collin) McHugh have success where he didn’t have it before and others having success is what really keeps me going.
What makes a good pitching coach? The psychological aspect?
I’ve had different positions in baseball. I think as a pitching coordinator, I had about 100 pitchers under my tutelage, and there you would work on whatever their weaknesses were. At this level, at the major-league level, I think you hit upon it — there’s a time when you need to forge forward and then I had to catch myself and back off. I think it’s really important not to overburden and realize these guys are here, they’re talented.
Does that mean that they don’t need help? No. There are periods of times where they need to be reminded of certain things in their delivery or their approach. And I think the thing I’ve learned over the years is when to back off, more than just to keep pounding information, because it doesn’t fit for everybody. Sometimes, just a consoling hand or a consoling word is better than pounding on the mistakes that they may have been made during the game.
It’s impossible to be perfect in those conversations, right? There’s no way every time you go out to the mound you know exactly what to say?
There’s no question. I’ve gone out there, I've done everything from trying to push a guy’s button to making him laugh to doing anything I can—my main focus is just to get him re-focused, maybe distract him from what’s happening at this given time. Believe me, very rarely is it ever, 'Hey, do this,' or, 'get your glove here,' or 'get your arm'—that’s not going to work. That time was way gone right there. We’re in the heat of the moment.
I use distraction at times. I’ll make fun of different things. Things like that, just to get them out of this crucial moment and let them be able to breathe and relax a little bit. Sometimes I’ll go out with a plan, but the plan that will always be what they can do right at this time to get this hitter out. It’ll never be what not to do. I learned this a long time ago from a coach when I was talking about a hitter. I would say, ‘Well, don’t throw this pitch to this guy, and don’t throw this to this guy.’
I got a tap on the shoulder from this wise manager and he says, ‘you know you just turned a .250 hitter into a .400 hitter just by talking to your pitchers about this guy.’ So I learned a big lesson at that time.
What is your day to day? What is your preparation? What time do you get to the park? Do you first look at video?
I live very close to Minute Maid. I don’t have a car, I walk. I get there at about 11 o’clock for a 7 o’clock game. If it’s the first day of a series, I’ll scour the scouting reports. I’ll look at video. I always like to rewrite notes. I find when I look at a scouting report and I rewrite it myself, it helps me get into my brain instead of just keeping it. And by writing it down, I have notecards that I keep in my back pocket, so that as I watch a game, for example, and I see possibly the count go to 2-0 on a certain hitter and I know who’s on deck, I’ll scour my notes right at that moment. I’ll scour my notes so that I’m on task.
If he loses this guy, then I have a concrete plan to go out there, if I’m going to make a trip. I always ask A.J. (manager A.J. Hinch) if I can make the trip. I never assume that I can make the trip. It’s always been my habit to defer to the manager in that regard. And if he says yeah go ahead, which A.J. has every time —
Yeah. Every time. Well, I would say 99 percent of the time he’s allowed me to go. I never jump out of the dugout saying I’m going to go without him knowing. … I always defer to the manager in that regard. And there’s been times when he’s said, 'Do you want to make a trip?' And I’ve said, 'why don’t you make a trip?' Because he carries — you’ve seen it about five times this year (2015). The (Lance) McCullers game against Baltimore, he makes the trip. The trip the other day with Keuchel with (Alex) Rodriguez hitting, he makes the trip. He carries a different weight about him than I do.
The notes in the dugout with you are handwritten, not Ground Control printouts?
I synthesize them into smaller bullet points that I can use. It’s just 3-by-5 cards and I keep them in the back pocket or right in my book with me, and then I can refer to them. Like a study hall, when you’re going to study for a test.
What’s the book?
I have all the stuff done by our analytics people, who, I cannot tell you how they valuable they are to me. I mean, that whole group has just been tremendous to work with, all of them. And so then, you can look at what they send, what they talk to me about, and then I look at the video to see how it matches up, and then I make my own (notes). … See what the reports say and then try and pick what’s the best way to go about it.
When did you become ingrained in the new school? For someone who pitched in the big leagues at the time you did, it would be very easy to be old school, quote unquote.
