By Chris Cwik and Emma Span
Span: GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The thing that most White Sox pitchers mention first when you ask about pitching coach Don Cooper -- after smiling and exclaiming, to a man, "Coop!" -- is communication. Now, this is something that just about every Major League pitching coach will say is important, but, says reliever Nate Jones, "maybe Coop's the exceptional case."
Cooper, who one scout last week referred to as a "wizard," has a reputation for both developing young talent and for salvaging pitchers who've struggled elsewhere -- players like Esteban Loaiza, Jose Contreras, Matt Thornton or Gavin Floyd -- who come to Chicago after rough stretches and blossom to varying degrees. This year, that player could be Felipe Paulino, who never quite put it all together with his prevous teams before needing Tommy John surgery.
"As soon as I signed here, in November," says Paulino, "I got a few friends who called me, like Freddy Garcia, who played here, told me about Cooper, told me good things -- that he's a great pitching coach and I'm in good hands. I'm in good hands, so just follow this guy. And I'm going to."
Cooper, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and sounds like it, was drafted by the Yankees in the 17th round in 1978, then taken by the Twins in the 1980 Rule 5 draft, and spent parts of four years in the majors, without much success. He's been in the White Sox organization since 1988, and became the major league pitching coach in July of 2002. Only Dave Righetti (Giants) and Rick Anderson (Twins) have been with their teams longer.
"My pitching career didn't go the way I dreamed it. As a matter of fact it was the exact opposite, kind of," said Cooper, outside the White Sox spring training facilities at Camelback Ranch. "I don't want these guys to have my career, I want them to have good careers. It's important to me when we get a rookie, to give him that foundation under him, set his career off on the right track. It's important to me when we get a guy from another organization who's flailed -- to try to get that guy back on track. That's how I get my kicks.
"I want to see them succeed. And then I get to keep my job, which I love."
Coaching pitchers, not unlike pitching itself, is a complicated trade with many moving parts. There is pitching motion, pitch selection, velocity and control to take into account, but also the mental game/attitude, which everyone agrees make a difference even if they can't be measured. Also crucially important is health -- not to mention plain old luck.
As such, it's almost impossible to sort out precisely how much of an effect any pitching pitch coach really has. But there's at least a correlation between pitching under Cooper and pitching better than the rest of the league. And his pitchers aren't shy about making a connection.
"Truthfully, Coop deserves most of the credit for where I am today," says John Danks.
"It's like I say, it's better you respect the old people," says Paulino, using a phrase that would sound a little less blunt in his native Spanish. "Because they know what's going on in this business."
Cwik: The White Sox have been defined by sluggers over the past decade-plus -- Frank Thomas, Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, Adam Dunn, Albert Belle -- but in fact, the club's actual strength has usually been its pitching staff. Despite playing in one of the worst ballparks for pitchers, the team has consistently rated as one of the best in the majors on the mound.
A cursory glance at the team's pitching stats since Cooper has been employed as pitching coach might prompt some confusion about how just well his team has performed.
|White Sox pitching, 2003-2013|
|Year||ERA||Rank||FIP||Rank||Strikeout %||Rank||Walk %||Rank||WAR||Rank|
Since 2003, the club's ERA, FIP and strikeout rate have been all over the place. They've performed better when it comes to walk rate, where they ranked in the top-10 from 2005 to 2010. In recent years, though, those numbers have dropped. But despite some of the randomness with most of the stats in the table, the one area where the team is almost always near the top of the league is pitcher WAR, or Wins Above Replacement.
There's a pretty good reason the team has consistently posted excellent pitching WAR despite some pedestrian numbers in other categories. The first is their exceptional pitching health. The White Sox had fewer pitchers hit the disabled list from 2002 to 2011 than any other team in baseball, according to Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs.com. On top of that, the team's starters have consistently pitched deeper into games than other clubs.
|White Sox pitching, 2003-2013|
|Year||Avg. Starter IP||Rank|
Aside from 2012, the White Sox have ranked in at least the top four in getting their starters deep into games. From 2005 to 2007, the team actually ranked (or tied for) first each year. That's an incredible run of consistency.
How is all of this reflected in the team's pitching WAR? Well, the White Sox ability to keep their pitchers healthy means they aren't dipping into the pool of replacement-level talent as often as other teams. On top of that, the club's ability to get its starters deep into games prevents them from turning to the bullpen as much as other teams. Relievers generally aren't as strong as starters, which is why some teams employ a patient approach at the plate in order to knock the starter out of the game sooner. This doesn't work in every case, as facing Craig Kimbrel is pretty terrifying, but knocking Mike Minor out of a game in order to face the seventh inning reliever is far more favorable.
