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:
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.