Curt Young knows pitching, and with 19 years in the organization, he knows the Oakland Athletics. Originally taken in the 1981 draft, the left-hander spent 10 of his 11 seasons as a big league pitcher with the A’s, twice winning 13 games, and contributing to a World Series championship in 1989. Young joined the coaching ranks in 2000 and has served as the A’s pitching coach since December 2003. David talked to Young about managing pitch counts, the importance of throwing a strike on 1-1, and why Lenny DiNardo can succeed with an 82 MPH fastball.
David Laurila: What do you see as the primary role of a pitching coach at the major league level?
Curt Young: To start from the beginning, when a young guy comes up you want to make sure that you put him in a position where he feels comfortable being in the big leagues. There’s such an aura, because you spend all of that time in the minors, and then you get called up, and there’s a period of time where you have to get comfortable. And then, as a coach, I watch [a pitcher] perform and I try to help him with ideas that are going to help him attack hitters and get hitters out.
DL: Are you referring more to mental ideas, or to physical ones?
CY: It depends. There are things you see, and the more you see a guy pitch, there may be some physical things. But really, it’s a combination, because you talk about making pitches, which is what it’s all about. It’s about locating your fastball, making good off-speed pitches behind in the count. It’s both a physical and a mental game.
DL: How about veteran guys who have been around for a long time? For instance, you have Alan Embree on your staff.
CY: Yes, those are the guys who are already comfortable, who are experienced and know how to pitch and get guys out, but everybody goes through some troubled times over the course of the season. If there’s something I see where I feel that I can help them, I’ll get involved, whether they’re veteran guys or young guys.
DL: Good command is crucial to pitching. How can you help a pitcher improve that facet of his game?
CY: By practice. It is the intensity that you put into your practice that’s going to help you. When you think about fastball command, when you’re coming in to a guy you better get it in–you better miss on the right side of home plate. If you’re coming in to a righy, you want to miss either in or on the black. And if you’re going mostly away to right-handers, you need to be down. So you preach that–if you’re in along the body-line, that’s good; if you’re going away, you better dot the corner down and away. Off-speed pitches, I try to teach that you want to get into a challenge-mode. You want to challenge guys with your off-speed pitches. If you have good arm-speed going, that combination usually works.
DL: All pitchers understand the value of first-pitch strikes, but many still struggle with the execution. How do you go about communicating the importance to them?
CY: We kind of have a different philosophy here. We’re more possessed on getting to the 0-2 count or 1-2 count, because we know that there are so many hitters who are aggressive early. Obviously, you like your guy in the 60-70 percentage range, first-pitch fastballs, but there are hitters who are such good first-pitch hitters that there are times you’re okay backing them off or missing with an off-speed pitch. Then you get back into the count at 1-1 with a fastball or a good down-and-away pitch. So our philosophy is getting to 0-2, 1-2, more than preaching the first-pitch strike.
DL: You feel that the 1-1 pitch is more important than the first pitch?
CY: I really do. The more you see it–you do see some statistics on that. Like I said, there are a lot of good first-pitch hitters, and once you get the count to that 0-2, 1-2 advantage, the odds of you getting outs increase by a pretty wide margin.
DL: What is your opinion of radar guns, and to what extent do you want your pitchers to be aware of what the readings are?
CY: Well, obviously everybody likes to see a little “velo.” Velo helps, because it allows you to make a few more mistakes. With the guns in the stadiums now, there are a lot of guys who look, every pitch, and I think that’s really a good advantage for a pitcher. The more variety of speeds that you can use on hitters, at different times, it’s to your advantage. But the gun, on my part, is really to make sure that the difference between your fastball and changeup is good; if you throw a slider and a curveball, is the difference in that speed good? Using as many different-speed pitches in a game is a good thing.
DL: If one of your starters is still throwing hard in the late innings, what tells you that he might be starting to lose something?
CY: It’s usually location. Most guys do keep their velocity late into games, but it’s whether they’re getting the baseball up or not getting it in when they’re trying to come in. Most guys I’ve seen, throughout this season, like I said, it’s not loss of velocity late in games, its loss of location.
DL: Are there teams against whom you want your pitchers to work out of the zone more often?
CY: There are teams where, on a whole, they don’t walk much. That will tell you that there’s a lot of early action going on, and they’re vulnerable to chase pitches. Our guys know who the chasers are, and who the high-walkers are. They know who they can take a chance against with a chase-pitch on a 2-2 count. It’s something we try to study hard and try to get across to our pitchers: which guys are the free-hackers, and which guys are pretty patient.
DL: Do you feel that a pitcher learns more from adversity than he does from success?
