Bruce Walton understands the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff as well as anyone. This season was his 16th in the organization and 11th with the big-league club. He served as bullpen coach from 2002-2009 and has been the pitching coach since 2010.
It wasn’t an easy year for the 49-year-old former A’s, Expos and Rockies right-hander. Multiple members of the Jays’ staff went down with injuries, while others — most notably Ricky Romero — struggled. Walton saw his hurlers issue the most walks in the American League and finish with the fourth-worst ERA.
The revamped Torontonians are expected to compete for a pennant next season, but in order for that to happen, the pitchers will need to be healthier and more productive. Part of that responsibility — assuming new manager John Gibbons retains him — will fall on Walton, who talked pitching on a visit to Fenway Park this summer.
David Laurila: How do pitchers get big-league hitters out?
Bruce Walton: I think it’s a combination of things. The first thing you really have to learn is where down is — where down in the strike zone actually is. Pounding down and pitching at the knees is your best friend. If you stay down with all of your pitches, it’s much easier to get guys out.
DL: Can working up in the zone be effective?
BW: I don’t know if the high strike is where you want to pitch. I think above the strike zone is where you want to pitch when you’re up. Since I’ve been in the big leagues, the high strike is around the belt, and belt-high is a dangerous place.
DL: Is the strike zone too small?
BW: No, it’s not too small. When you’re talking about a small strike zone, it’s more about whether you can manipulate the strike zone by being more efficient, as far as more quality pitches on the edges. The strike zone is the strike zone. It’s neither too small, nor too big.
DL: How does Ricky Romero get guys out?
BW: Ricky gets guys out by working back and forth in the zone, and with late movement. He relies on very good movement at the last possible moment before the ball hits the bat. He’s got tremendous sink and he’s got tremendous cut. He also has the ability to work back and forth in the zone with his changeup.
DL: What is the issue when he’s not getting guys out?
BW: He tends to leave the ball up, which creates less movement. When his ball is down in the zone, it has much better life. He doesn’t have to be what you would call a location guy. He doesn’t have to hit down and away, hit down and away, hit down and away. Nor does he need to stay on the edges of the plate. He can let his stuff work for him, down in the zone. But when Ricky’s ball creeps up, he gets in trouble because he becomes more hittable.
DL: How does Henderson Alvarez get outs?
BW: Alvarez has a tremendous sinking fastball. He can tell you it’s coming and you’ll still hit in the ground as often as not. He creates natural movement with the pitch. He got a quick arm with real good whip. He pronates really well in his release — he pronates well over the baseball — and creates tremendous sink. He’s always had that and he‘s only going to get better.
DL: Who on the staff has the best cutter?
BW: Casey Janssen. It’s late and sharp. It doesn’t have a lot of depth to it; it’s actually a true cutter. If you want to talk about a true cutter, it’s a side-to-side pitch. It looks like a fastball and then cuts off on the same plane. Anything with depth, I call a slider. Casey’s is a true cutter, because it looks like a fastball until the very last moment, then it either cuts in on the hands of a lefty, or away from the barrel on a righty. He’s got the ability to manipulate the ball in that way.
Acutter is a pitch that’s mostly thrown at the belt. It’s not thrown down in the zone as much as a slider. It looks like a belt-high fastball coming in, but when you swing at it, it’s moved off center a little bit.
DL: Unless you’re Mariano Rivera, can a cutter be your primary pitch?
BW: No, it shouldn’t. Nobody in baseball has as good a cutter as Mariano, so he could go to it like that. A cutter needs to be set up with a straight fastball. You can’t just sit there and cut and cut and cut, with a mediocre cutter.
DL: Outside of his cutter, why is Janssen successful?
BW: He attacks the strike zone and gets hitters on their heels. He has the ability to pitch to both sides of the plate. and he also holds runners well — he keeps the runner at first base to keep the double play in order. He fields his position well. He has all the intangibles you like in the late innings.
DL: Can anyone with good stuff be a closer?
BW: I think there’s a special mindset to it. Not everybody with good stuff can close. I don’t think you’d say that Casey Janssen has great stuff. He has above-average major-league stuff — he’s a good pitcher — but what he also has is the intangibles. Those includes a short-term memory and the ability to make pitches in that environment. He can pitch in the ninth inning on the road, which is something you don’t really teach.
DL: Can you usually tell if someone is going to be able to handle that role?
BW: You have to find out. You don’t know. They work their way up the ladder from the sixth inning, seventh inning, eighth inning, then you see if they pitch the same way in the ninth inning. The guys who don’t change the way they pitch are the ones who can handle that role.
DL: Any final thoughts?
BW: I think we should talk about Brett Cecil a little bit. He’s made adjustments. He went to the minor leagues and reorganized his stuff. He’s come up with a little different game plan, and he brought that game plan back with him to the major leagues.
DL: Can you elaborate on his game plan?
BW; It’s more of a pitching game plan than a throwing game plan. To know your game plan, you have to know yourself. You figure out who you are and what you have to offer — what your strengths and weaknesses are — then you can put a solid game plan together. Sometimes it takes us awhile to find out what the game plan is for a pitcher, and sometimes it takes awhile for that pitcher to understand what his game plan is.
That’s my first-and-foremost job. You try to identify who they are, but I also want them to be themselves. I help them identify their strengths and I try to send them down the right path.