I’ve always been fascinated as the game evolves. I always studied it. While we didn’t have the same stuff going on when I played, there was still a semblance of it. I mean, we knew about, you know, up and in, low and away. Speeds, things like that. Not to the extent they do now, but I’ve always been fascinated by the analytics. I’ve always wanted to see how balls spin, how to make balls spin better. How to make balls move, why the high fastball plays. All of these different things. I’ve been fascinated by it. It’s been a learning experience for me. I’m more excited now than I ever was. And the one thing I do know is I do know that I don’t know it all. And as long as I go by that, I keep learning all the time. And Craig Bjornson (the Astros bullpen coach, who goes by CB) is the same way. He’s helped me a great deal.
What is your relationship with CB?
He keeps me in check is what he does. He’ll give me an alternate view. Also, he has the pulse. He’s very personable with our pitchers, probably moreso than I am. He’s very into talking to them all the time. So he gives me the pulse of what’s going on, particularly with the bullpen. And so when he says, 'Hey, Neshek’s slider’s this,' or something like that, then I go to talk to Pat with the information and then I can also utilize the analytics people that will give me that information.
So I grab from all these sources possible, come to a conclusion, rather than me just jumping in. I think the objective information is so much more important than the subjective. We sometimes feel it looks a certain way, when really that’s not — just like, for example, (Josh) Fields. This past month with Fields.
Some people would say he didn’t have a good month. But if you look at the analytics, the hard-hit balls off of him have been below major league average. He’s given up a number of bloops. He gave up one home run that landed in the Crawford seats. So that will bring you back to reality as to who Fields was in September, that it wasn’t the guy you remember, ‘Oh, the base hit beat us here,’ and all that. So that’s important to keep in mind.
When you’re talking to your guys who might not have the same grasp of analytics, the fact that you pitched, the fact that you’ve done so much in the game, do you think there’s a credibility that others might not have? They’re talking to a former major league pitcher.
Yeah, they’re talking to a guy who’s 22-39 in his major league career, OK? But I think there is, I think to some extent… when I look at (Chad) Qualls with 15 years in, I look at Neshek who’s an All Star, I look at Keuchel who possibly might win the Cy Young award, I look at McHugh and what he’s done the last two years, I think it possibly does help that I did play, but I don’t think it’s a game breaker. I know some quality people that never played in the big leagues that could be excellent pitching coaches. I mean, guy with the Chicago Cubs, the coordinator right now, Derek Johnson, who will someday be a big-league pitching coach [and now is, with the Brewers].
I think Craig Bjornson could be a big-league pitching coach and he got no higher than Low-A or whatever. There’s a number of people, I think—you know, the initial thing of saying, 'Wow, he pitched in the big leagues, he must know what he’s talking about,' that wears off after a while.
The players are more into the information you can give them than who you were. I mean, I can give you case studies of former big leaguers, Hall of Famers, they gave out poor information. Poor information. Real bad information. So, I mean, it’s — they may buy in initially. But after a while, if the player is smart enough and they realize the information they’re given is (expletive), they’ll walk away.
You knew what the Astros plan was when you got here.
Obviously, being with Jeff with seven years prior, I knew—the one thing that intrigued me with Jeff is he leaves no stone unturned. He let’s people do their job. He’s not afraid to take chances and risks. Did I know it would happen as quickly? No, but I like what happened last year. We started to build something. You know, I really was not looking to get back into big-league baseball. I was very happy in St. Louis. I was able to get home, I worked with young pitchers, the team was having success. Everything was good, and then Jeff called and he basically asked me, quite frankly, he says, 'Wouldn’t you like to see what you know, if it’ll work at the major-league level?' And that’s what kind of intrigued me to do this.
It didn’t work when you were here in Houston the last time as a pitching coach, or it didn't work as well?
Well when I was here previously, I did not know what I know now. We came in second place and we all got fired. … But I know right now I’m a much better pitching coach than I was back then. Much better. And I tell this to everybody: I never intentionally ever gave wrong information to any pitcher. I just probably didn’t know as much as I know now.
I think it’s vastly overrated. Just like, as I think I once told you, players play, coaches coach and writers write. It’s the players that really make it happen. You can add to it, but I think the biggest thing I want to do is not be a hindrance or anything. You just try and put them in the best position to be successful. Take whatever information you can gather and give it to ‘em. Let them take, run with it, or delete it. That’s what you got to do. I’m never going to demand anything of any pitcher. I remember I had Tommy John as my Triple-A pitching coach when I was a coordinator for the Expos. … They played 141 games that year and he made two trips to the mound in 141 games. And I asked him about it, he said, ‘No pitching coach ever told me anything that was worth a damn out on the mound, so I’m not going to go out there and try and do it myself.’
