Dick Pole is a modern-day, old-school pitching coach. Currently in his third season with the Reds, and his 21st coaching in the big leagues, Pole has been in the game for four decades, having begun his professional career in 1969 when he signed with the Red Sox as an amateur free agent. A hard-throwing right-hander who saw his playing career hit a speed bump when he was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Chicago’s Tony Muser in 1975, Pole went 25-37 over six big-league seasons before moving into the coaching ranks. Now 58 years old, and one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game, Pole is a native of Trout Creek, in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula.
David Laurila: How would you describe Dick Pole’s pitching philosophy?
Dick Pole: It’s probably the same as everybody else’s: keep the ball down, work fast, and throw strikes. And pitch inside. It’s the same as everybody’s, I guess.
DL: Are you saying that most pitching coaches are basically the same animal?
DP: Yeah, some of them just sound a little smarter than others. There are no tricks in this game; this isn’t brain surgery or anything like that. I mean, if you’ve got guys who can locate a fastball and aren’t afraid to pitch inside, they’re usually pretty successful.
DL: You pitched in the 1970s. Is it harder to pitch inside now than it was in your era?
DP: It shouldn’t be, but it’s just not done as much as it was back then. There are all the warnings from the umpires. Throwing at people, and stuff-it’s kind of discouraged, but pitchers that do it are usually pretty good.
DL: Dusty Baker once said that you think a lot like a left-hander. What did he mean by that?
DP: Well, I think that if you watch most left-handers, most of them aren’t fire-balling left-handers. They’re off-speed pitchers; they’ve learned how to trick people. You have to be able to throw off-speed pitches when you’re behind in the count, and you have to be able to pitch inside when you’re ahead in the count.
DL: Who has most influenced how you teach?
DP: Probably a whole bunch of people. I think back to when I played with the Red Sox and they had a guy named Mace Brown and a guy named Bill Slack. There’s Mel Stottlemyre; I was around Mel Stottlemyre for awhile. Marcel Lachemann. I’ve just been lucky enough to be around a lot of good ones. My first coaching job in the big leagues I was with Don Zimmer, and he had Joe Altobelli as one of his coaches, and a guy named Chuck Cottier. So I’ve just kind of been lucky to be around some people who knew what they were doing.
DL: How different is the role of a pitching coach now than it was when you were learning from guys like Mace Brown and Bill Slack?
DP: Well, it’s a lot different. You have specialized pitching now, which you didn’t have back then. You’ve got set-up guys, seventh-inning guys, closers, and not a lot of complete games, so you have to handle the whole pitching staff a little differently than you did when you’d put a Luis Tiant out there and have him go nine innings. You had eight men on a pitching staff instead of 12, because guys used to throw more complete games. It’s just turned into a more specialized game, and that changes the way you think about the course of the game. You get to the seventh inning, and you have a left-handed specialist, you have a right-handed specialist, and you’ve got a starter out there who has thrown 100 pitches, so it’s a lot easier to pull the trigger and go to your bullpen than it was years back.
DL: Do you consider yourself old-school?
DP: I don’t know what old-school is anymore. I’m lucky enough to have been around back in the 1970s as a player, and since the early 1980s, up until now, as a coach, and I’ve kind of just changed with the tides. Maybe I am.
DL: To what extent do you utilize statistical analysis and charts?
DP: We’ve got in the dugout, if a guy is a switch-hitter, what he hits right-handed and what he hits left-handed. We’ve got charts on what their hitters do against our pitchers, how much success they’ve had against us or the success we’ve had against them. And there are points in the game where, if they have a guy out there who has maybe beat up on one of our left-handed relievers, we don’t go to him as often. Or if you have a right-hander who gets a left-hander out more often than not, you can go with that. So you go with stats on one-on-one kind of stuff, or individual stuff. Take a guy like Aaron Harang, who has been around the league for five or six years. You have a pretty good account of how many at-bats guys have had against him, and what kind of success they’ve had against him.
DL: Greg Maddux has cited you as an influence on his career. How did you help him?
