The best pitching coaches in the history of baseball

19 Jan

The listing of the best pitching coaches ever in the history of baseball is a tougher list to put together than many would think. The question always arises in whether the pitching coach made the staff, individuals, or teams achieve higher standards, or if the players them self made the adjustment to improve. For many years the role of the pitching coach was primarily an honorary type of position, someone that basically hung around doing little more than dealing with the internal issues of the staff and bullpen so the manager didn’t have to. That all began changing when one man changed that perception and led to today’s pitching coaches becoming a valuable commodity. What follows is my short list of the four best pitching coaches in baseball history in no particular order.

Johnny Sain was a wildly talented pitcher in his own right. Those who are old enough to remember probably recall having heard the lament of Braves fan of yesteryear. “Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain.” His knowledge and ability to pass it on made him a man considered to be the first really great pitching coach in baseball. That’s not to say there weren’t some good ones before him, but Sain was regarded so highly he was in many regards the pitching coaches coach, regularly being visited by coaches long after he walked away from the field in his elder years to have his brain picked for potentially golden nuggets.

Leo Maazzone once said “What I am is everything Johnny Sain taught me.” Jim Brosnan who many forget added “Johnny Sain did for pitching in the 60’s what Babe Ruth and the lively ball for hitting in the 20’s.” Even a great like Jim Boutton couldn’t help but gush “Johnny Sain is the greatest pitching coach who ever lived.” Sain was one of the pioneers of the save statistic used today pointing in a definitive manner to the value of a strong bullpen. Sain believed “pitching coaches don’t change pitchers, we just stimulate their thinking. We teach their subconscious mind so that that when they get on the mound and the situation arises, it triggers an automatic physical reaction.”

No matter how successful he was he threatened many managers with his success that feared losing their job to him. Among the pitchers Sain is credited with developing the talents of are Whitey Ford, Jim Kaat, Mudcat Grant, Ralph Terry, Wilbur Wood, Denny McClain (Baseball’s last 30 game winner) Earl Wilson, Stan Bahnsen, and Mickey Lolich. All twenty game winners, all meant that credit Sain as a part of their success.

Dave Boswell said of Sain, “A ball was just a ball until he put that in your hand. It had possibilities you never dreamed of.” Johnny Sain is without dount the first true great pitching coach in baseball history.

A Sain disciple, Leo Mazzone who first fell under Sain’s sway with the Brave’s Richmond affiliate became a great pitching coach in his own right. Some say he was just blessed with talent, some say he elevated that talent to another level. He lists Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine as some of his best students. Maddux won three of his four consecutive Cy Young Awards under Sain and became one of the greatest pitchers of all time with 353 wins and counting. Glavine adds in 305 wins and two Cy Young’s while Smoltz chips in 210 wins and 154 saves with a Cy Young award as well. Smoltz led the League with wins, 24 in 1996, and saves, 55 in 2002 under Sain, a very rare feat in baseball nobody else has pulled off. From 1991-1994 a Mazzone pitcher won the Cy Young and took the award 6 times in 8 years between 1991-1998. Mazzone further is known as being a coach that could seemingly resurrect the careers of struggling pitchers to squeeze out one or two more big years from them as he did with Jaret Wright. If a pitching coach is defined as a success based on what his staff does on the mound, Mazzone is a wild success.

Dave Duncan had been Tony Larussa’s pitching guru for around two decades and the one thing Larussa led teams are always known for is pitching. Whether he was rebuilding a future Hall of Famer like Dennis Eckersley into a legendary closer or retooling pitchers considered beyond repair like Bob Welch and Dave Stewart into winners Duncan is unarguably a success. Under Duncan Eckersley won a Cy Young and MVP Award in 1992. Dave Stewart strung together four twenty win seasons, and Bob Welch posted an amazing 27-6 season to take home the Cy Young. In St. Louis he has been noted as doing an amazing balancing act of keeping a perennially injured staff winning and getting to the world series. His staffs have regularly anchored World Series teams further pointing to his great talent as a pitching coach.

Finally Mel Stottlemyre managed to keep a revolving door of Yankee pitchers somehow working that were the key to four World Series titles. Without doubt he was supplied plenty of veteran talent, but many were players thought to be on the way out, some were in fact, but not before he sqouze one or two more years out of them. He was crucial to developing Andy Pettite and helping hone one of the best pick off moves ever as well as the legendary Mariano Rivera. Although many credited manager Joe Torre with the development of what we now call the bridge to the bullpen it was Mel that conceived the idea that if you had a dominant closer and two or three strong middle relievers you could just have starters go five or six innings and turn the game over to the pen. He reasoned this would keep the starters fresh and the pen effective as they had defined roles and would stay sharp with regular use. The days of the two plus inning save for closers was gone. Something must have worked as now it is the blueprint every team uses to build a pitching staff and it has changed the game as we know it.

Did these men really make pitchers better or was it just that they happened to be in the right place at the right time to take the credit? In the cases of some pitching coaches it is timing, but in the defense of these men they either enjoyed success wherever they went, changed the way pitchers were used, or have simply developed so many winners their success cannot be reasonably justified as mere timing. Of course others may argue to the contrary, but until someone proves different these are my picks as the greatest pitching coaches in the history of baseball.

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