The San Francisco Giants possess some of the best young pitching in the game, both at the big-league level and down on the farm, and one of the reasons has been the work of Ross Grimsley. Now in his eleventh season in the organization, Grimsley has helped to develop a multitude of young hurlers since joining the coaching ranks a quarter-century ago, most recently receiving plaudits for his influence on one of the top pitching prospects in the game, Madison Bumgarner. A crafty left-hander during his playing days, Grimsley logged 124 wins over 11 big-league seasons, including 18 with the Orioles in 1974, and 20 with the Expos in 1978. Currently the pitching coach at Double-A Connecticut, Grimsley talked about his time in the game, both on the mound and as a teacher.
David Laurila: Your father, Ross Grimsley, Sr., pitched in pro ball in the 1950s, while you pitched primarily in the 1970s. How would you compare your respective eras?
Ross Grimsley: I was around it when my dad played; I was around the clubhouses as a kid. His last year was 1962, and my first year was 1968, and the difference between the two… when I first got into [base]ball, you always hear about how good the guys were that played before you. You kind of look back and go, ‘Wait a minute, they couldn’t have been that much better,’ but as the years have gone by and I’ve gotten older, I imagine that the guys that played before me were pretty good players overall. Obviously, there were fewer teams, and only the best made those teams. When I played, there were more teams, and the more teams you get, the more watered-down the product gets. So I imagine that the guys before me were pretty special.
DL: How does your era compare to today, primarily on the pitching side?
RG: I think that a lot of guys are rushed. The teams, the ownership, invests big dollars on guys, so they rush them to the big leagues probably faster than they normally would. With that, they miss experience and have to do a lot of learning at the big-league level, and some guys make it and some guys don’t after that. That’s one of the big things that happens now, guys are rushed a little quicker than they should, and they miss out on the experience of learning how to pitch, hit, field, whatever the case may be.
DL: Do pitchers work differently than they used to?
RG: Well, I don’t think they understand…. if you’re rushed to the big leagues, you haven’t got experience on the finer points, obviously, so you’re going to do different things. You’re not going to know exactly what to do, or how to set up the hitter as well as if you had more experience at the lower levels.
DL: The year you won 20 games, you struck out fewer than three batters per nine innings. What does that number tell us?
RG: The year I did that…I actually think that the best year I had was 1974, my first year with the Orioles. My stuff was a lot better, and I think I struck out 150-some guys. [Ed. Note: It was 158, to be exact.] But the year I won the 20 games was just one of those seasons where everything was right. I pitched like Jim Kaat. I was very quick in my delivery and I changed speeds; there was a lot of deception in what I did that year. I was also able to throw the ball where I wanted to, probably as well as I ever had in my career. Almost every single pitch I threw that year, even throwing on the side… I had command. It was just one of those years that everything went about as good as it could possibly go.
DL: Did you consciously try to pitch to contact?
RG: After probably the second or third year that I pitched, when I would go through a spell where I was getting hit, when I wasn’t making my pitches, I would remember back to when I was doing well. I’d see what had helped me do well, and that was the fact that I had kept the ball down, so I would visualize that in mind and go back to it. If I kept the ball down, I knew they had a chance of hitting a ground ball, so yeah… I tried to make pitches in the strike zone where they would hit the ball poorly, be it off the end of the bat, the bottom of the barrel, or the top of the barrel. I tried to keep them away from hitting it on the sweet spot when the situation called for doing that. With nobody on, you’ll obviously be more aggressive in the strike zone.
DL: Who most influenced the way you pitched?
RG: The biggest help that I had, pitching-wise, was obviously my father. There was also a guy named Larry Shepherd, a pitching coach with the Reds, and Scott Breeden was the minor league pitching coordinator at that time. Then I got traded to Baltimore, which is where I actually learned how to pitch. Mike Cuellar was a big to-do in my development. And, obviously, watching Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins… guys that didn’t throw hard but threw strikes and changed speeds. Those were the guys. Kenny Holtzman was another guy. Luis Tiant. All of those guys who were strike-throwers who could change speeds, they were the ones I learned from. But I think that Mike Cuellar was probably the biggest influence; when I was with the Orioles, I was very close to him, and he was a big help to me.
