Following batting practice one day, I had the chance to sit down in the Kernels dugout with their pitching coach Gary Lucas to talk a little about some of his and the Twins philosophies on pitching and pitcher development at the Low-A level. Watching him work, Mr. Lucas is clearly very passionate about his job and his ability to help these young men develop into the best that they can become. He is a terrific person who was happy to answer my questions, and those answers are below.
As we were talking off of the recorder, the name of JO Berrios came up. He was quite excited when talking about his talent and his potential, but he made a great comment that speaks to what we must remember about all of these kids. “Sometime Berrios looks like he can be a future ace in the big leagues. Sometimes he looks like a 19-year-old kid with a lot to learn.” Such is the job of a pitching coach at this level.
Gary Lucas was the first round pick of the Cincinnati Reds twice in 1973, first in the June Draft and later in the Secondary Phase of the draft. He decided that college was the right direction for him at that time. In 1976, he was drafted in the 19th round by the San Diego Padres and decided to sign. He moved up the system and debuted with the Padres in April of 1980. He made 18 starts that season, but quickly was moved to the bullpen where he had a very solid, eight-year big league career. He spent four years with San Diego, followed by two years with the Expos and two seasons with the Angels.
So, what was the transition for him from player to coach? Was it a difficult decision for him?
According to Lucas, “I wouldn’t say it was a difficult decision. It was a process to get to that point to make a decision. I think when I left the game, I wanted to be full-time dad and husband and just kind of take a step away. There was some interest from some people and I had some interest in coaching, but I did it at the junior college level near home in San Diego at the time just to, kind of, as I remember, see if I liked it and stay involved. I wasn’t really ready to just wash my hands of baseball, but I kind of wanted to do it on my terms.”
He began his coaching in the professional ranks soon after, but he acknowledges that he probably wasn’t ready, “I was home for awhile and then there were a couple of offers that came along. I took the Giants offer to see if I’d like it. I remember coaching back in the ‘90s. I think I was kind of doing it just to stay in the game, and to be in uniform and to hang out with the guys. It’s all the wrong reasons.”
And then the Twins came calling and he has been the pitching coach for the Twins affiliate in the Midwest League since the year 2000.
“When I came to the Twins, I had more focus in making the players better. It wasn’t about my career, and hanging on. It was about devoting my energies and focus to giving back to the game. And the Twins, thank God, gave me that opportunity. I think I’ve handled it the right way. I don’t think I handled it the right way in the early going. I wanted to get the players better, but I didn’t really know how to go about it the way you do with experience.”
I had to ask Mr. Lucas if his current players know that he pitched in the big leagues and if they ask questions about that time.
“They know it. Some of them are interested. It comes up from time to time. I think there’s a little bit of credibility there. I try to buffer that with (the fact that) I’m a resource for them. I’ve certainly been at every level they want to be at. I had a good major league career, but it all came with hard work. I was not the most talented guy in the world. If they want to tap into that work ethic and drive and desire and determination, and all that, when I didn’t have many tools, I mean, so be it. I was kind of a mental part of the game pitcher and that’s how I got there and stayed there.”
The conversation then turned to his role as the team’s pitching coach and how he is able to work with the pitchers and some of his philosophies.
“I think the main thing that I try to give them is everything they would want out of a coach. I mean, everything, and more, so that if they were coaching me, they could equal that. They would want to have that same thing if they were coaching me. I try to set an example of work ethic, focus, drive, determination in getting them better. If I’m working with Tim Atherton or Mason Melotakis, I need to remember that Tyler Jones and Kaleb Merck, they need my attention to. I need to let them know that I care, and if the major league thing plays into it, so be it.”
How hard is it to work with all of the different individuals, experiences, talents, personalities of a team?
“You have to understand each one of them, and each one of them is different. For instance, Hudson Boyd is 20, and then you have some veteran guys who are really ready to take off and you can see they belong and they’re confident. Tyler Jones, Steve Gruver. Guys that are repeating in this league are handling the transition from starters last year in Beloit to relievers here. Hudson’s just trying to figure out how he dominated everybody in high school and he can’t do it here. So there’s a different scenario for each guy and I have to handle each one of them differently along with the parameters that the Twins have set up for me for their development.”
What is he looking for mechanically from pitchers, knowing that the Twins have put more of an emphasis on medical concerns?
“The medical is big. We want to keep them healthy. The mechanics are certainly part of this. We have a peak performance focus that Bill Springman, our hitting coordinator, puts out for both hitters and pitchers, and that’s part of the mental game. I think there’s a little bit of balance to all of this without throwing so much at them that it overwhelms them. They’re all pretty good, but I think you have to balance what you’re giving. I mean, if you’re not careful, you’re giving Hudson (Boyd) so much mechanical stuff that you forget that he needs to know about the mental part of the game too. Vice versa, you might think that a Tyler Jones and Steve Gruver are pretty polished in all areas, and yet, they’re only in Low-A ball. So, there’s a balance with everything, the teaching and development requires that you try to balance out.”
I have had the opportunity to watch Lucas work with his pitchers. On one day, about five hours before game time, Lucas was on the field with a half-dozen of his pitchers doing PFP (Pitcher’s Fielding Practice) and working on pickoff moves. The pitchers all went to the warning track. They would jog to centerfielder where they flipped the ball to Lucas who essentially became the Quarterback. The pitcher would keep running, look he was running a post pattern, and Lucas would try to hit him with a perfect pass. The pitchers appeared to be having a great time while still getting their pregame work in.
