In much the same way that the term “tools of ignorance” is a misnomer, the role of a bullpen coach is often under-appreciated if not misunderstood. While they work in relative obscurity, what bullpen coaches do behind the scenes is an integral part of a team’s success. One of the best in the business is Gary Tuck, who is currently in his third season in that role with the Red Sox. A former minor league catcher who has also worked in the Astros, Yankees, Marlins, and Indians organizations, Tuck was Joe Girardi‘s bench coach in Florida in 2006 before coming to Boston. During spring training Tuck talked about the role of a bullpen coach, including the importance of communication and the utilization of scouting reports.
David Laurila: What is your background in the game?
Gary Tuck: This is my 32nd year of doing this. It will be the 14th in the big leagues, with the rest of it being in the minor leagues. I’ve managed, coached, been a traveling catching instructor, and advance scout. I’ve done just about everything. I even managed a game in the big leagues. That was in 2006 with the Florida Marlins. My manager, Joe Girardi… they were having a baby, a hurricane was coming, and I got to manage against the Cardinals and Tony La Russa in St. Louis.
DL: Did you out-think La Russa that day?
GT: Nine to one, so I’m 1-0 as a manager! But it’s funny, before the game, on the flight out to St. Louis, I read his book, Three Nights In August. Tony has been one of my idols. I’m big into the guys who are those kinds of managers and coaches. Tony has a great mind, so that was fun.
DL: What are the roles and responsibilities you have as a bullpen coach?
GT: My job is to support [Red Sox pitching coach] John Farrell with what he’s got going on with the plan for each pitcher mechanically, and to follow up with that during the game. I make sure that they work on their pickoffs and pitchers’ fielding practice during the season, on an every-other-day basis; they alternate one or the other. Before the game we go over the scouting reports of the other team to make sure that they know exactly what pitch they want to throw, to what certain hitter, in what certain situation, when they come in. We obviously make sure that they’re in tune with the lineup and who is coming up. I make sure that they’re fully loose and ready to go in, and I remind them along the way of their proper mechanics to locate the baseball.
DL: Would it be fair to say that your job, to a large extent, mirrors that of a pitching coach?
GT: It’s a support cast, is what it is. John is the head bottle washer. He’s with the guys on the side when they throw. I stand there with him and we discuss it, and the terminology he uses is supported so that we’re on the same page. It’s supported with the players so that they’re hearing the same thing, the same simple check points that have them going in the right direction.
DL: How important is the relationship you have with the pitching coach?
GT: It’s invaluable. I’ve known John for a thousand years, so we’re on the same page with every exact thing we do. Like I said, I’m supporting him. We discuss different pitchers and different situations-different players and where they’re at-and get a plan of how we’re going to attack them. So it’s invaluable. The communication that goes on before and after the game, as far as the results and making the player better… finishing off the player-development plan. Then, during the game, there is the communication between Terry Francona, and John, and the bullpen, with the situations that may arise-who might pitch to who, and here is what we’re thinking about. Tito manages three innings ahead, which is a luxury for all the bullpen pitchers, because they know exactly who they’ve got and when they’ve got them.
GT: You can see some of the guys’ stuff. I actually used to do it, but I stopped when I was 50 years old. That was the last time I caught Mariano Rivera, who I caught for 10 years. When I turned 50, I quit doing it because it got too difficult for me. But there are advantages as far as arm angles, as far as seeing stuff, and things like that. But you can get different angles without going in there and getting beat up, too. I understand Joe’s thing about it, because he likes to get in there and see the ball come out of the pitchers’ hands.
DL: Who has the best movement on a fastball that you’ve seen?
GT: Ever? Geez… I’ve seen a lot of pitchers. Rivera’s cutter has to be up there-a racing cutter, right to left. It’s an incredible late-action pitch that is hard to pick up. So I’d say that it’s him and some sinkers. Rivera’s cutter, I guess, would be the best.
DL: How about on the current Red Sox staff?
GT: This team is loaded. Papelbon has sneaky, late movement. Masterson has a heavy, heavy sinker. The young kid… Daniel Bard‘s fastball is racing and late; it sinks and runs. We’re loaded with guys with late life.
DL: The guys you named all have power arms. Who are some of the guys you’ve seen that have a lot of movement but don’t throw especially hard?
GT: Javier Lopez has a big-time sinker. He throws in the mid to upper 80s with good movement. And obviously, there are the Hall of Famers. Greg Maddux got movement on his pitches that was unbelievable. There was the touch and command he got, too.
DL: What do you do if Terry Francona calls down to the bullpen to have someone warm up, and that pitcher has lousy stuff when he starts throwing?
GT: You know what, I can’t say that I’ve ever really seen a pitcher… I’ve seen guys warm up over the last umpteen years and maybe not have their sharpest stuff in the pen, but the pen really means nothing. What happens from the pen to between the white lines is a transformation. I’ve seen guys have great stuff in the bullpen and have nothing on the mound. I’ve seen guys have very little in the bullpen and as soon as they get in the game the adrenaline kicks in and their stuff becomes real. The bullpen is basically a loosening-up process and a mental process, with checkpoints on the mechanics. Even more important is which pitch is going to be thrown at a particular time, to a particular hitter. That’s the key. Being a catching instructor here, the relationship I have with Jason [Varitek] is one where we’re on the same page with every pitch, every time. When they go in there, the fingers [Varitek] is going to throw down is something they’re already in tune with. They’ve already pitched to that hitter in the bullpen at least twice. If Manny Delcarmen goes in and faces Sammy Sosa, he’s already pitched to Sammy Sosa twice. Same thing with Papelbon. When Papelbon goes in to close a game, he’s already pitched to those three hitters that he’s going to face.
DL: When it comes to calling pitches, does Jason Varitek exert more influence than most catchers around the game?
GT: He’s more prepared than any catcher in the game as far as what pitch he’s going to call in what situation. He’s got a better feel for the hitters and what they’ve done during the game, and who is going to come off the bench, so there is probably more trust here than there is with any other team. That’s because of Jason’s preparation and his intelligence, along with his application of the scouting report.
DL: Do the Red Sox utilize scouting reports more than other teams?
GT: I don’t think more than other teams, no. How we use them may be different; how we apply them may be different. And there’s the gift of having Jason here, and obviously John Farrell, Brad Mills, and Terry Francona. We have some people who are high-level organizers, and how the application of it is going to be… we try to keep it simple with the players. But the plan, I think, is in-depth. It’s top-shelf, and comes from our advance scout, Dana Levangie, and is transferred on down. It’s his reads and looks, and then all the looks on video. But I think that most teams do that. It’s just a matter of how you apply it, and how you get the information transferred over to the players successfully.
DL: Do you have any good bullpen stories that you can share?
GT: I think that our guys have a more interesting routine than what you’ll see in a lot of other bullpens. Our guys hang together, stretch together, lift weights together, they run together, have lunch and dinner together. And these are guys from all over the world-Japan, Puerto Rico, you name it. The cohesiveness of that group is incredible. The first two or three innings they’re reviewing, for the third time, the scouting reports, per man, up and down. Then, one way they pull for the team is with their pirate band, as they call it-Manny Delcarmen’s band down there. It’s pretty incredible. It’s a team-concept thing. Opposing teams don’t all like it, but they do it because they want the position players to know that they’re out there pulling for them. They also think it’s a good luck thing, too. [Editor’s note: During games, the Red Sox “bullpen band” produces a rhythmic, percussive beat with a variety of objects, from plastic bottles to drumsticks.]