DL: Can a left-handed pitching coach have more of an impact on a left-handed pitcher than a right-handed pitching coach can?
RG: Possibly, but it all depends on what you’re trying to get across. I’ve taken all of the things I’ve learned over the course of my career and growing up, and tried to pass it on to these guys, wherever I’ve been. Being left-handed, or right-handed, really doesn’t make a difference. If you’ve had some success, and you’ve seen guys… I’ve been at the very top, and I’ve been at the very bottom, so I know what it’s like at both ends of the spectrum. I know what it feels like, and a lot of it comes down to what it feels like when you’re going good and what it feels like when you’re going bad. It’s little things you pick up along the way, little things you pick up year to year. I’ve coached for 25 years now, and I’ve been in the game for 40. I’m 59 years old, so I’ve really been around it for 59 years. Little things that you experience, you can pass on. And I learn things from the players. I try to pass on things that can help them to be more consistent. That’s what you try to do, so in essence, to answer your question, no, you don’t have to be left-handed to pass on more to a left-hander. It’s just a matter of what you’ve picked up along the way that you can pass on to help these guys.
RG: Earl. Absolutely Earl. My first year with the Orioles, I got toasted in spring training. I think I had an 18.00 ERA. One of his sayings was, ‘If you made the team, you’re going to be there.’ You had to be really bad to be sent off, or sent down, whatever. Earl understood, obviously, because the pitchers that he had… he had some great pitching staffs. In 1974 we had a nine-man pitching staff, so every fourth day I was out there. I pitched almost 300 innings that one year. Cuellar, Palmer, and McNally pitched 275 every year. Obviously, if you’ve got the horses, you’re going to do well and you’re going to understand. That’s what won games for Earl Weaver. He’d give you an opportunity. He’d give you a chance, and you had to be pretty bad not to continue pitching.
DL: You’ve been with the Giants for 11 years. How has the organizations’ pitching philosophy changed over that time?
RG: It’s been basically the same. The thing is, each one of us in this organization has a philosophy of pitching, and a lot of us have been around for a long time. We all know what it takes to be successful; we know the mental aspect and physical aspect of it. We know you have to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters. All of the basic things that you hear, are preached in this organization to the pitchers. You’ve got to be physically and mentally better than the other team, or at least try to be. So we just take a lot of the basics. There are no tricks. There are no side tracks or shortcuts. It’s just a basic philosophy that has been around for 100 years, or ever since the game has been invented. We try to do that here. Plus, we get some great athletes, thanks to our scouting department. There are so many positives here that we have to work with.
DL: There is no “Giants way of pitching” per se?
RG: No. Like I said, you take the basic groundwork of pitching, with no shortcuts, and that’s what we do. The thing that I believe in is that you work quick, you hit spots, and you change speeds. If you do those three things, you can pitch anywhere, at any level, and be successful and consistent. Now, as far as winning goes, there are a lot of things that go into that. You can’t really say that a guy is going to be a winner, but he’ll be consistent.
DL: When Kevin Goldstein profiled Madison Bumgarner this spring, one of the things he wrote was, ‘Under the tutelage of Augusta pitching coach Ross Grimsley, he transformed his once-slurvy breaking ball into a true power slider.’ Is that accurate?
RG: That came from the work the kid did in between his starts. We all have an idea of how to do certain things, and if you can pass it on, and the guys does it, it makes us all look good. You can show them, but, ultimately, they have to do it. We simply have some talented and smart guys who are able to make adjustments and do things, which makes everybody look good, you know.
DL: What were the nuts and bolts of the adjustment itself?
