Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Steve McCatty's Thoughts On Nolan Ryan's Crusade

In the strike shortened season of 1981, Steve McCatty was one of baseball's best pitchers. Heralded as one of The Oakland Athletics Five Aces, McCatty finished second that season in The American League Cy Young Award voting while helping The Amazing A's reach the AL Championship Series--where they eventually lost to The New York Yankees. As mentioned yesterday, those early 80's A's depended heavily on their starting pitching. Manager Billy Martin wrote the names of McCatty, Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Matt Keough and Brian Kingman down on his lineup card and expected them to go the distance. Together, this group would average over 7 innings thrown per ball game. McCatty & Langford well over eight. During the 1980 season, all five of these Oakland starters would pitch over 200 innings.

Complete games and high pitch counts are not seen much in baseball anymore. The game has changed. And that's the premise behind Nolan Ryan's Crusade To Change The Culture With The Texas Rangers. Steve McCatty now wears his uniform number 54 as the pitching coach for Our Washington Nationals. Maybe, best suited, to decipher whether Washington's team should follow in Ryan's footsteps, or modify the approach to best fit within their own needs and beliefs.

With that here is Steve McCatty's Thoughts On Nolan Ryan's Crusade:

Nats320: Nolan Ryan, The President of The Texas Rangers wants his pitchers to build up their arm strength. He wants them to do long toss. He wants them to throw batting practice the very first day of spring training. And he thinks in the long run that will make them healthier than having pitch counts which limit them. Since you pitched in the 80’s for The Oakland A’s when you guys threw complete games on a regular basis--what’s your thoughts on that?”

McCatty: It’s easy when you are the man in charge of running everything (as Ryan is), you can make those decisions. I am not saying that’s a bad thing at all. You have to build up arm strength. We didn’t know anything about pitch counts (back then). We just went out and pitched. When we were kids growing up all we did was throw a ball, or a rock, or whatever was available to play around. I tried to hit mail boxes walking home from the ballpark. So, that is all we did--throw. Now, I am not saying that Nolan is right or wrong, but the nature of the game because of the money involved--yeah, if you want to get a guy into the 7th inning you have to have a pitch count that is reasonable. But the day of throwing 140 pitches, I don’t care how much long toss you do, I think those days are pretty much over.”

Nats320: But does having a pitch count for any pitcher make them worry about how long they might be able to go in any game? Making them think too hard?

McCatty: “No. Look, if I gave you 120 pitches that you can throw in a game, or 140. It doesn’t mean you are going to get to use them all. If you get knocked out after 30 pitches--you are gone. So you can’t worry about pitch counts. The only way any pitcher can go out there is to get an out as quick as you can. That’s the way you should do it. Nolan Ryan was a strikeout guy, but a lot of guys are not blessed like Nolan was. So he would throw a lot of pitches. He was kind of a ‘freak of nature’ type of guy (chuckling) too. You have to go out to the mound and get guys out as quick as possible. Ideally, you would like 15 pitches or less an inning. And the quicker you can get them out, I think the better you are going to be.”

“There is absolutely nothing wrong in building up arm strength. I agree 100% with Nolan on that. But how many pitches are we talking about throwing? 160? 120? What’s good? If you go 15 per inning, and go 7 innings--that’s 105. You have to have a realistic number and your starters have to get you into the 7th inning. To me, to be a really effective staff and have everything go good--if you get seven innings, that’s great.”

Nats320: Well then, has the money coddled the players more?

McCatty: “Well, I think in the past it has because you have to protect them. You have kids coming out of high school. You have kids coming out of college that played once per week. So you are going out and using a lot of pitches and they are not use to it. For me coming out of the minor leagues, I played in junior college one year, and just coming out and throwing--we didn’t count back then. We were playing quite a bit. To me, today, you have to be careful. It’s great if you can do it (go deeper and throw more pitches), but I would love to see guys go, say 120 pitches, or 130 pitches, if you can do it. But what's the first thing that is going to happen? As soon as we have a guy pitching into the 8th inning and he has 125 to 130 pitches--and he cramps up or hurts his arm--what are you guys going to write?”