DP: I think probably by being honest with him, and explaining to him the type of pitcher he needed to be. And Greg was easy to work with, because he asked a lot of questions. Real good questions, and he soaked information up. Whatever he could use he used, and whatever he didn’t think he could use, he just kind of put aside. He was just growing up as a pitcher, so I was lucky enough to have him when he was just 18 years old. To watch him transform himself was a lot of fun.
DL: You speak Spanish. Just how helpful is that in working with the Latin American pitchers on your staff?
DP: They feel more comfortable that I can do that. I’m not a thousand percent fluent, but I get my point across. These kids come over, and some people don’t realize that there’s a language barrier, and that there are the backgrounds they’ve grown up in, and we’ve got to cut them a little slack, too. If I can help out by communicating with them in their own language, it just makes them feel more comfortable. So yeah, I think it helps.
DL: Are Latin American pitchers different than American-born pitchers when it comes to temperament?
DP: Yeah, they can be. Well, actually, I shouldn’t say they’re any different temperamentally. It’s the fact that they’re here from places like the Dominican or Venezuela, and they’re not afforded the same kinds of amenities like when you bring a Japanese pitcher over here. He’s got interpreters and people who can communicate for him, but these [Latin American] kids have to kind of fly by the seat of their pants. We look at them sometimes as being more temperamental, but it’s not an easy adjustment to go from there to here. I was in winter ball for a lot of years, and I saw the way they grew up and the backgrounds that they have. I more or less understand that, yeah, they can be a little bit temperamental, but hey, there are a lot of gringos that can be the same way.
DL: Is Great American Ballpark a challenge for pitchers?
DP: You know, I just tell our pitchers, “Hey, both pitchers have to pitch in the same place.” The visitors have to pitch there and we have to pitch there, and if you’re going to let the ballpark dictate the way you pitch, you’re going to have a problem. If you think about the ball park, and not the hitter, the ballpark will probably get you.
DL: Dusty Baker has received criticism for his handling of pitchers. What are your thoughts on that?
DP: Well, you know something? He’s been getting beat up about that ever since Prior and Wood in Chicago, and wrongfully so. I mean, they get on him and say that his pitchers throw too many pitches. No, they don’t. Nobody throws too many pitches anymore. He’s handled pitchers for 16 years, or however long he’s been managing in the big leagues, and if you’re going to have your reputation sullied by two guys that had injury problems, well, that’s just not right.
DL: Do you feel that today’s pitchers should throw more innings, much like they did in previous eras?
DP: Yeah, but it’s not going to happen that way, because you’ve got specialization. You’ve got seventh-inning guys, eighth-inning guys, and ninth-inning guys, so I don’t think it’s ever going to be the way it was in past years.
DL: Are there any pitchers on the current Reds staff that remind you of a young Dick Pole?
DP: Nobody reminds me of a young Dick Pole, no. You know what? As a coach, I don’t try to put anybody in the same category of another pitcher; I don’t look at a guy and say, ‘This guy is a Greg Maddux,’ or ‘This guy is a CC Sabathia,’ or ‘This guy is whatever.’ You have to look at the individual and try to mold that individual, rather than saying that, ‘hey, you should pitch like another guy.’ You’ve got your stuff, and that’s the way you should pitch.
DL: What does Homer Bailey need to do to realize his potential?
DP: He just has to be consistent with his command of the strike zone. He has to be able to manage a game a little bit better. But he’s maturing. He’s better this spring than he was last. He’s got that word “potential” on his back, and sometimes that’s not a good thing. Sometimes it’s more of a burden than it is an asset. And he’ll get it; he’ll get it. Some guys-he’s 22 years old, and there are a lot of guys who are 22 years old that you’ll say, ‘This guy needs more seasoning; we think that he should be pitching in the big leagues.’ Well, you know what? Potential doesn’t just jump out all at one time. It has to be nurtured, and sooner or later it will come out.
DL: How do you view your own career as a big-league pitcher?
DP: You know, my career is such a blur to me, because it was so long ago, but from my background, where I came from, to play in the major leagues six years-hey, I’ll take it. I grew up in a town of 150 people, and played a total of about 12 high school games in my life before I went to a tryout camp and signed a contract. I’ve just been lucky to be in the places I’ve been, and to be around the people that I have, and to see the things I’ve seen. Yeah, I’ve been lucky.