Paul Byrd knows his craft. Seen by many as a future pitching coach, the veteran right-hander has become a student of the game over his 13 big-league seasons, adding more than a fair share of guile to his repertoire as he has aged. Acquired by the Red Sox from Cleveland in August, the 37-year-old Byrd has pitched for seven teams overall and has a lifetime record of 108-93, with a 4.38 ERA in 338 games. On the season, Byrd is 11-12 with a 4.60 ERA. David spoke with him after his last regular-season start.
David Laurila: What is Paul Byrd’s approach to pitching?
Paul Byrd: My approach to pitching is really simple: I want to make them hit my pitch. I think that, as a hitter, you want to hit your pitch; you want to hit balls that are over the middle of the plate. I make my living throwing the ball up and in, down and away, staying out of the middle and getting ahead of hitters. I think that, for me, it’s very crucial to get ahead of hitters. If they swing at the first pitch, they hit .100 and below, so why do I want to be too fine on that first pitch? I want to attack, and I want two of my first three pitches to be strikes. For me, it’s crucial that I get ahead in the count, because then I have the luxury to miss. Like we talked about earlier, I have a much better chance of them having to hit my pitch, and swing at my pitch, versus if I’m behind in the count and not afforded that luxury as much.
DL: The majority of pitchers and pitching coaches offer a similar explanation. What can you, as an individual, do to successfully execute that approach?
PB: That’s just it. With pitching, it is one thing to talk about it and it’s another thing to be able to do it. People think that Greg Maddux is extremely smart—and he is, he’s a great, knowledgeable, and very smart pitcher—but his execution is phenomenal. If he can’t throw the ball where he wants, then all of a sudden he’s not as smart. So I agree, it is one thing to talk about it, and another to do it, and execution is key.
PB: I play chess, and it’s just a matter of trying to figure out what the other guy is thinking, and making that pitch accordingly. You have to read them and put a little on, take a little off. Put the ball in, ball away—put yourself inside the hitter’s head, which is what chess is about. What is this guy thinking? How is he attacking? What is he moving? It’s kind of the same way as a pitcher. You have to be able to put yourself inside the hitter’s head and say, ‘OK, what is he looking for here? What did his body tell me; what is he doing; how did he approach me last time?’ If you can locate, and throw a variety of pitches, and you’re not just a “stuff” guy—and there are pitchers up here who are stuff guys, they just throw and they’re blessed—and then there are other guys who have to pitch a little bit more. They have to put a little on, take a little off, and move the ball in and out and around. If you have the ability to do those things, and execute your pitches, that’s when it gets fun, because now it’s about the chess game. It’s about outwitting the hitter and making him swing at your pitch.
DL: It is sometimes said that, in baseball, you shouldn’t think, you should just play. Do you feel that is true for pitchers?
PB: I think it depends on the person. Again, I have a lot of things going through my head, and I do think that you can over-think certain things, and just exhaust it. But at the same time, I want to have a lot of information; I want to have a lot of things going through my head. And it almost becomes second nature, where you process that. Without even thinking, you know if the guy on first base can run or not. You know if the guy at the plate is someone who is going to try to move him over, or if he’s going to take care of himself and pull the ball and try to hit a home run. Those things start to become second nature the more you play; all that information starts to flow through. As you become a veteran, you learn the league, you learn the hitters; you learn what’s going on and get a much better feel for the game. But it still comes down to execution. You can be the smartest pitcher in the world, and if you can’t execute, people will look at you like you don’t know what you’re doing, like you don’t know how to pitch. But that’s not always the case. I’ve seen a lot of smart pitchers—guys who are intelligent and know how to pitch—who just struggle with execution, and people say, ‘Man, he’s got a million-dollar arm and a two-cent head.’ Well, that may not necessarily be the case; he just struggles with execution.
DL: What are the keys to consistently executing pitches?