How much different do you think what you guys are doing differs from other teams?
I actually study other teams, what they do.
Or rather, what you know of what they do?
One of the teams that I think is exceptional is Tampa Bay. And Tampa Bay does a tremendous for example of teaching a changeup to all their pitchers.
You guys do that too.
We’re working at it. We’re getting there. Are we where they are now? Probably not. I remember going into Princeton, I remember going into Johnson City and watching a Princeton team, which is Tampa Bay’s rookie ball team and their record is 7-35. Yet their pitchers were throwing 20 percent, 30 percent changeups. Because they were following a plan. And then the (James) Shields, the (Jeremy) Hellicksons … some of these other guys, I see ‘em later in the big leagues and they all have plus changeups. And then I think back, 'yeah, it’s because of what was happening in Princeton, and they didn’t care that they were 9-35.' They were developing for the major-league team. So I think Tampa Bay does an outstanding job of their development and everything. So that’s a prime example of everything.
You’re not a pitching coordinator, right, but the philosophy and discussions in the minors are something you’re a part of.
There’s two ways to look at this thing. There’s some teams that really divide their major-league staff and their minor-league. And there’s very little communication. That’s not here. I’m very close with (minor-league mainstays) Dyar Miller, very close with Doug White … all of these guys all through the minor leagues, so there’s a constant flow of information going back and forth between the major-league side and the minor-league side. Because our whole job is to keep building these guys, trying to find the (Michael) Felizes, and the (Vince) Velasquezes and the McCullers and all these different people. What we’re trying to do ideally is, in the minor leagues, prepare them not to win at the low levels at Greeneville, but prepare them to be able to pitch here. So if that means they take their lumps at the minor-league level, then so be it, that’s the way it goes. This year we had winning teams, that’s not the primary focus of our program.
Anything else I should ask you?
I think some of our pitching success has been due to our defense and the analytics and do the shift, I think that’s changed the landscape of baseball.
Everybody’s been doing that.
The Pirates do it extremely well. We do it extremely well. There are some teams that are further behind, but they’re starting to catch up. It’s difficult to stay ahead of the Billy Beane Moneyball-type of thought. Now everybody understands on-base percentage is more important than batting average. It constantly evolves, and you just try and get that edge. It’s just like Vegas, when you’re the dealer you have the edge.
That's what Sig (Mejdal) always says.
Might only be one percent, but over the course of a long thing, you come out ahead.
Tell me about the New Yorker illustrator who somehow put you in touch with Luhnow.
Mike Witte. Actually, I was with the Kansas City Royals, and Herk Robinson knew Mike Witte. And Mike and I became close friends. Herc Robinson used to be the GM for the Royals. And Allard Baird became the GM after him. I was out in Baseball City, out in Florida where the Royals trained. And I got to become friends with Mike Witte. He’s an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine, a big baseball guy. So we started talking about pitching and his ability to draw and look at the body and how it moves and things like that. It was intriguing to me, so we became very close friends.
Even though the guy was just an illustrator, you took him seriously.
Of course. I have a blank slate, and whatever his reputation is, it’s who he is, what he brings to the table, and so I took him very seriously. I love talking to him.
And then he eventually put you in touch with Jeff?
Actually, he was — yeah. When I was out of the game for, I had been let go by the Nationals the last day of spring training by Jim Bowden. So I was out of the game for two years. I did some speaking engagements, somebody heard me and put me in touch with Jeff, actually, I went up and visited with Jeff after, during the winter in St. Louis, presented, gave him my spiel. And Jeff hired me. So it’s, I owe a great deal of gratitude to Jeff Luhnow for taking a chance on me. … They brought me in as kind of a mechanics guy to look at the body and delivery and all that stuff, and that moved me into the coordinator. I was out of the game.
What is your winter? Are you always doing lessons?
Not lessons, I’ll do clinics. I’ll do speaking engagements around the country. I go to Europe, I do it all the time in Europe. I’ve been over the last 10 years. Went to France last year, did it in Paris.
There’s people in Paris who want to hear about pitching?
There’s baseball in Europe. Italy, Holland are the two big ones. France is getting there.
Is this through MLB?
There’s two guys that aligned with major league baseball and they’re trying to develop baseball in Europe.
Paid to do it?
Yeah, not much, but it allows my wife and I to travel.