From Osaka to Arlington, Jim Colborn knows pitching. Recently returned to his post as the Texas Rangers‘ Director of Pacific Rim Operations, Colborn has extensive experience in the Far East, including a four-year stint as the pitching coach of Japan’s Orix Blue Wave and four years as Seattle’s Director of Pacific Rim Scouting. Stateside, the 62-year-old Colborn’s resume includes having served as the Cubs’ minor league pitching coordinator (1987-1989) and as the pitching coach for both the Dodgers (2001-2005) and Pirates (2006-2007). A big-league pitcher for four teams over 10 seasons, Colborn threw a no-hitter for the Royals in 1977 and was a 20-game winner and American League All-Star with the Brewers in 1973. Colborn talked about his experiences on both sides of the baseball globe while he was filling in as the Rangers’ bullpen coach late in the season.
David Laurila: How different was the game in the 1970s, primarily from a pitcher’s standpoint?
Jim Colborn: My standard answer would be that because of the strike zone differences, that translates into how the game is different. That’s one answer, and by that I mean that when I pitched, the strike zone was higher. And it was not off the plate; the ball had to touch part of the black, on the corners. But because the strike zone was taller, the result was that it made the low-and-away strike be miles away from the up-and-in strike. That ends up being a much harder area for the hitter to cover than a squashed-down strike zone that is maybe a little wider. So I think that it allowed for more pitching, and it rewarded pitchers with command and control, and maybe a curveball, more so than today. As a result, I think it’s a harder strike zone, so therefore the batting averages and run production are higher. Secondly, in my career I can only remember about three home runs being hit to the opposite field off me. That speaks to the power of the young men today, where the opposite field is every bit as inviting as a pulled home run, maybe even more so—center field or the opposite field. The athletes are so much bigger and stronger now. A third difference is that baseball has evolved into specialties, especially in the pitching department, so a lot of players are into the big leagues well before they know how to play baseball well, or have really polished their skills or their knowledge of how to be a baseball player. So, what you’re seeing—I think it could be very easily argued that the level of baseball isn’t as good now as it was in the past. However, the players are certainly better, I would say. Another difference is that things are publicized more; it’s not just playing the game, it’s a commercial game; it’s commercialized.
DL: The year that you won 20 games, you threw over 300 innings and had more than 20 complete games. Are there any reasons pitchers couldn’t do that today?
JC: I don’t think so. I think that a certain number of them could, but at this point it’s not prudent to do it, because at that time, my arm was worth about 40 thousand dollars, and nowadays the average arm is worth several million. So, people don’t want to enter in a gray zone of being responsible for the type of injury that might be caused by overuse to something so valuable as a million-dollar piece of property.
DL: You pitched in the days of four-man rotations. If pitchers are handled correctly, could a four-man rotation work today?
JC: Most pitchers pitch five or six innings now, so I guess you could even argue it a little more strongly. When you think about it, it’s not like starters are going out there and pitching a lot of innings; the average starter averages a lot less than seven innings a start. So it’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?
DL: You’ve done a lot of work in Japan and the Far East. How different are the pitchers there, both in how they think and how they work?
JC: Well, the way they think is easy. Their expectations are similar to the way they were here in the United States 30 years ago. As for how they work, they do quite a few more repetitions in every element of their game, whether it’s hitting, fielding, or throwing, than we do. It’s hard to explain why they’re able to do it and we’re not, but I will say that a typical pitcher there uses his legs, and his lower half, in a much more efficient way than the typical pitcher in the United States, and there’s probably less stress on the shoulder and elbow than here.
DL: Can you clarify what you meant by Japanese pitchers’ expectations being similar to what they were here 30 years ago?
JC: Their expectations are to pitch nine innings. That’s what I mean. Nine innings is sort of something that might come up, if the game goes right, for a pitcher in the big leagues. There was a time when there was no goal except to pitch nine innings, and if you fell short of that, eight might be acceptable, seven was a C, and depending on how many runs you gave up it could have been a C-minus. Anything less than seven was a D or an F.
DL: Most Asian pitchers that I’ve seen have a hesitation in their delivery. Are you able to explain why that is?
JC: I can explain it bio-mechanically, or mechanically, at least. It’s an efficient move to get the delivery started correctly. You’ve probably heard the term “rushing,” and it’s a way to completely eliminate that, or at least try to eliminate it.
DL: If it’s efficient, why hasn’t it been adopted here?
JC: Because our attitude is that they adapt to what we do, and we don’t adapt to what they do. Maybe you could say that it’s arrogance. Or maybe not even arrogance, but just not quite a willingness to look over there for answers. But I think the day is coming, as they continue to make their mark on the world’s baseball scene. Pretty soon we’re going to be starting to at least cast a sideways glance to the way they do things, and start picking things up. From my point of view, having been to Japan a lot, I pay very close attention to their techniques. I’ve learned a lot from them and have incorporated some of it into what I try to do.
DL: How important is the relationship between a pitching coach and a bullpen coach?
JC: Well, if you want to have two people working together, it’s very important. But does a pitching coach need a bullpen coach to do anything more than answer the phone? The answer is no. The theory, in the last few years, is that you get pitching people in the bullpen. Before it was always a catcher or some other position, but if you think about it, almost half of the players on a team are pitchers now—half, or more. Some teams carry 13 pitchers, so that makes it more than half. So it makes sense to have more than one coach for half the team. That being said, the bullpen coach should be able to contribute something toward the pitching staff, and if that’s the case, it’s very important for our relationship to be able to work together. It’s good if our philosophies are in line, and that sort of thing.
JC: I think we’ve had a long enough interview already; that question is one that could take up our whole time. But no, it was complicated, humiliating, challenging, and interesting; it’s got a lot of stories. Leo was quite a character. He screamed at me, he yelled at me, he humiliated me as much as any person I’ve run across in baseball. Yet, he still remains an icon of our baseball history.
DL: Two of your teammates in Chicago were Ferguson Jenkins and Bill Hands. Can you say a little about each?
JC: I very much admired them both, and I think that a lot of what I became as a pitcher was due to watching them, and how they showed me how to pitch. Fergie is obviously a Hall of Fame pitcher, and Bill Hands was one of the best pitchers in baseball at that time. Hands was a very dependable and steady pitcher, a guy who would compete and take the ball every time his start came up—every four days in his case. The team always felt comfortable that they had a chance to win when he was pitching.
DL: What was it like playing for Del Crandall in Milwaukee?
JC: Oh, I liked Del a lot, and I always thought that he’d be a guy who would have a good, successful career as a manager, and I’ve often wondered what the elements were that kept him from doing that. I know him pretty well and consider him a friend; he helped me a lot in my career.
DL: You were an 18-game winner on a 1977 Royals team that won over 100 games. What do you remember about that ball club?
JC: That was a strong team, and it was a shame that we got beat in the playoffs. Steve Busby was on that team. He’s a commentator for the Rangers, and we were reminiscing about the quality of the character of the individuals over there and what good guys they were. It was a unique team in that sense, not to mention a really talented team that eventually got to the World Series a couple of years after that.
DL: Any final thoughts on your career?
JC: A lot of people would expect that I’d say that pitching a no-hitter, or winning 20 games would be the highlight, but I sort of look at it as just something that happened. The thing I tend to focus on is the impact of having my career, and my life, be in baseball, and the good things it has been able to offer to my family—and not just my children, but also my extended family and my friends. Coming from a small town in California, it was the fact that they were able to identify with the teams, individual players, and with the game of baseball. It’s enriched their lives, and that’s the thing I’ve probably felt the most fortunate and the most proud of.