PB: I think that some of it is God-given, and some of it is your nervous system. Your body has to be able to do what your brain tells it to do. Some of that is true. It’s like shooting a basketball; some of it comes down to mechanics. Some of it comes down to preparation in the bullpen, and I think that mechanics are something you can work on; you can do dry work; there are things that you can do. And here’s another big thing for execution, you have to be able to calm yourself down in key situations, and make the pitch. You have to be able to take a deep breath, relax, and hit the mitt. I’ve seen people who have great control in the bullpen, but when you get them in the game, in a big situation, their heartbeat starts rising, the crowd starts going wild, people get on base, and the next thing you know, they’re having trouble hitting their spots because they could not calm themselves down and allow their body do what it knows how to do.
DL: How much of an issue has that been for you over the course of your career?
PB: My whole career has been trying to do that, to calm down and focus on the mitt and hit my spot. Last night, you know, I’m 37 years old, I’m pitching against guys I know, against a team I know, because I played for the Cleveland Indians over there. And I am still trying to calm my body down, I am still trying to stay back and take a deep breath and hit that mitt. You just get that temptation to overthrow, that temptation to rush out and make your pitch too quick. So, pitching, for me, is like an art. It’s like a crafted skill, and it’s something that you’ll always be working on.
DL: Mental approach aside, in which ways have you evolved as a pitcher over the years?
PB: A big thing for me is that I had shoulder surgery in ’02, and that’s when I learned how to take that deep breath and focus on the target when I made my pitch. I was always told that I was a little wild, and things like that, and I had better stuff. So I lost a little of that stuff, but I learned how to relax and calm my body down and make the pitches. When that happened, the next thing you know, I’m tops in the league in control and everybody is talking about how smart of a pitcher I am. Well, I knew how to pitch before, I just couldn’t do it. Now I know how to hit my spots, because I know how to relax and how to control my body better; my mechanics have gotten a little better and I’m able to execute. That’s when I think I took off, and started to be a good starting pitcher in the big leagues with less-than-average stuff.
DL: You’ve worked with a number of pitching coaches. How different are pitching coaches from one another?
PB: They’re very different, and they’re very, very important. I can’t say enough about that. You see guys come up—young guys—and I think the biggest thing a pitching coach has to do is to coach each person on an individual level, or coach them differently. There’s one guy you can get on; there’s another guy where—maybe he’s a rookie and he’s a little fragile—you don’t want to ride him, or get on him, because he’ll get frustrated. Another weakness I’ve seen in pitching coaches over the years is that sometimes they can only teach the way they threw. You have to be able to work with mechanics on a guy who throws sidearm, a guy who throws over the top, a left-hander, or Tim Wakefield, for an example. You have to be able to coach each pitcher individually. You have to be able to teach them to the best of their ability, not to your own or to somebody else’s. I think the best pitching coaches I’ve had are the guys who could do those things.
DL: Leo Mazzone is known for stressing the down-and-away pitch, and my understanding is that he expects all of his pitchers to master it. Do you agree with his approach?
PB: Well, if you say every pitcher, I would say no. Down and away is great, but—and he would tell you this too, you have to work in and out. For down and away to work, you have to be able to throw the ball in for a strike, because today’s game has changed. When Dizzy Dean said, “Give them the high hard one, up and in,” that’s a ball now. It’s not a strike. The game has changed; it’s become more offensive-minded. Guys dive out there, they wear the arm pads, and they hit that ball away now, whereas before that was the key, premier location. And I think that everybody kind of knows that, that you have to establish both sides of the plate to be successful over the long haul here. Or you just have to be just an unbelievable “stuff” guy who can live on one side of the plate. Those guys are few and far between.
DL: Warren Spahn once said that a pitcher only needs two pitches: the one the hitter is looking for, and the one he isn’t. Do you agree with that?
PB: Yeah, that’s pretty good. Warren Spahn, I’m a huge fan. He’s the winningest left-handed pitcher of all time, so yeah, I’m a big fan of his. I like the fact that he was a control guy, too. He had a great screwball, and he just pitched. I have a friend who knew Warren very well, and said that on his last legs—[when] he didn’t have many days left—he was still talking about pitching and recalling guys that he had faced, and how he pitched against them. He talked about how this one pitch in the World Series bothered him, because he let an umpire dictate where he threw the ball. That’s why Warren Spahn was so great. Here this guy is, on his last legs—he’s “dying” and doesn’t have many days left—and he’s still talking and thinking about all the hitters he faced in the big leagues, years and years ago. So I love baseball, and he was a great pitcher, so I’m a huge fan.