However, watching Lucas work with a pitcher in the bullpen was intense. Instead of just stepping onto the bullpen mound and throwing some pitches, Lucas encourages his pitchers with situations, and staying at the knees, and burying a slider, and dropping a curveball just over the plate.
“What I’m trying to get out of them (in the bullpen), I’m a big feel guy, I’m trying to get them to feel their delivery, feel their release point, feel their ability to throw strikes down in the zone. It differs a little bit, as far as the work in between relief outings and starts. We have a six man rotation this year, which is new to them this year so the starters have to throw twice in between starts. We do different things on different days. One day it might be a lot of situational pitching. The other days, it might be mechanics. It just differs from each guys certain times of the years. As we get polished up and get ready for a championship run hopefully at the end of the season and a playoff situation, we try to fine tune some things. It’s going to be more of what they’re doing right rather than what they’re doing wrong. So there’s different parts of the season. Different parts to each guy. And you try to keep it fresh.”
The six-man rotation was certainly a big topic early in the season as it was not something the organization had done in the past. So, how is that working for Lucas and his pitching staff?
“I think it’s played out. I think the positive outweighs the negatives. As the season unfolds at the end, you’re going to see guys not having to come out of the rotation due to innings. That’s what it’s designed to do. Where in the past, we’ve had to rest guys in the middle of the year to rest their arms, then take them out and bring in new guys. We’ve got a chance to keep this rotation intact for the most part.”
It has certainly not been easy through the first three months of the season for Lucas and his pitching staff. There have been plenty of challenges.
“When you have some of the things we’ve gone through on top of the six man rotation, I think it’s a credit to how these guys have handled it. I’m talking about Tyler Grimes having to learn the catching position after playing shortstop last year. Right out of the gate, he was asked to catch three or four games a week. We had to overcome three relievers that were relievers in college or relievers before with us. (Brett) Lee, (Mason) Melotakis and (Tyler) Duffey having to be starters. We had a 19 year old that just turned 19 in Berrios in May, so he was 18 to start the season (and played in the WBC). So, we had to overcome some hurdles.”
But as the old commercial says, “But wait! There’s more!”
“In addition, we had (David) Hurlbut, (Steven) Gruver, (Tyler) Jones, (Matt) Tomshaw, who had all been starters last year in Beloit that were asked to be relievers here. So we were in transition as well as having a six-man rotation. So, it was my job to keep them calmed down and not get too distracted by all the drama and so forth. And I think now we’re seeing some of the fruits of that. Some of these guys are starting to pitch pretty good.”
Lucas understands the process that the minor league progress:
“When they leave Elizabethton, from what I've heard and what they talk about both from coaches and players that have been there, is that hitters swing at a lot of our pitcher's stuff out of the zone. So, I think there can be a false sense of security as far as how we get guys out.
Now you this to this level, which I think is pretty fair, pretty equal, as far as the ballparks, the travel. Pitching and hitting seems to be pretty equal. Overall, it's a good test for our guys, as far as command, control and where their confidence level comes from.”
Lucas continued, “When you get to the Florida State League, it's pretty traditionally a pitchers' league. Big parks. Ball doesn't go very far. I think if you can pitch here (MWL), you can pitch at AA. And, I mean pitch here. Really, really get a lot of people out. So, this is where you've really to to be good and to polish it up at Ft. Myers and then I think you can really take off potentially. That AA is really a separator league, but this is a big test here, as far as actually being able to deal with what pitching is about rather than getting away with things in the rookie leagues.”
I asked Lucas how much statistical analysis he uses with the pitchers at the Low-A level. He said that he uses it as needed, but certainly does not dwell on it.
“I don’t do it at this level as much as some of the coaches at the higher levels. I‘m more in tune with staying within the Twins program that they’ve set out for us. It’s mostly to work on the balance I talked about, their deliveries – getting them under control – and where they’re looking to throw their pitches. Making sure that those things are solid and a foundation.
Now, I might sit a guy down from time to time and say, you know where you’re at with too many walks verses innings pitched. Or, your WHIP is really high, so let’s look at our walks and let’s look at our hits per inning pitched. Or, let’s look at first pitch strikes. Or, let’s look at base on balls that end up scoring. I might sit them down collectively or individually about a few of those things. By and large, it’s a situation where at this level, I don’t want to overwhelm them with numbers and then they become very distracted by something they don’t have any control over. They have control over some of the other things and that’s what they need to move further is have their delivery under control and able to throw more strikes.”
Gary Lucas enjoys his job and his passion for it is very clear by watching him and then by talking to him. So, what is the best part about his job? Lucas said, “Well, the Twins have given me some parameters to work within, but they’ve also have given me the freedom to get to know these guys, develop relationships with the players. They don’t put any restrictions on that. And, I think in the long run, I’ve found out that gets the most out of the player and the player-coach relationship takes off. Then if they’re in a rut, you’ve got them in the palm of your hand because you know then as an individual. So, the Twins have allowed me the opportunity to coach within the realm of their structure, and kind of be personable too.”
Gary Lucas experienced the ultimate as a baseball player, and that is to play in the big leagues for eight years. He got there through hard work and a passion for the game. He now shares that passion with the 18 to 23 year old pitchers that work with him in the Midwest League. Rest assured, guided by Manager Jake Mauer, Hitting Coach Tommy Watkins and Pitching Coach Gary Lucas they are in good hands.