Nats320: The team overused him.

McCatty: “That’s exactly right. It’s a shame how the game has changed and turned that way. You have got to guard against the guy’s health. When something freaky happens, and it’s one pitch more than everyone thinks he should have thrown--that’s what the media is going to write about. I can’t say that’s affecting the people up stairs (in their decision making) or anywhere, but you have just got to be smart. The game has changed. We’ve got the guys who come in in the 7th innings and the 9th innings. They are making some good money. If you have those guys, to me, it’s smart, if you can get through the 7th--that’s great. But to have guys that can go 7th, 8th and 9 is pretty good too. You keep your pitchers fresh. They shouldn’t be throwing a lot of pitches if they are throwing strikes. That will keep their pitch counts down and that, to me, is the way they should do it.”

“Would I love to have Roy Halladay? Absolutely! No doubt in my mind. But everybody is not Roy Halladay, Nolan Ryan, or Ferguson Jenkins. It’s just not the way the game is anymore--kind of unfortunately. But I don’t think it is all that bad either.”

Nats320: From your personal playing experience in the 80’s with The Oakland A’s and Billy Martin, having thrown so many innings back then--did that lead to your eventual injuries?

McCatty: “No, I can’t say that. My injury was something that with the surgery they have now, it could have been fixed easily in the 80’s. I had a bone spur in my bicep and tendinitis. After I had surgery on it, after I was done playing for a few years, my shoulder was absolutely fine, but it bothered me before. I can go out and throw 200 balls in BP now. And you are going to say it’s not the same stress? Well, surgery has changed the game too. When Tommy John was playing and had surgery, they named the technique after him. Now, everybody has that surgery and they are coming back throwing harder than ever. It’s just that the game has changed. The technique in which you train guys has changed. Everything has. Hitters are different now than they were then. Left handers use to always be down and in--you couldn’t throw in there--that was a no go zone. Now, they all dive out to the outside portion of the plate. The game evolves, but I don’t doubt at some point, we’ll get back to pitchers throwing a few more pitches in the game. But you have to be smart.”

Nats320: No question, as a Hall Of Famer, Nolan Ryan looks at pitching differently than others. He complains that from high school ball to college to even professional ball--everyone is telling pitchers what to throw--so they never learn how to pitch to hitters.

McCatty: “Absolutely. I agree with that 100%. I don’t sit here and call pitches. To me, the way you learn to be a pitcher is you learn the hitters, you learn from your mistakes. And you better know what you do in those situations. I am not out there catching! I am not out there pitching! I don’t know what they see? I see things from the side. But they have got to know what to do. They have got to learn how to throw their own games. If there is ever a difference on pitches where one guy wants one thing and the other something else--I tell the catcher--‘you call time out and you go out there and you talk to him and tell him what you are seeing. If you can convince him to throw something else, good for you. But if he wants to throw it, you let him throw it.’ He (the pitcher) has got to make that decision. I can’t tell you what is perfect. You could have two twin brothers. One pitches Monday and one pitches Tuesday. The exact same stuff, identical, against The White Sox. The one of Monday gets his butt kicked. And the one on Tuesday gets everyone out because everyone is different.”

“So when we get caught in this little thing that in this count the batter hits .021 and in this count he hits .986 and it’s on that guy’s curveball and not mine--I think that stuff is crazy. All of these things (statistics) they come up with. But Nolan is absolutely right. If you are going to be a good pitcher--you need to learn the craft and know what to do out there on the mound. Only then will you understand what you want to do when you pitch. And it’s what I want to do. If I have no clue--then shame on me. But I (as the pitcher) have to do what I want to do. I have to have in my mind what I want to do and I have to execute. Now, I also have to be smart enough to know that if it’s not working for me, that I also have something else in mind. And if that’s not working, I might try throwing lefthanded or something (chuckling). You can’t be out there blindly following the catcher or some pitching coach sitting down here in the dugout, doing whatever they tell you religiously. He’s not playing, you are. You have got to learn.”