DL: Will an umpire sometimes dictate what you throw?
PB: Very much so. For me, because I need to know where the guy’s zone is: Is he going to be more prone to calling a pitch down, or the pitch up? And there are certain umpires I know, from being around the league, that are better at calling a breaking ball. There are other guys where I don’t want to throw a breaking ball in a big situation, because they lock up. They don’t want to give strike three, especially with a breaking ball; they don’t see breaking balls well. So that’s very important for me. When I take the mound, everything factors into the game, from the umpire to where the wind is blowing—obviously the lineup, the speed, my defense, who’s playing where, all kinds of stuff. There’s so much going on out there, so you have to evolve and learn over the years how to control all of those things.
DL: How important are numbers to you?
PB: Certain numbers are important; the ones you can control are important. Like, I don’t want to be behind in the count a lot; I don’t want to throw a lot of balls; I don’t want to walk a lot of guys. So the ones that I can control are like that. I think that ERA is important. It says something, but even then, do you have a good defense behind you? That factors into ERA. The park you pitch in factors into ERA. As for wins, some people have a knack for winning, and I think that’s great, but you can’t always control that number. So I pay attention to the ones I feel that I can control, and I let the rest take care of itself.
DL: Can you see yourself as a pitching coach someday?
PB: I could. I don’t know if I’ll be one, but I could definitely see it. It’s something I’d enjoy doing, because I have a passion for pitching. I love talking about pitching, I love mechanics, I love seeing and evaluating people as they grow. That’s just come natural over the years; it’s one thing I do. I evaluate hitters and pitchers in the game, and all sorts of things that are going on. So yes, it’s something that I can see myself doing in the future.
DL: If you do step into that role, what are some of the things you’ll take from each of the best pitching coaches you’ve worked with?
PB: That’s just it: I’ll take a little bit from everybody. Al Nipper taught me how to throw a screwball when I lost my changeup in two games; he got up on the mound and showed me how to do it. So I’ve learned how to throw different pitches, and I’ve learned grips. I learned from Bert Blyleven, who is a broadcaster now for the Twins; he really helped me out with my curveball. It’s little pieces, on down the line. I’ve learned things from Leo Mazzone and Carl Willis. Bud Black was a tremendous pitching coach, and now he’s a manager; I learned a lot from Buddy. There are certain things, and they had their strengths and their weaknesses, but the main things in pitching are always the same. You have to execute your pitches, you have to get ahead of the hitter, you have to throw quality strikes. Basically, that’s what it comes down to.
DL: You mentioned learning from Blyleven, which is something that happened this season. I find that interesting, given how long you’ve been in the game.
PB: Oh my gosh. Specifically, he helped me out with my grip on the curveball and he talked about what he was thinking when he went to throw the ball. It was some really good stuff, and the next thing you know, I have a good curveball. It’s something where I’m 37 now, and I wish he would have told me that when I was 20. But everybody can say that: I wish I knew what I know now when I was 20. When a young guy comes up and asks questions, it’s nice to be able to pass some of that along. Gerald Ford, the late President of the United States, said, “The minute you stopped learning is the minute you got old.” That’s a beautiful quote, because when you say, ‘Hey, I don’t know it all. I’ve been around, but I still have a lot of learning left to do,’ and now arrogance is out the window and you now become better because you’re willing to learn. You can get better and not be prideful; you can hone your craft. You don’t take everything that everybody says to you, but you listen to the suggestions. When the pitching coach makes a suggestion or when the catcher puts down fingers—he’s making a suggestion. When you listen to these things, you try it, you take what works, you chew on the meat, spit out the bones, and even if it doesn’t work for you, I still file it in the back of my brain, because it may help somebody else.
DL: It sounds like what you’re saying is that you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks?
PB: That’s it, that’s it.