Blue Jays fans, at least those who read Batter's Box, think a lot about their favourite team's pitching. We are very interested in the minor-league prospects, waiting for the day Jason Arnold, Dustin McGowan or one of the other kids arrives to make a difference in the big leagues. That kind of anticipation brings back memories for Toronto pitching coach Gil Patterson, who wasn't just a prospect, he was a full-fledged "phenom" -- at age 21, the Philadelphia-born righty was in the New York Yankees rotation, where he was expected to stay for many years. Gil had amazing stuff and enough confidence to guarantee George Steinbrenner 300 wins, but it was not to be.
Patterson's career was short, but brilliant. At 19, in his pro debut after attending Miami Dade South Junior College, he threw six complete games in 13 starts for Oneonta in the New York-Penn League. As a 20-year-old, he dominated both the Eastern and International Leagues, spinning another 12 complete games -- one a no-hitter -- with a combined record of 18-4, including 2-0 in the playoffs. Promoted to the majors in 1977, the rookie made a strong early impression on Carl Yastrzemski, who called him the best young pitcher he'd seen in the AL for a long time. Already in pain and far from his best, Gil made only six big-league starts. Eight operations and a quarter-century later, he looks back on his abbreviated playing career with mixed feelings.
"Those few words from Yaz hold a lot of weight with me, because of what he stood for as a player. I don't have the numbers, or the longevity, so it was nice that people said things like that about me. It's a double-edge sword -- it makes me feel good about how hard I worked, and maybe where I could have been, but other times you feel bad about not reaching those expectations."
The tall 47-year-old carefully avoids blaming the Yankees for mishandling him. "I don't think there was any malicious intent. After the year I'd had as a 20-year-old kid, 9-2 in AA and 9-2 in AAA, they thought if I pitched a little winter ball, I could step right in and be a #2 or #3 starter for them, right behind Catfish. The opportunity was there, but maybe not the arm care."
Reminded that Billy Martin, his manager in the AL, was notorious for overworking pitchers, Patterson nods and smiles, but stops short of pointing fingers. "Believe it or not, with everything you've heard about him, good and bad, it's not the whole picture. He might have overused some pitchers, with the Yankees or other organizations, but he was a fiery guy, who you liked to play for, and win for. In my case, when I was with Billy, I was still throwing 92 or 93, and to a certain extent, there was a feeling that my arm didn't hurt as bad as I said, if I could throw that hard. They should have asked Bobby Cox, because the year before with him, I was hitting 95 and never threw a pitch above the knees. All of a sudden, balls are staying up, I'm getting whacked sometimes, and it hurts. In hindsight, I should have told them I couldn't pitch, and shut it down a lot sooner than I did."
The experience affects his relationship with his charges. "I am patient with them," he agrees, "but I'm probably a little more conscious of protecting them. Not to the extent of babying them, but when a guy needs a day, or needs to do something special with his arm mechanically, I try to make sure there's a plan, and we follow it." Pitchers' competitive natures can cause them to work too hard, and Patterson occasionally has to slow one down. "Some guys don't think, until they actually have an injury, about how important it is to protect their arms. But their careers depend on it."
Asked specifically about Pete Walker, who made at least one start and a relief appearance for the Jays in April before admitting how much his shoulder hurt, the coach chose his words carefully. "Everyone pitches with a certain degree of, let's call it discomfort. Their arm may not feel great on any given day. But there's a difference between a little discomfort that's there for a time or two, and an injury. When it persists, and it begins to affect the way you're pitching, you have to realize you're not doing yourself -- or the team -- any good."
Patterson took all of 1978 off to recover from rotator cuff surgery, retiring at 23 in 1979. Still trying to do the impossible, he eventually returned for a couple brief stints in the lower minors -- even learning to pitch left-handed one spring -- before Tommy John surgery in 1983 ended his comeback dreams. His coaching career began the next year with the Yankees. After a half-season in AAA working with with Mark Connor, Gil was assigned to Oneonta, where he had starred a few years earlier. He joined the Oakland A's organization in 1991, coaching at several levels until becoming the roving minor-league instructor in 1996. That was followed by four years in the Diamondbacks system as their minor-league pitching coordinator. After joining the Jays as bullpen coach in 2001, he was promoted last June.
Along the way, Gil has become a trusted and respected mentor. He's credited with teaching Esteban Loaiza the cutter late last season that he's used so effectively this year. Bret Prinz changed his arm angle on Patterson's advice, reviving his stalled career. Al Leiter says his telephone never stopped ringing on the day of his World Series Game 7 start, but he took only two calls: from former teammate Dave Righetti and Patterson. The lefty has nothing but praise for his former minor-league instructor.
"He's not abusive on pitchers. He's one of the best pitching coaches anywhere, because he knows how hard pitching is, and he knows what a pitcher goes through to get to the big leagues."
Within the Jays' hierarchy, Gil is consulted on a lot of issues, including possible four-man rotations or who goes to the bullpen, but downplays his input. "For the most part, the manager decides, and J.P. might get involved, but I'm there to offer my two cents -- sometimes even when it's not asked for. I give my opinion, then they always try to do what's best for each player and for the organization."