Nats320: John Lannan told us the biggest difference in playing minor league ball and big league ball was he needed to know what to throw to each hitter faced.

McCatty: “Absolutely. The pitcher should have the game going over in his mind like a thousand times the night before, two nights before. I can’t say what works for everyone else, but for me I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I would still be up at 4AM in the morning. And I could not stop seeing that lineup in my head. What I would throw. OK, then I would do it one time. Then, I would do it the next time. Well, if that doesn’t work in this case, what next? It was non-stop. And then the night after I pitched, regardless of whether I did well or poorly, it was non-stop (going over the game), because that was what I would see--even if I had a good game.”

“That’s what we do. That’s what starters are. You pitch once every five days and you better think about it and you better know what you are going to do. Any other person that goes out there that is building something--they are craftsmen--they know what they are doing. And you are a craftsman when you are out there on the mound. The wily veteran is called that--because he knows what he is doing. He knows what he’s trying to make the hitters do--get them to hit balls where you want them to hit. That’s the idea behind pitching. It’s not called throwing. The throwing today is Matt Anderson at 100 MPH. It’s the pitcher today. You’ve got to pitch. You’ve got to know the hitters. You’ve got to know what you can do. What you are capable of doing and execute it. And if you can’t, then you won’t be here very long. That's the name of it. This is execution and results oriented and there really is no room for failure. The margin for error for pitchers is not very much. And if you can’t do it, then you are really not a good pitcher.”

Nats320: Going back to the original premise of the interview, do you think we will ever see a starting pitcher throw batting practice again between regular season starts?

McCatty: “Probably not. I did it. I don’t know if I didn’t like it because I am throwing it and I have a screen out in front of me. I am not going to take one off my forehead throwing batting practice (laughing). That’s not going to happen. I don’t think there is anything wrong doing your bullpens (instead). Some guys like doing it. It doesn’t do the hitters much good to be out there throwing (batting practice) near game speed and dropping off nasty breaking balls. They (the hitters) don’t want any piece of it. Bullpens are for the pitchers, and I think a lot of the things you can do on the side where you can talk about a mechanical issue or just what you are thinking in that situation--is more beneficial than me being behind a cage with a clicker counting pitches.”

“But it worked (pitchers throwing BP). It worked for 100 years. They all did it. I did it. But we don’t drive cars with leaded gas anymore. It changes. I don’t know what else to tell you. The game evolves. It just does. Basketball didn’t have the three second rule at one point either.”

Nats320: Well, is it a better game?

McCatty: “I think it is the evolution of the game. I don’t think necessarily it is a better game. Maybe you could say there are more athletic people, but do I think the players of this day are that much better than the guys back then? (Shaking his head slowly back and forth) Not really. You can still take the best players from that era and put them on the field today and, I think, they are still going to be pretty good. It doesn’t matter to me. Guys always say: ‘did you see the way he threw in that film?’ Hey, Bob Feller, he threw pretty hard in a tie and white shirt with a motorcycle racing his pitch--and not warming up. There were still the hard throwers. There were still guys that had great breaking balls. There were guys that might have looked unorthodox in hitting, but they could hit.”

“So, I think the game was just as good then. Yet there are some bigger guys, some faster guys today. But when it all comes down to it--a fastball spotted down and away will take care of all the weight training you want to work on. That’s just me. If you spot the ball, like those guys did, you are not going to have many problems. Great pitchers do that. Good pitchers do that. They throw to that little box and they don’t miss by much. Wherever they want to throw it. Sure they made mistakes, but to those good hitters they also didn’t give up many two or three run home runs because when there are guys on base--they tighten up their game. I am not sure of the statistics, but I am guessing with runners in scoring position, you punch it up there on the website, and you go back to look at guys that you consider to be the great pitchers of the day. And come and look at the guys now with runners in scoring position with less than two outs--whatever. I think you are going to look at all the batting averages being down in the low .200’s or .190’s or whatever. And the guys that aren’t good, are in the upper .200‘s reaching .300. They made pitches. They made them then and that's still the key to it now.”