CY: That’s a good question there. I think that a guy learns more from a good game. When you pitch a good game, you’re pitching into the seventh or eighth inning, maybe the ninth, as a starter, and I think you learn more about yourself that way. When you have a little adversity, and get beat up a little bit, it’s more of understanding why it didn’t go right, and you need to know how you can fix it.
DL: How much of a psychologist does a pitching coach need to be?
CY: Well, it comes and goes. When a guy is doing well, there’s not much psychology needed. It’s when there’s a little struggle going on, and it’s a matter of building a little confidence, and making sure that they keep their confidence as high as possible.
DL: Is the relationship you have with the catchers on your team as important as your relationship with the pitching staff?
CY: Yeah, very much so. The catcher gains the trust of the pitcher, and the catchers gain trust from me with the scouting reports and how we’re going to attack hitters. It’s kind of a triangle there. We kind of all trust each other with what we’re trying to do, and if the catcher has a great understanding of the game plan and the pitcher can see that, and they get on the same page, then things can click. You’ll feel a nice little cycle going on out there.
DL: What is your opinion of pitch counts?
CY: I try to judge it off of how guys do after 100 pitches. You watch the side work they do, and you learn. You learn which guys can go into the 110, 115, 120, 125 range by how they bounce back when they do their side work, and how they do in their next game after a high pitch-count. Most guys are normally throwing better at the end of a game than they are at the beginning, so it’s really about being careful about the physical part of the game. You need a guy for 34 starts, so you want to be careful about how many times you take him to a higher pitch count than normal, especially in successive outings. We try do it in three-start cycles, four-start cycles, where, in general, they don’t go over 425-440 pitches–somewhere in that range.
DL: Jumping back to velocity, why has Lenny DiNardo had a solid season for you?
CY: Lenny has a cut fastball that he throws in on righties, and when it’s in the right location, right-handers can’t do anything with the baseball. They can either pull it foul, or they hit a grounder to third base. That’s the classic thing; he’s throwing 82 miles per hour, and he’s got a cutter that cuts in and doesn’t allow a hitter to extend his hands. That combination, with a soft change-up away, works well.
DL: Lenny told me earlier today that he’s throwing his changeup more effectively this year.
CY: Well, he is. When he gets those two lanes going, the cutter in and the soft away, that’s where velocity doesn’t even come into play. Hitters have to time the baseball, and 82 with a 74 changeup is effective, just like a 92 fastball with an 84 changeup, as long as the ball is put in the right place.
DL: Is eight MPH the differential you like to see between a fastball and a changeup?
CY: Anywhere from eight to 12, but mainly it’s the arm-speed. You have to keep your hand-speed almost quicker on a changeup; you have to give the appearance that your hand-speed is in that constant whip. That makes a changeup effective, whether there’s a six MPH difference or 10.
DL: Of the pitchers on your staff, who has made the greatest strides this year?
CY: I almost have to say Joe Blanton. He’s really turned into a guy who can pitch late into games on a consistent basis; he has a true understanding of his game, and he has a true understanding of what the hitters are trying to do to him. He’s shown an ability to pitch 200 innings three years in a row. He’s developed a great understanding of what works for him and how to get it done.
DL: Dan Haren has established himself as an outstanding pitcher. Why is he effective, and is there anything he can do to take his performance to an even higher level?
CY: Well, it usually comes down to fastball location, but he’s got such a special pitch in his split-finger fastball. And what’s put him at a higher level this year is an ability to throw his curveball over the plate at any time. It almost acts like a changeup for him. That’s his soft pitch, behind in the count, to get back into the count against hitters. When he’s spotting his fastball in and out, with the split-finger that he has, there’s no reason to tinker with anything, because that style is working.
DL: Do you see any future pitching coaches on the A’s staff?
CY: You mentioned Alan Embree earlier. He’s always interested in talking to the guys, and talking with me about what we’re trying to do with certain guys, whether it’s a pitch change or an arm-angle change, or even a mental thing. You’ve got to get guys to believe that they belong in the big leagues, and with Embree having done it as long as he has, he understands what it takes.
DL: What do you know about pitching now that you wish you knew during your playing days?
CY: The changing speeds-factor. As a pitcher, sometimes you think that you can throw the ball by people, and by now I’ve learned the effectiveness of an off-speed fastball, going with maybe three or four different speeds with your fastball. Also, using changeups in different locations. Guys have been possessed, including myself, to throw changeups away to righties, but change-ups in to righties can be effective, too. There are some different ways of attacking hitters that I didn’t know as a pitcher, and now I’m trying to pass that knowledge along to the guys I’m working with here. Pitchers are always learning.