Rubber balls and pitching mechanics?

Here’s a great article about Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell. He learned pitching mechanics by throwing rubber balls against a wall. Interesting. It’s long (sorry!). -SE

What makes Roger tick?
McDowell brings different personality, philosophy to Braves

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 02/15/06

Preceding Roger McDowell into town were so many stories of lowbrow high-jinks that surely the Braves had hired him to work Tooner Field, not the main stage. And wasn’t it only a matter of time before he gave Scooby Doo a hot foot?

That’s nothing. (No, really, the practical joking is nothing).

More important, did you know the fellow brought here to oversee the Braves’ precious pitching legacy learned much, if not quite everything, he ever needed to know throwing a rubber ball against a brick wall? McDowell has yet to find an instructional technique quite so valuable as an afternoon spent pitching to a strike zone your father painted on the face of your apartment complex.

Much of McDowell’s first childhood was spent in that manner, idling the summer days away waiting for Herbert McDowell to get home from the Post Office and hit him a few grounders.

That was suburban Cincinnati in the early 1970s, a good time and place to be a kid in love with baseball. A painted “T” on the parking lot could substitute for the pitching rubber, and there were whole rosters of imaginary major leaguers to strike out.

“I got to work a lot just throwing that rubber ball against the wall,” recalled the Braves new pitching coach. “I worked on throwing strikes, my ability to field the ball when it came back to me, making sure I was square to the plate.”

This was no East Cobb upbringing. The youngest of four children raised on a civil servant’s pay — and ultimately the first in the family to go to college on a baseball ride to Bowling Green — McDowell didn’t get a lot of high-falootin’ private instruction/velocity training. His father, who died in 1988, laid down the basics. And the kid did the rest through hundreds of non-billable hours out back, just him a rubber ball and a target.

“He wasn’t really mechanics oriented. I kind of figured it out by myself,” McDowell said.

Before he left his California home for the Braves early throwing program in Atlanta, McDowell studied game tape of his new pupils. He also dragged out an old Sports Illustrated how-to-pitch book that he had as a kid, just to remind himself of the basics. Clearly, in developing a working philosophy, he wanted to marry the convenience of technology with the simplicity of those long-ago days of throwing a rubber ball against a brick wall.

Nobody much wants to talk about the finer points of McDowell’s journey to the upper reaches of the Braves organizational chart. It’s just too much fun recounting his days as a clubhouse jester with five teams over 12 major league seasons — most notably the Mets and Dodgers. When a man masters the hotfoot and gets known for wearing his uniform pants on his head and his cleats on his hands, the serious details of a life tend to get obscured.

But McDowell is a quieter 44 now, and a guy doesn’t make a rapid ascent from minor league pitching instructor to one of the elite coaching positions in the Bigs without being seriously grounded.

And besides: “Roger is so bright and so sharp, I hope he keeps the other side to him,” said his new boss, Bobby Cox. “I like that because that helps through a grueling season to have a little bit of humor. But he has a big-time serious side to him and he’s very serious about this job. He’s an extremely impressive individual.”

McDowell himself wondered if his past would prevent those in baseball from taking him seriously when it came time to hire.

“That was somewhat of a concern,” he said. “The type of individual I hope I am, the type of character that I have, what I did as a player, what I do as a coach, I take very seriously. The other stuff is a by product. It (the flakey reputation) comes up, but people see there is a little more substance than what is sometimes portrayed.”

Granted, there isn’t much funnier than setting a man’s shoes on fire or mooshing him in the face with a shaving cream pie. But the opening that occurred when Leo Mazzone, the rocking Rasputin of the pitching arts, left for Baltimore was a particularly grave one. It required someone who could handle the demands of taking over an outfit that had been No. 1 or 2 in ERA in the majors 12 of the past 14 seasons. And it demanded a personality capable of dealing with a staff in constant transition and growing younger all the time.

McDowell didn’t slip a whoopee cushion beneath John Schuerholz or hand Cox an exploding cigar when it came time to interview. Instead, accompanied by a strong set of recommendations, he blew away the Braves brass. The GM had a working list of 23 candidates for the position, but Cox suggested there was no need to talk to anyone else. They had their man.

With no major league coaching experience — McDowell began coaching with the Dodgers four years ago, promoted to Triple A Las Vegas two seasons ago — he was hired eight days after Mazzone departed. His first impression was a knockout.

As Dan Evans, the man who nudged McDowell into coaching, said, “Some people you just have a gut feeling for.”

It seems every year the Braves have big questions in the bullpen to go along with the general foreboding that the division-winning streak is due to go the way of Eastern. This one is no different. McDowell represents another big shift in team dynamics. If these pitchers suddenly forget how to get people out, the new coach is going to be in for some serious outrage.

How different will it be now after 16 years of the human metronome, Mazzone? The McDowell Method may show itself in something so trifling as a few off-hand remarks back in the dugout.

“I’d like to sit and talk to him between innings when I’m pitching,” veteran starter John Thompson said. “It keeps my mind off the game a little. Most of the time, I like to talk not about the game, but something else. The last couple years it was a little hard because Leo wasn’t like that. He’s really into the game. So I’d talk to whoever sat next to me. We’d talk about anything.”

