Rick Waits brings a wealth of knowledge to his new job. He also brings vital hands-on experience. Prior to being named Seattle’s pitching coach in late November, he spent three seasons as the Mariners’ minor league pitching coordinator.
Helping young pitchers like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton continue their development at the big league level will be a big part of his job. It won’t be his only job. The Mariners are heading into the 2014 season looking to contend, which means Waits will also be focused on winning.
Waits — who pitched in the big leagues from 1973-1985 — shared some of his pitching philosophies, and talked about some of the Mariners‘ young talent, earlier this month.
Waits on teaching at the big league level: “I think there was equal talent 25 years ago. I played against guys like Catfish Hunter, Ron Guidry and Jim Palmer. If anything, there’s a lot more emphasis on velocity today. It’s ‘What kind of arm does he have; how hard does he throw?’ In the 1970s and 1980s, pitchers were evaluated more by ‘can he get guys out?’ and ‘can he throw 250 innings?’
“If you know how to pitch… yes, you’d much rather be throwing 96-97 [mph] than 86-87, but we need to develop complete pitchers. We need to teach that, to go along with the velocity. And it’s a process that continues in the big leagues. There was the old theory , especially in the 1970s, of needing 500 innings in the minors before you were ready to be a major league pitcher. Guys were more groomed. Today, they come up quicker. Because of that, we need to be cognizant of the need to continue to teach at the big league level, and not just assume a young guy is ready when he comes up.”
On determining readiness: “I was a pitching coordinator 10 years — seven with the Mets and three with the Mariners — and my job was to develop the complete pitcher. Not just a guy who has a great fastball, or a guy with a good curveball, but a guy who can control the running game and pitch inside. There is also the mental and emotional state. You have to be able to handle a bad inning, and a bad game. Another element is developing arms and bodies able to last over 200 innings. In the minor leagues, a lot of times you’re only pitching 160-175 innings.
“Over the past 10 years, I’ve been asked many times if a pitcher is ready. Part of it is gut feeling, and it’s important to know that each pitcher is an individual, and ‘this is what he can do.’ The answer might be, ‘there are still things he needs to work on, but he’s ready to handle it.’”
On psychological readiness: “That can be a tough question. One thing for certain is that we’re in the business of communication. I was always talking to our pitching coaches and minor league managers, because they make good evaluations, too. They’re with them every day, so they get to know the pitcher, and not just what he throws in a game, or in a bullpen. They get to know his life.
“The key is to get the complete picture of a pitcher. That’s why it’s a gut feeling to some degree. But it’s a well-prepared gut feeling. You’ve seen a guy under pressure. You’ve seen him challenged, maybe by a level he wasn’t completely ready for. You know if and when he has excelled. If you understand development, the percentages are on your side, as to knowing when somebody is ready.”
On putting a timetable on development: “You can’t put a timetable on it. I can’t tell you how many times a guy has gotten to Triple-A, or even the big leagues, and I’ve received a text, or a phone call, saying, ‘I finally understand what you’ve been saying.’
“It’s a danger zone to put a timetable on a pitcher. You can’t say, ‘This guy will be ready in two years.’ You can make a prediction he’ll be ready in two years, but there are certain things a pitcher has to go through. I had an old pitching coach tell me one time that the minor leagues is a place you find out all the things you shouldn’t do, and you’re left with all the things you should do.
“The more you’ve experienced — the more times you’ve been on the mound — the better. Find out what you do best, what your strengths are, and eliminate the other things. Have a core of things you’re going to go with.”
On pitch counts and innings: “It’s changed, and I don’t think it’s going to change back after the emergence of set-up men and closers. You have a lot of six-inning pitchers and seven-inning pitchers. I have a lot of old-school in me, just like I have a lot of new-school in me. I’m going to prepare my pitchers, always, to pitch complete games. They’re going to be strong enough, with enough innings in their development, so that when they get to the big leagues they’re ready to go nine.
“The further you go back, the more innings guys pitched in a given season. I think we need to train and develop that same way. How the game evolves, or how the pitching coaches and managers decide to make changes, shouldn’t affect how strong a guy is, how physically and mentally prepared he is to go nine innings.”
On four-pitch repertoires and going through an order a third time: ”I’ve always believed that a starting pitcher who is going to make 32 starts or more a year needs four pitches. If you only have three pitches, they all need to be really good. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful pitcher with just three. We see that. But they have to be exceptional. Having four better allows you to go through an order a third and fourth time.
“Another thing is that a lot of guys aren’t being given a chance to go through a lineup a third or fourth time because of pitch counts and total innings for the year. I don’t know if we’re ever going to change that, but back to my point, I think you usually need four pitches to effectively do that. You don’t want to get beat with your fourth-best pitch, late in the game, but if you have that fourth pitch, you’re more likely to get deep in the game.
“Last year, I had over 100 pitchers if you include our academy guys. I looked at every one of them as an individual. I’ll do that with our big league staff. What are his strengths and weaknesses? What does he have and what does he need to add or take away? You need to look at his whole package, with him as an individual. You can’t lump 8 or 10 guys together in the same way. You can’t clone pitchers, and therefore, some guys will need more pitches than others.”
On coming to the Mariners from the Mets: “When I came to the Seattle organization from the Mets, I didn’t need to do my job any differently, but I did have a fast learning curve. I didn’t know hardly any of the pitchers. I think I only knew one pitching coach in the system. I did know Jack Zduriencik, our general manager, and Pedro Grifol, our minor league director at the time, which was a good thing. I felt comfortable with them.
