Bryan Price doesn’t have the blueprint for keeping pitchers healthy and maximizing their talent. The Cincinnati Reds pitching coach admits as much. What he has is a recent track record that suggests he’s good at both.
Reds pitchers led the National League in ERA last year and ranked second in strikeouts-to-walk ratio. They also avoided the disabled list, with five pitchers combining to make all but one start. This year’s staff is also performing at a high level, with Johnny Cueto’s triceps injury being the only notable chink in the armor.
Price joined the Reds prior to the 2010 season following stints with the Mariners [2001-2006] and Diamondbacks [2007-2009]. He talked about his approach prior to the conclusion of spring training.
Price on his pitching philosophy: “As far as philosophy, you have to understand that one size doesn’t fit all. I don’t think I approach things a great deal differently than most. We’re all trying to get our guys to pitch ahead in the count, command the fastball, be attentive and involved in their preparation, and to command a presence out on the field. We want them to maintain focus and composure in difficult times.
“When you look at our success last year, we had one of the lowest walks-per-nine-innings in baseball. We had one of the highest percentage of first-batter efficiency — getting the first batter of an inning out. Those are things we encourage, but having a philosophy doesn’t mean you’re going to execute something. What it comes down to is having good athletes who are good competitors.”
On changing a pitcher’s arm angle: “Inefficiency is inefficiency. If you’ve got a big-league guy, and he can help a good team win games, I’m going to leave him alone. If you’ve got a guy in your system who has potential and isn’t reaching it, then I think you have to do certain things to extract that talent. It can be a defining moment.
“Are you taking a risk by changing an arm angle? You absolutely are. By the same respect, you’ll get to the point where you say, ‘This guy isn’t going to pitch effectively as a major leaguer if he doesn’t do something different.’ Maybe he can create some deception by changing his arm angle. You’ll see a guy like Kameron Loe, who has had varied arm angles. He became effective when he dropped his arm slot down. Then he ended up coming back and being effective from a higher slot as well.”
On keeping pitchers healthy: “I’ve had teams with few injuries and others with a high number of injuries. I don’t think there is an exact philosophy that works. If you go around and ask questions about the long-toss regimen — should it be kept to 160 feet and no more, or should guys throw the maximum distance they can, comfortably — you’re going to get different answers from different people.
“Again, if there’s a philosophy I have, it’s that you can’t create an environment whether everyone is going to be successful under one umbrella of guidelines. With something like arm action, you have to figure out where a natural arm action comes from. You’re going to find that out by solidifying a delivery. Once the delivery solidifies, you can see where the natural arm slot is. But when you have a bad delivery — a guy who can’t control his weight transfer; a guy who flies open — you’re going to get an inconsistent slot and not really know exactly where the guy throws from.”
On pitch counts: “They are [dependant on the individual], but not anymore. And they’re not going to be, because nobody is allowed to throw the number of pitches they were able to 15 or 20 years ago. You look at Randy Johnson when he came up with the Mariners — he threw a lot of pitches because he walked a lot of hitters. Of course, then his pitch count dropped because he started throwing more strikes. You look at Livan Hernandez, who threw a 150-pitch game when he was with Montreal — but he was conditioned to do that.
“Guys aren’t conditioned to do that today. Not as a youth player — as an amateur — or in professional baseball. We certainly don’t want to bring them to the big leagues and say ‘Let’s introduce pitch counts in excess of 130 pitches.’ However, that wasn’t an uncommon thing years ago when you didn’t look to your bullpen as early as we do today.”
On Mike Marshall throwing 208 innings in 106 games in 1974: “If you look at the best of the best — the guys who pitched in the most games, like Mike Marshall, or if you look at Nolan Ryan, who had the most strikeouts, and you use them as the model — there’s a talent level that most pitchers are never going to achieve. You can’t necessarily look at the best players and say ‘OK, we’re going to train exactly like this guy did,‘ because he won 300 games, had 300 strikeouts, or pitched in 106 games.
“Not everybody is going to respond the same way. Body types are different. People complain about injuries, but there is a difference from person to person as far as how their body composition works. To think there is a training regimen that is going to keep everybody healthy and allow them to throw more pitches — or that we’re going to keep guys healthier by throwing fewer pitches — I don’t buy it either way.”
On the idea that 88-92 mph is a hitter‘s sweet zone: “There are a lot of mitigating factors. One of them is deception — how early hitters see the ball and how early they recognize the rotation and speed of a pitch — and what kind of movement you have. Brandon Webb basically pitched between those numbers. He was right at 88 to 92, every game that he was healthy, and was one of the better pitchers in baseball. He had the best sinker in the game.
“If you have a four-seam fastball pitcher throwing 88 to 92, and his other stuff is about average, you probably have a guy who is going to give up some runs unless he has tremendous command. But once again, it depends on the individual. I don’t claim to be the resident know-it-all by any means, but I just haven’t found one common thread that allows you turn everybody with the same amount of talent into the same type of performer. I certainly don’t have a blueprint for it.”