Nats320: Bob Gibson and Jim Palmer would be perfect examples of the great ones.

McCatty: "All of those guys were like that. It’s so much fun knowing ‘Cakes’ (Jim Palmer’s nickname). They had a different approach to things. We all did. The belief that a certain guy is not going to beat us in that lineup. Like Tom Seaver with a runner on third base would walk two guys just to get to that guy. That’s not necessarily my forte, but I am not Tom Seaver either. It worked for him. He was pretty good. And Palmer, he walked in 13 guys with the bases loaded--but never gave up a grand slam. I said to ‘Cakes’: ‘you were great, but that’s like rubbing sandpaper on the old ping pong paddle over my hand and just grinding it.' That’s just me, I can’t do that. Whatever you say, it just doesn’t work for me.”

Nats320: Livan Hernanez has a little bit of that.

McCatty: “Yes, he does. And that’s fine for that individual. But for me, I can’t think of anything much worse than putting myself through that--it’s not my nature. But that’s why they were awfully good. They were so awfully good, they could get away with it. But 150 pitches on a regular basis--you are not going to see that again. What’s Nolan’s magic number?”

Nats320: He’s got his guys aiming toward 125 right now.

McCatty: “That’s 10 more than what we would let a guy go. I don’t think that is that big of a deal.”

Nats320: But he’s asking for more.

McCatty: “If he’s running it and he owns it--he can do what he wants. (laughing). I don’t want that luxury. They can come up and say we will let them go up to 180. But no one is ever going to get there. There’s a pitch count number out there on everyone. It just doesn’t mean you are going to use all of them.”

With that final answer, Steve McCatty's Thoughts On Nolan Ryan's Crusade concludes. Whether The Texas Rangers Team President's pitching approach will find footing throughout the game is unknown. That's going to take a period of time and prolonged success by The Rangers. Clearly though, Our Washington Nationals have already developed some of Ryan's beliefs within their pitching instruction. But having every starter go deep into most every game and throw over 130 pitches per start--does not seem to be on the horizon. As McCatty stated, the money and the investment in young pitchers like Stephen Strasburg does really matter. And the evolution of the game trumpeting strong back ends of a team's bullpen--seems to be here to stay.

PS--Sohna and I were pleasantly surprised when the normally quiet Steve McCatty was so forthcoming in our interview with him. If not for Our Washington Nationals about to play a game at Nationals Park, the conversation might have gone on for quite some time.

Photo Credit: '81 A's--Sports Illustrated.
McCatty In Nationals Uniform Copyrighted--Nats320--All Rights Reserved


Wooden U. Lykteneau said...

Brian Kingman, last 100IP season @ 27
Rick Langford, last 100IP season @ 30
Mike Norris, last 100IP season @ 27
Mike Keough, last 100IP season @ 27
Steve McCatty, last 100IP season @ 30

There *might* be a pattern here.

Doctor Joe said...

Thank you for the great read! McCatty, for having such an important role with the club, really does seem to keep a low profile. It was nice to get his opinions on the issue.

I will throw in my two cents and say that poor technique contributes to arm injuries much more than a baseball pitcher surpassing an arbitrary pitch count. Some of these young men need mentoring by Dr. Mike Marshall before it's too late. So sad that he's basically been blackballed from the game when he would make a wonderful pitching coach for a team willing to think outside the box.

cass said...

SBF, these interviews are great! Very good work. Did these come about as a result of the expanded access available to select bloggers?

Screech's Best Friend said...

Cass: Thank you for your comment. Yes, to your question. We requested the interviews and they were granted before a recent game.

Wombat-socho said...

Great series of posts! Linked at Beltway Baseball.