“In the early stages, I spent a lot of time evaluating what we had, and how we do it, rather than trying to institute ‘my way,’ so to speak. I figured I’d adapt my approach. The reason I say that is, I’ve listened intently to pitching coaches I’ve had over the years, specifically, guys like Al Jackson — who I owe a lot to — and Ray Rippelmeyer, an advisor with the Mets. He really helped shape my coaching ideas and approaches. I really believed in him. For instance, I really believe in long toss. Therefore, to completely change, would be impossible for me.
“The main thing was to come over here, evaluate what we have, and make changes together, rather than me saying, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it.’ “I worked within the system, but I can’t say that I came over here and changed my philosophy.”
On bullpen coach Mike Rojas and information: “I don’t know Mike very well yet. I do know his father, Cookie, who was with me in the Mets organization for awhile. I’ve been talking to Mike, of course, and am really looking forward to working with him. He’s got quite a bit of experience in the bullpen area with the Tigers organization.
“A lot of his responsibility will be helping teach how to get people out. How are we going to do it, based on the information we have? It’s going to be real important for us to be on the same page.
“I want as much information as you can give me. I share with the pitchers the information I think they need, and that they can handle. Again, pitchers are individuals. You’re going to have one successful starting pitcher who just wants a little video and a little information. You’re going to have another pitcher who wants everything. Part of my job is to find out how much a guy needs so he can pitch well, without me overloading him with too much information.”
On Taijuan Walker: “First of all, he’s probably the best athlete in our organization. He’s strong, he’s agile, and he’s smart. And he’s been willing to put in the time on a daily basis. There were things he needed to add. One of them was a changeup. Another was the cutter. These took time. They didn’t happen all at once.
“Here’s a guy who now has four pitches. His velocity is in the middle 90s. Like I said, he’s a smart kid. Having four pitches and knowing how to use them, and knowing what his strengths are… last year he really started understanding how important that was. He’s got all the power — as much as anyone in the game — but he had to become a complete pitcher. He’s learned how to get hitters out and how to use four pitches to do it.
“Taijuan threw kind of a slider-cutter in high school, so he’d thrown it before. A lot of power guys who have life on their ball have trouble getting it in on lefties, and I think this helps him do that. Plus, we found out that it’s more than a good cutter, it’s an outstanding cutter.
“It took three years before we let him do this. We spend the first year on his fastball command, developing his changeup, getting more consistency with his curveball. Then, when he was ready… and he kind of wanted to throw it, also. It’s made a big difference. It’s not only a swing-and-miss pitch, but one he can get in on lefties.
“He’s ready. I think we saw that starting around last June, but it was good that he got more innings in Triple-A. It just got to a point where — at least for me — it was tough to hold him back. He was ready for more challenges. That doesn’t mean he’s 100 percent ready to do everything. He’s still learning, and he’s hungry to learn. He’s a tremendous kid, and I think he’s ready to pitch in the major leagues.”
On James Paxton: “Paxton probably made the biggest strides of all three, of Walker, Maurer and himself. Paxton was a guy who came out of Canada in our draft, and didn’t really have a changeup. He had a very good curveball, but had trouble commanding it, which a lot of kids do. His development was slow in his first year and a half, even though he’s a tremendous student and a tremendous worker.
“All of a sudden, about the middle of this year, the delivery, the curveball, the changeup, the fastball command — everything came together. That came from all of his hard work, his continuing to stay at it.
“He came up and pitched very well in September. He’s still got some things to learn, especially hitters in the league. But with the kind of student he is, there’s never been a doubt in my mind that he would figure it out. Like I said earlier, you can’t really put a timetable on when a guy is ready. They have to go through the stages, and you have to be patient. You have to watch a kid grow, which is what we’ve seen Paxton do.”
On Brandon Maurer and Mike Zunino; “Maurer has four major league pitches. He spent time in the [Arizona] Fall League, after the season, really learning how to use those pitches. As he learns how all four work together, and that his best pitch is his fastball, he’s going to take off. I’m excited to see how that’s going to happen this year.
“I’ve had a couple of years with Mike Zunino down in the minor leagues. In the past three years, I’ve probably talked more to catchers than I have with pitchers at times. We all know that it’s vital for a pitcher and a catcher to be on the same page. They need to have good communication.
“If you’re around Mike, you know you have something special. It’s not just that he’s got power and is going to hit, and that he can throw. It’s the mental side he has. He is hungry for information. And there’s not an ego that gets in the way. He wants to take a pitching staff and get the most out of them.
‘We’re going to have John Stearns as our third base coach, and as our catching guy. He’s been with Mike the last couple of years and has helped develop him. Mike is still learning, just like the pitchers we’ve talked about are still learning. He’s still learning hitters, and he’s still learning our pitchers, but Mike is a fast learner. I‘m looking forward to working with him this year.”
On his goals for 2014: “Part of my philosophy is that I’d like for all of my pitchers to do great and no one knows who their pitching coach is. If I can do that, I’ve accomplished a lot.
“The role of a starting pitcher is to win the game, and I think that has been lost a little bit over the years. There are a lot of stats you can throw out there, but ultimately, that’s what a starter’s focus should be. If it isn’t, he’s not going to be the pitcher he can. And if you’re a reliever, keep the score exactly where it is. Whether you’re facing one batter or going nine innings, your job is to win the game. That’s what we want to emphasize here. Nothing else really matters. Our goal isn’t to get a little better this year. Our goal is to win it all.”
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