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Wax On, Wax Off

NostraDennisSunday, December 3, 2006
By NostraDennis


All I knew about Rick Peterson three months ago was this: he was a real good pitching coach who squeezed a lot out of his staff. He was good at taking players from the scrap heap and reinventing them somehow, making chicken salad out of, you know, other parts of the chicken. Do a little research, though, and his bio reads like a Hallmark Channel tearkjerker.

Drafted in '76 by the Pittsburgh Pirates, where his dad was the GM of the "We Are Family" '79 World Champs. Bounced around the minors for seven years, half of that as a player-coach, and never pitched an inning in the majors. In a single-A tournament game, he pitched a complete game, struck out 15, walked 7, and figures he threw 200 pitches in the game. Was asked to come in the next day in relief, and says his arm was never quite right after that. You sobbing yet? I am.

Peterson decided coaching was his path, and he put his experience in the minors to good use, along with his degree in psychology (anyone who's ever been, or who's ever known, a pitcher, knows exactly what I mean). Had stints with Cleveland, the White Sox, and Toronto, including directing the sports psychology program in Chi-town.

His six years with the Oakland A's, and the success of arms like Mulder, Hudson, and Zito, really needs no further explanation, except that the best thing he was able to do with those pitchers was to get them to buy into his heretofore unorthodox methods. He has his guys doing yoga and breathing and centering exercises, and pitching in practice with their eyes closed (some would say that previous Mets coaches must have instructed their pitchers to do the same in game situations).

Peterson actually developed the software that dissects pitchers' tendencies in certain counts. If you needed to know what Roger Clemens would throw to a left-handed spray hitter with a 2-1 count in the fifth inning of a tie game, Rick Peterson could tell you. Probably without looking it up.

Now I like statistics, even though I realize they don't always tell the whole story. Here, though, is an interesting snapshot of Peterson's Big Three in Oakland, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. Check out how they fared between 2001-2003, the three full years they all spent with Peterson as their coach, compared to their numbers between 2004-2006, the three years following:


 
2001-2003     W-L         ERA         WHIP     K/BB Ratio
 
 Hudson49-253.021.1832.55 
 Mulder55-243.081.1583.01 
 Zito54-253.171.1962.16 

 Combined158-743.091.1802.51 


 
2004-2006     W-L         ERA         WHIP     K/BB Ratio
 
 Hudson39-274.011.3431.91 
 Mulder39-234.651.4391.60 
 Zito41-344.051.3301.80 

 Combined119-844.211.3701.78 

Numbers can lie, but I think these numbers tell a compelling. Won-loss records can sometimes mask a pitcher's flaws, or hide the performance of a good pitcher with bad luck. However, a .681 W-L percentage with Peterson compared to a .586 percentage without him means a lot. These guys were all decent pitchers without him (please ignore Mulder's over-7 ERA this year, and Hudson's 13-12 record in '06), but they were so much better under his tutelage.

It's true that ERA's have crept up overall the last few years, but these three have had their ERA's balloon by over a run per game without Rick Peterson's influence.

And their combined walks and hits per inning pitched ratio went up by 16% without him.

Strikeouts are not the best measure of a pitching coach. A more accurate gauge is how well he's able to get his pitchers to throw a pitch where they want when they want to. Thus, the strikeout to walk ratio, one of my favorite stats. Every one of the A's Big Three lost their focus without Rick Peterson to keep an eye on them.

While it's true that the Mets would become a much better team with Barry Zito, no one can deny that Barry Zito has an even greater opportunity to become an even better pitcher again with Rick Peterson.

Remember the scene in "Field of Dreams", when an elderly "Doc" Graham (as played by Burt Lancaster) pooh-poohs the tragedy of only being a major league player for five minutes of one game? He tells Ray (Kevin Coster), "No, the real tragedy would have been if I'd only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes".

Imagine if those 200 pitches, and the next day's relief outing, had never happened to Rick Peterson. Now, that would have been a tragedy.

Happy Winter Meetings.

About Dennis McCarthy: I was born in the Bronx in 1960, but moved to Long Island four years later. I became a Mets fan in '69, thanks to my Aunt Ellen, who still lived in the Bronx.   Read More -->

Comments (6)

Dennis,

To hell with Zito. He is going to command too much money. You talk as if Zito is the only pitcher that Peterson could help. Trade for Javier Vasquez and see if Rick Peterson could get him back to being the dominant pitcher that he was when he pitched for Montreal.

Zito is too similar to Glavine in that they both are pitchers who use considerable saavy to get out hitters. Our Mets need a pitcher who can throw in the mid-90s in contrast to the style of our #1 and #3 starters (i.e., between Glavine and El Duque in the rotation).

Lyle

Lyle,

Good points, and I thank you for weighing in.

I agree, contrasting styles are an important key to setting a successful rotation. One of the keys to the '86 Mets, I believe, was their ability to go through a three game series with Gooden, then Ojeda, then El Sid, throwing off the hitters' rhythms throughout.

You may be right about Zito's price tag, and there are few things worse in life than an overpaid superstar. Maybe Vazquez fits better. Perhaps a trade for Dontrelle happens instead. Hell, maybe they'll sign Clemens or Pettitte for a year; with the kids the Mets have coming up, a one-year rental like that might indeed make more sense than locking up a Zito for four or five years. Keep the long view in mind, though; many of those kids are just the kind of fireballers to whom you're referring. Humber and Pelfrey sandwiched around Zito might be a good 1-2-3 front-end punch to christen our new ballpark in a couple years, don't you think?

Also, Zito's already experienced, and benefitted greatly from, the Zen of Rick Peterson, so there'd be no need to sell him on its value. And with the news of Glavine's signing, Scott Boras is aware that in this winter's high-stakes garage sale, Omar can afford to pick it up, turn it over, look at the sticker, wrinkle his nose, and say, "It's nice, but it's a little expensive."

Great analysis and bio. Now could you please explain why he almost never takes off the jacket?

He may be an alien, and doesn't want to show his wings/tentacles/grotesquely enormous second pair of arms.

Or it could just be poor circulation.

There was an afternoon game in July when No. 51 trotted out of the dugout to chat with the pitcher and I was completely stumped as to the identity of this interloper. Sponsor rep who threw out the first ball? Spend a day with the Mets contest winner? Did Mel Rojas grow pale as a ghost?

It was Rick Peterson. Never occurred to me he had a number.

Very Good Lyle/NDenis,

Share brilliance in this post: It is this type of post that MAKES the blogsphere. Opinions but with sound arguements and Quantitive/Qualitative data.

The one season rental: Omar has saved $$$ in the BP and infield and to some extent OF. By not resigning Cliff, and with Green's 3rd party paid salary, Omar can spend on an Xtra pitcher.

Given Duke's age I would tentatively want him in Oliver's role until injuries hit. He is insurance much as Valentin is. Also Glavine is a one season rental in essence. If Vazquez does come, Duke could assume the role he had with the CWSox. Also this rotation DOES need a dominant RHP starter. Maine is more an offspeed pitcher, but with flashes of good FB. Ollie is the anti glavine from the Left side (and the true reason Omar is not grasping for Zito). Given this arguement and even the stats above, I'm not sure that Mulder would not be the FA better choice.

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