The team's park also gives them an upper hand when it comes to WAR, because the fact that the team has amassed strong pitching stats in an extreme hitters park is reflected in their WAR total. U.S. Cellular Field has rated as one of the easiest parks in the majors to hit a home run over the past three seasons, according to StatCorner.com. An average park factor is set to 100, but in Chicago, lefties have a home run park factor of 118 over the last three seasons. For righties, it's even more inflated, with a factor of 131. On top of that, the park also elevates run scoring more than the average park, so the fact that the White Sox pitching has been so successful despite those factors makes their performance even more impressive.
Behind Cooper, the White Sox have consistently boasted one of the best pitching staffs in the game. They've done this despite pitching being exceptionally volatile, and a home park that is perfectly suited for giving up home runs.
* * *
Span: Cooper is known around the game as an advocate of the cutter -- or at least, a good teacher of it. Danks has been focusing on his all spring now that he's healthy enough to throw it again -- "that's a pitch that since I've been here Coop and I've been working with and wanting to develop," he says -- and Paulino has, surely not coincidentally, just added one to his own repertoire.
Felipe Paulino told us he introduced a cutter today. Threw it 5-8 times. Had never before. Worked well: 5 IP, 0 ER, 2H, 3 BB, 4K. #WhiteSox- Joey Nowak (@joeynowak) March 17, 2014
Asked about this, Cooper at first denies a particular affinity for the cutter: "I like all pitches!" he says. "I like pitches that you can throw to both sides of the plate. Cutter's a big pitch. I like the fastball to be to both sides, I like the changeup to be to both sides, curveball, all of 'em. People say that we do a lot of cutters, I mean... I guess we do. I think it's come in because if you think about hitting styles -- 'Hit the ball up the middle the other way! Hit the ball up the middle the other way!' Well, a cutter in on your belly button, that's not that easy a pitch to hit up the middle the other way."
But because every pitcher is so different, there is no one sweeping strategy or approach that will work the same way for the whole staff.
"Different people have different keys," says Opening Day starter Chris Sale (who does not throw a cutter, or at least not yet). "For me, it's about working from back to front -- [Cooper] says 'stay in the hallway' -- you know, you don't want to get too left or right, you want all your momentum starting back here and going straight to the catcher. Also hand positioning, arm angle, staying tall, that kind of stuff, getting over your front side, those are just my keys for how I pitch.
"The crazy thing is he's got 20 guys that he has keys for. He works with everybody as much as the next guy, and he's got an open door at all times. Shoot, you could call him at midnight, he'd roll over in bed and answer the phone and talk to you for half an hour if need be."
Cooper's reputation for rehabilitating pitchers is no accident, either.
"I've always liked the challenge of, maybe get a guy that it just hasn't really been clicking for him somewhere else, and then we get him over here," he says. "I like that challenge -- to see what he's doing, what might we add in, what might we put on the backburner. It's like a puzzle to me."
A few times during his time in Chicago, he's mentioned possible candidates he thought he could help to the front office. "A couple times I said 'Hey, if you can get this guy, get him. I think we can do something with him.' Matt Thornton was a guy, Contreras was a guy."
The hope this year is that Paulino can be added to that list of (at least partially) solved puzzles. A big part of that, as always with pitchers, will be health.
"It's not luck," says Cooper of the team's health over the years. "Injuries are not bad luck. It's not God waking up in the morning and saying 'Joe Jones, you're going to blow out your ulnar' or whatever... Something's not going right, it's going to put strain on your elbow or arm. Your delivery, mechanics have to be good. If you don't have good mechanics you run the risk of getting hurt quicker.
"Us as an organization, I think we do a solid job with pitching mechanics, get the strain off the arm and put in on the bigger muscles in the body, the ass and back, not on the small muscles of your arm. We also have a heck of a trainer, we also have a heck of a conditioning program."
His pitchers note that Cooper is also eagle-eyed when they pitch, looking for either poor mechanics or signs of strain or fatigue.
"He's a good game monitor," says Sale. "He can see, like sometimes when your arm's getting fatigued you still might be throwing as hard but you're not pitching the same. It might be something mechanical, your arm angle drops or your right side might be leaking a little bit. He's very keen on those things. And it's not just the ABCs, he knows all the basics of it too -- which is why he is who he is and he's done what he's done."
One thing the White Sox stress consistently across their staff is the importance of starters going deep into games when possible, which in turn, of course, helps the bullpen.
"White Sox starting pitchers, part of the job description is to take the ball through the game," says Cooper. "That's what we've done over the years, by keeping them healthy. I don't know where we stand over the last decade, but I bet, if you looked, we're up there pretty good." See above: he's right.
Of course, it helps to have good pitchers to keep healthy, as Cooper will be the first to acknowledge.
"I've been awful lucky to have a lot of good pitchers," he says. "Listen, when do you talk to a coach? You know what I mean? You talk to a coach because the pitchers are doing well. They're doing their job."
This is true. But sometimes, they have help.
"Pitchers change year to year, but the job doesn't change," says Cooper. "Listen, I've been here a while. Even the stupidest guy gets to learn some things over 12, 13 years."