One of the tougher jobs within the organization is that off the minor league pitching coach. He is expected to not only help the pitchers get better, but also serve as a psychologist, cheerleader, and, at times, the guy who provides the kick in the butt.
But his most important job may be to monitor the workload of some very valuable arms, something that the major league team has quite a bit of money invested in. Overworking a pitcher at this level can lead to some serious injuries, but not getting in enough work will cause a pitcher's development to stagnate.
Wally Whitehurst, a veteran of seven major league seasons on the mound and four as a coach within the Padres' system, is the person who tries to find this balance. He has the job of not only working on pitchers' mechanics and teaching them how to throw and refine their pitches but also help pitchers learn how to compete, to bounce back when things aren't going their way.
Frequently, pitchers at this level are used to blowing away their competition, so when they start getting hit; it's a little different experience. It's up to Whitehurst to get them back on track and get better.
You had a pretty young staff this year. We ranked both Aaron Breit and Drew Miller in Madfriars.com's Top Twenty prospects in the Padres' organization in the pre-season. Could you tell us a little about each of them?
Wally Whitehurst: Andrew started off well then had some bursitis in his right shoulder and was actually out for most of the first half, he only made four starts. Andrew has a live fastball, he will go anywhere from 90 to 95 [MPH]. His biggest thing is command; he's got to be able to command the strike zone. His curveball is probably average for a major league pitch and his change is below average. He's been working very hard on improving both of these pitches, but he has a very bright future. He's got a very live arm, he has an easy motion, he throws the ball easy and he should come back strong for the second half. He could have a bright future; he just has to learn how to pitch a little bit more.
Whenever we talk to pitching coaches in the short-season leagues or at this level, the first thing you guys always talk about is command of the fastball. I understand how important that is, but how are you working on improving pitchers command? Is most of that work done in the side sessions where you are concentrating on the release point?
Wally Whitehurst: Absolutely. We do two sides in-between each start. The first one is where the catcher is behind home plate and its fastball away, fastball in and changeup; so it's all about fastball and changeup command. The second bullpen is where they use all their pitches, but we still go in and out with the fastball.
At this level the biggest thing is command of your fastball. If you don't have command of your fastball you are not going to be any good and you're not going to get the opportunity to move up. If you get that,then you start to move.
I spoke with Aaron Breit the other day and he said that his fastball was up about six inches from where it was last year in Eugene and that is the difference between striking someone out and watching them pound it off of the wall.
Wally Whitehurst: Absolutely. It's a game of inches. Aaron struggled for most of the year, but there are signs that he's starting to come back with his confidence and command of his pitches. His last start he didn't walk anyone, which is huge for him. He's got a plus fastball, plus curve and his change is a work in progress and is getting better, but he's got to learn how to pitch, as do all of these guys.
The younger guys have to learn how to pitch that it's not just fastball, fastball strike one and two, then breaking ball strike them out like they did in high school. You have to be able to vary your pitches, you have to set up hitters and you can't fall into patterns.
Both of these kids have a very bright future with us. They are good kids, they work very hard.
How about Andy Underwood and Nathan Culp?
Wally Whitehurst: They both pitched very well for us this year. Andrew Underwood didn't pitch for Dougie [Dascenzo, the manager of the Wizards and last year Eugene] and me last year. He had thrown a lot of innings in college and we let him go home a little early. This is the first time we've really gotten a chance to see what type of pitcher that he is. His velocity is down a little bit, but he commands three pitches; throws them all for strikes. He competes well and has given himself an opportunity to win each game. He's done a heckuva a job so far and hopefully things will continue to go that way for him and his velocity will go up.
Nathan (was) outstanding. Both he and Andrew were our best guys. You could count on them for five or six innings each time out. Culpie commands four pitches, fastball, change, curve and slider. He's left-handed which is a bonus and he's coming off of a little bicep tendinitis. He was our all-star representative and it's been fun to see him from where he was when he started to where he is now.
When you talk about Culp – I had a chance to talk with Glenn Abbot, the pitching coach for the Missions, and he said it's very difficult to throw both a curve and a slider at the same time. Is that a fairly rare things at this level?
Wally Whitehurst: It's rare that you can command both of them. You'll usually see that one has a good cure and maybe a bad slider. Before long, both pitches become one and that is what you don't want to see. That is why when we have a kid that throws both, and if the command isn't great, we usually take one away from them. Of course as they go on with their careers they will usually pick the pitch back up, but if they can throw both, and if they are two different pitches, we'll let they are allowed to throw it.
Culp is one of them that you can see a big difference between his curveball and his slider.
We interviewed Steve Delabar and his two-seamer was darting downward in the zone and his four-seamer was rising. He credited you with getting him to throw the two-seamer.
Wally Whitehurst: I've been with Stevie three out of the four years that he has been playing. He's one of my all-time favorite kids.
A pretty big guy [Delabar is a good 6'5" and at least around 240 lbs].
Wally Whitehurst: Oh he's huge, fun guy to be around. He's not old by an means, only 22 – but there are things he needs to learn and improve upon, so he doesn't regress.
Hey, him crediting me with the two-seam fastball – that is great – but all I did was provide information to him and he's the one that has to go out there and do the work. That is his biggest thing command.
Now isn't a two-seamer harder to control than a four-seam fastball because it moves more?
Wally Whitehurst: Yes and no, it's really about your hand position. As long as you stay on top of the baseball it will sink. A four-seamer as long as you are behind it, it's usually truer. As far as throwing strikes with either one, to me no – it's not easier with one as compared to the other. To some of them, probably so because they think they are doing something new when really all you are doing is moving the baseball in your hand. You are still throwing a fastball.
That is another thing getting them to understand that whether you are throwing a change, slider, sinker, and curve – everything is thrown like a fastball. When you want them to throw another pitch they think it's something different when it really isn't, and that is the fun part of the job helping them learn and get better.
Last question, the closer you had earlier this year has been pretty good, R.J. Rodriguez. He's not the biggest guy n the world, but he can bring it up to 93. Fun interview and he appears pretty fearless out there.
Wally Whitehurst: Oh he is. He was with Dougie and me last year in Eugene and did a heckuva a job. He was a starter in college.
Undrafted free agent…
Wally Whitehurst: Undrafted free agent, and about 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9, and we asked him to be the closer and he took it and ran with it. I think he's had about three or four bad days over the year, and only in non-save situations. Coming out of college last year he had thrown over a 100 innings so he touched 90 or 91 on occasion, but usually threw around 88.
This year, with a little time off, he's been up as high as 94 and has been pitching around 90 to 91. He's got a very good change and has been working on his slider. He will take the ball every day and we have to make him take days off, but he's a great competitor and it shows when he's out on the mound.
Wally Whitehurst got a chance to coach up some of the most talented arms in the San Diego Padres' farm system this season. How did Drew Miller improve? What happened with Aaron Breit? Nathan Culp – as good as advertised? The improvement of R.J. Rodriguez. What does Steve Delabar need to do? How has Andy Underwood performed? All this and more from the Fort Wayne Wizards pitching coach.
Wally Whitehurst got a chance to coach some of the most talented arms in the San Diego Padres...