RG: He was throwing a curveball in spring training, and that wasn’t a very effective pitch for him, so we just said, let’s throw a harder breaking ball that you can throw over the plate. That’s how it kind of transformed. He had it, he just wasn’t using it; he was using another pitch. He was struggling a little bit, so we just made it a harder breaking ball. He had a slider, he just never used it very much. That’s all he did. I mean, there are obviously some fundamental things you need to do to throw a slider, curveball, whatever. That’s what he worked on and he developed it into a pretty good pitch for him. Our big goal for him now is to get him to throw a changeup, and once that comes along… he’s made a big improvement on that from last year to this year.
DL: What adjustment has he made with his changeup? Has it been primarily with the grip?
RG: He’s tried different grips, and he’s found some that are comfortable and work for him. It was basically a grip, and how to take more speed off the ball while keeping the same arm speed. That was the big thing, and it’s coming along. It’s a work in progress, but he’s a talented enough guy that he’ll pick it up as he goes along.
DL: In the same write-up, Goldstein said that Bumgarner has ‘a slingy three-quarters delivery.’ Is that an accurate assessment?
RG: Yes, that’s very good. He is very strong. He’s country strong, and he’s very determined. All of the great things you say about a pitcher, you say about him. He’s got everything you need to have, the mentality, the size, the strength. It’s just a matter of him getting the experience.
DL: What are your views regarding tweaking a pitchers’ mechanics?
RG: What we did… he was doing some different things in the spring-this was last year-that he didn’t do before. He was struggling a little bit, command-wise, so we said, ‘Why don’t you go back to pitching the way you did in high school?’ The same delivery, whatever, and he went back to doing that, and he just took off. So, he was a little inconsistent in spring training last year, and when somebody struggles you’re going to try to tweak here and there, to try to make them more consistent without totally revamping them. We said, ‘Just do what you did.’
DL: What do you think the bigger impact was, the mechanics themselves or the comfort level of returning to something familiar?
RG: That’s one of the things. He wasn’t able to get comfortable with the change that was being made. So we said, ‘Scrap it and just do what you normally do.’ That’s what he did, and he was comfortable with it. He was able to throw more strikes and have more confidence in himself.
DL: Is his arm angle more conducive to a slider than it is to a curveball?
RG: Yes, absolutely. I had never seen him in high school, nor had I seen him in instructional league when he went there two years ago. But you could just see that he wasn’t comfortable with what he was doing. He just wasn’t fluid. There was something missing, so do what you did to get to here, and that’s what he did. When you see guys, and you know they’re not really… it’s a mechanical thing where they’re more like a machine. They’re not really fluid in their delivery, or comfortable or smooth, and there’s no rhythm. He didn’t have it.
DL: Reportedly, your move from Augusta to Connecticut this year had a lot to do with the organization wanting you to work with Bumgarner and Tim Alderson. With Bumgarner in mind, do you feel that type of continuity is important for a young pitcher?
RG: Absolutely. That’s the thing, everybody needs a comfort level. But there are also times when you’re going to be uncomfortable, and you have to make an adjustment. Whatever it happens to be, that’s what you have to do. You have to go with the flow a little bit, because it’s not going to be peaches and cream all the time. There are going to be some problems and you’re going to have to adjust. That’s the thing, too. We try to teach these pitchers to be pitching coaches themselves, so that they can make adjustments and understand why they’re making them. When they do good they’ll know why, and they do bad, they’ll know why.
DL: Kevin Goldstein’s writeup on Tim Alderson says the following: ‘He has a highly advanced understanding of how velocity, command and movement can work.’ Is that innate, or something that can be taught?
RG: You can learn it, but you learn it through your successes and failures. I really think guys have to go through… I shouldn’t say failures, but through some tough times before you understand, why did I do this? What happened when I didn’t have success? What did I do, or what didn’t I do? When you recognize that, and make adjustments as quick as you can, that will be the difference between giving up four runs in an inning or only giving up one. That’s one of the biggest things we try to do now, is make adjustments. Guys need to learn how to make adjustments during an inning, or when they first go out there, and the sooner you can do it, the better off you’re going to be.