Patterson also plays a big role in preparing his staff for each specific opponent. "Before the first game of each series, we go over their lineup. It's not too scientific; if you work up-and-in, down-and-away, change speeds and hit your spots, you'll get a lot of guys out. We might talk about doubling up inside against a guy, or on occasion, you make a note of someone who is a very good breaking ball hitter, but for the most part, we want our pitchers throwing to their strengths, not looking for hitters' weaknesses."
Told that Batter's Box readers would appreciate details about a starter's typical routine, Gil warms to the task. "Let's take Doc, who pitched last night. Afterwards, he might do a few exercises for the arm, ride the bike, and ice. The next day is a heavy run day, and working with our strength coach. He does legs, abs and back. He'll also play catch. Tomorrow, he will throw a side, which is about 45 pitches, off the bullpen mound. Normally, he'll throw at about 75-80 percent, and he'll throw all of his pitches -- sinker, cutter, curveball and some splits -- from the windup and from the stretch. Then he'll go in and do some arm exercises, for the cuff and the shoulder, plus some overall conditioning for the upper body. It's also a big run day for him, but more sprints. The next day, he's still playing catch, and it's another run day for him, with some work on the abs and back. The day before he starts again, it's more about taking it easy. He does play catch, and might do some light running, but not much."
What Gil didn't say, since he was describing a standard five-day regimen, is that returning on short rest isn't for everybody. That "taking it easy" day is also important for mental preparation; some pitchers visualize every pitch, simulating the game in their heads. Those individual differences between pitchers are considered, to a point. "Everyone's routine is almost the same, but when they play long catch before a start, Doc stretches it out to about 130 feet, Cory Lidle maybe 150 or 160, Doug Davis goes all the way to 200 -- if they ever move the mound back, he'll be a star. So they all do the same things before a start, but their own way. Unfortunately, the relievers can only play long catch during our pregame, at about 4:00, because there's limited space in the bullpen."
Queried about how often he wears his "mechanic" hat compared to how often he's a psychologist, Patterson doesn't hesitate. "It's almost 90% the mental part. All you're trying to do with pitchers physically is get them to repeat their delivery consistently and throw quality strikes. If you can do it down there in the bullpen, you should be able to do it out here in a game. If you don't, it's not because your mechanics are bad, it's usually because your mental approach changes -- you don't trust that delivery you've worked so hard on. There's always a few little things you can tinker with mechanically, but the biggest cause of problems in a game is trying to do too much. Just because it's Manny Ramirez or Jason Giambi up there, if you throw 90, you shouldn't be trying to throw 100. If your curveball works at 75, don't try to throw it at 79."
Gil has never gone out to the mound to discuss candlesticks as a wedding gift, but admits that making a pitcher laugh can be an effective technique to get them to relax. "Trust your stuff, make your pitches, be aggressive, and once the ball leaves your hands, accept that you don't control the results. That's what a lot of the mound visits are about. A guy makes a great pitch, down and away, but a hitter reaches out and bloops it in for a hit. I'm unhappy about the result the same way they are, but they have to just focus on making the next pitch."
Patterson is diligent about studying video. "After every game, I go over it and chart it. I'm looking for what pitches the other opposing team is hitting hard, and on what counts. Over time, you start to learn which pitches, in which locations, give them less chance of hitting the ball hard. You can also learn a lot about the quality of pitches your man was throwing, and checking for mechanical flaws is a third part of reviewing a game."
Just then, starter Cory Lidle paused to say hello on his way out to the bullpen, and his coach began to look restless. Even a rookie reporter with a long list of questions remaining could sense it was time to wrap up the interview. Instead of getting Gil's comments on every Toronto pitcher, I settled for asking about a BB favourite, rookie Aquilino Lopez. "He never ceases to amaze me. You think you've seen it all, then he surprises you. He has no fear, and he recognizes things. He's very good at understanding what hitters are trying to do; sometimes a guy takes a fastball down the middle, so Aquilino, realizing he's looking for the slider, never shows it to him. Then, when the guy figures out it's all fastballs, he goes back to the slider."
I was also interested in his impressions of the rising stars in the system, but game time got in the way. Patterson doesn't work directly with the minor-league pitchers, except during spring training. However, it's no surprise that everyone in the organization is on the same page when it comes to developing young arms. "We have an excellent farm director in Dickie Scott, who I've worked with before in Oakland and with the Diamondbacks. He wants the same things we want -- teach the guys how to play the game the right way, be protective of arms, but also build toughness. So throughout the minor leagues, he's implemented a program, which he's talked to me about, and with our bullpen coach Bruce Walton. It's all approved by J.P. Ricciardi, so everyone's together, and the things we do at the major-league level are done at all levels."
It was one of those conversations you never want to end. Thanks, Gil.
This is the third in an exclusive four-part series of interviews by Kent Williams with the Toronto Blue Jaysí coaching staff. The first two, with Brian Butterfield and John Gibbons, were posted last week. The final installment, with hitting coach Mike Barnett, will run Friday.