McDowell speaks fluent anything.

Or, in a much more elemental way, the difference may be in how the Braves pitchers attack the hitter.

Mazzone preached the down-and-away pitch like it was a Commandment. McDowell has come in not quite so rigid.

“If you can own the down and away strike, it’s a huge advantage for you. But if you have trouble owning that, it can almost work against you,” starter Horacio Ramirez said. “Roger is, I think, a little more, uh, what’s the word I’m looking for? I guess liberal.”

“More or less, if you see what a hitter’s doing, try to get him out that way,” said Thompson, explaining his first reading of his new coach’s primer. “If he looks like he’s going to be leaning out over the plate, go inside. If it’s looking like he’s trying to cheat inside, go away. It’s not a set thing.”

Nor does the new guy profess a concrete throwing program for his pitchers, as did Mazzone. While Mazzone had marked success keeping pitchers healthy with a steady diet of between-appearance throwing sessions, McDowell said he prefers to tailor the workouts to the individual.

McDowell himself was not an overpowering presence on the mound. At 5-foot-8, 160 pounds coming out of high school, he was offered only a last-minute scholarship to Bowling Green. He broke in with the Mets in 1985 as a starter, but after failing to get past the fifth inning in his first two starts, manager Davey Johnson moved him to the 'pen.

There, he spent the next dozen years pitching on an as needed basis. He recorded the final out when the Mets claimed the 1986 World Series. He reached his career high in saves the next season (25), and appeared in an average of 65 games a season his first nine years. Career ERA: 3.30.

“What always jumped out at me was his incredible knowledge how to get guys out,” said Evans, who was a front office man for the Chicago White Sox and Dodgers when he became acquainted with McDowell. He’s now a special assistant with the Mariners.

“I’ve done everything,” McDowell said. "I’ve started. I pitched set-up. I closed. I was a co-closer. I was a mop-up guy. I’ve done everything and had the luxury to experience all the aspects.

“I can tell them I’ve been there. I’ve hung a slider. I’ve given up 0-2 home runs. I’ve walked the lead-off hitter in the ninth inning. I’ve walked runs in. And I’ve gotten ground ball double plays and I’ve made some pitches to get people out. You learn more from your unsuccessful times than your successful times.”

That experience, coupled with McDowell’s apparent gift for relaying it, struck a perfect note with the Braves.

“We have a lot of young guys on this team,” Schuerholz said. “Roger is somebody who has done what we’ve asked pitchers to do at the major league level, and done it well. He also has an easy-going, receptive kind of a personality that has a connectivity to these guys.”

McDowell didn’t see himself as a coach, even as his career was unwinding in Chicago, where he never pitched an inning while struggling with arm problems. It was when both were with the White Sox that Evans first envisioned the former flake in a position of authority. As Evans became the GM in Los Angeles in 2002, McDowell has been doing some community relations work for the team. The L.A. GM thought he should be back in a uniform.

“There are very few players I’ve felt as strongly about coaching after their playing careers were over as Roger,” Evans said. “It took some convincing. But once he was (convinced), he progressed very quickly.”

As well as a 16-year-old son who lives in Mississippi, McDowell has two daughters, 7 and 4, back in Palm Springs Calif. with his wife of 10 years, Gloria. Before he dipped his toe into coaching, beginning once again in the minors, he had to decide if the job was worth the concessions he’d have to make to family.

“I feel very fortunate I got this opportunity. I never thought I’d want to do it until I got away from the game for a couple years,” he said. "This is my education. This is what I know. It’s more of a passion for me than a job.

“This is where I want to be. This is the best office in the world, going out there on the field, being one of 30 people in the world to have a specific job of being a major league pitching coach. And to have the top job of those 30, I’m very fortunate.”

Said Schuerholz, of the making of his new pitching coach: “There are a lot of young guys in an athletic environment who are loosey-goosey and enjoy themselves. Then, when they move to the next level or another area of responsibility, they obviously recognize the need to be not a player, not a life-of-the-party teammate, as Roger was. But to be more focused and to be more professional, and he did that.”

Now as McDowell sees it, he has another family to look after. And his new wards don’t need a prop comic to make them successful. “I do look at it they’re kind of my kids,” he said. “That’s the way it is with the kids. There’s a respect factor. There is a line.”

The man may be asked to light a fire under someone this summer, only this time, not literally. This is serious business. As serious as 14 straight division titles. As serious as replacing a pitching coach who cultivated a popular mystique. Every bit as serious as the mortgage.

Very interesting article. Thanks for posting it. I believe that every pitcher with less than a 98 mph fastball needs to learn the low outside fastball as their #1 pitch.

If you watched Bartolo Colon this past season, although he would hammer the inside corner when necessary, when he was throwing well the majority of his pitches were low and outside and he was nearly unhittable.

That is about the only pitch you can throw to a location that the hitter expects and still see success.

There are a few hitters who will punch the ball the opposite way with success and even fewer who can actually drive that pitch. Even so, there isn’t a team that will hit the low outside fastball for a decent average.

There’s a reason Mazzone’s pitching staffs have been so successful.