DL: Can you talk a little more about Tim Alderson?
RG: He was with us at the end of spring training this year, and that’s the only time I’ve been around him. He was in San Jose last season, where he had a great year, and I saw him a little bit in instructional league after last year. But, from what I’ve seen of him, he’s got kind of a herky-jerky delivery. He’s got an outstanding breaking ball. His changeup, from what I saw, is outstanding. His fastball wasn’t quite what it was last year; there was a few miles per hour difference, I think. But that came back. He’s a pretty good athlete. He throws strikes and does all the little things that you love to see. So, the few times I saw him, what I saw was an outstanding changeup and outstanding breaking ball.
DL: How important is velocity?
RG: Well, if you can throw 95 but don’t know where it’s going, it’s not going to help you too much. If you throw 90 and you have a clue… Location and change of speeds are probably the two biggest things a pitcher can have going for him. A lot of guys don’t have a lot of movement, but if you can locate the ball and change speeds, well, that’s worked for a lot of people in the past. There are a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame who could do that.
DL: Who else stands out on your staff here in Connecticut?
RG: Well, there are a lot of guys. Arm-wise, [Waldis] Joaquin. [Jesse] English is a left-handed pitcher with a good breaking ball. [Mike] Musgrave has been very impressive; I had him two years ago in Augusta, and his delivery and arm strength have come back. A lot of guys here have outstanding arms. [Steve] Edlefsen is another guy. [Daryl] Maday is a pitcher. [Jesse] Foppert is coming back; he’s been around and is getting an opportunity. [Nick] Pereira. [Henry] Sosa has a great arm. What it comes down to is if these guys show that the y can be successful at this level, there’s a good chance that they can pitch in the big leagues. This is my eighth year at the Double-A level, and for me it’s a neat level, because this is the stepping stone. If you can be consistent here-if you can pitch well here-there’s a good chance that you pitch at the top.
DL: Buster Posey is one of the top catching prospects in the game. How important are you, and the other pitching instructors in the organization, to his development?
RG: We all work together, the catching people and the pitching people. We try to work together to get on the same page, and that’s one of the biggest things. You all have to be on the same page, because you don’t want to be telling a guy one thing while someone is telling him something else. That totally confuses things. In our pitchers’ meetings, that we have before games to go over hitters, we have the catchers in there, along with the starting pitcher for that night. And sometimes we’ll have relievers sitting there. We want the catcher and the pitchers to be on the same page so they know what we’re trying to do. Know all the signs, know all the intricacies that you need to know. We don’t want there to be any secrets.
Personally, when I played, I wanted a catcher who was confident in what he was doing, because his confidence helped me. I knew what I wanted to do, and I wanted him on the same page. And that can be hard. A catcher has to know 10 or 12 guys on a staff. So he should talk to them and get to know them. You don’t have to be their friend, but you need to know what they’re trying to do and what they have that particular day, and what they don’t have that particular day. That’s the hardest thing for catchers. And you have to get on a guy’s ass every now and then. You have to find out who needs a pat on the back and who you need to yell at. That’s something that’s missing with a lot of catchers these days. They just want to be everybody’s friend. They can be, but during the game, we’re trying to beat the other team and if that means you have to be a prick to your pitcher, to get him to give the most, then do that.
DL: There are times when you’ll tell a catcher he needs to be more assertive with a pitcher?
RG: All the time. We talk to them about all of the things they need to do. Sometimes you have to be a hard-ass. Sometimes you have to back off a little bit. Sometimes you have to be a little more aggressive with a guy. What we’re doing here is handling people. That’s what we do, we handle people. We’re trying to find a way to get the most out of guys, and that’s the reason I’ve done this for as long as I have. It’s fun. It’s a challenge sometime, but it’s fun. I like to teach.