Sunday, March 4, 2012

30 Jays in 30 Days – Off-Field Edition: Bruce Walton

Who: Bruce Walton, Pitching Coach

Nickname: “Pappy”

Key Characteristics: Gruff, yet avuncular. Whenever I watch Walton head to the mound to have a chat with a pitcher, I always feel like I’d be a little scared if I were the one on the mound, but it doesn’t seem like he has that effect on the actual players. Which is probably good, I guess.

History: Pitching coach for the Jays since October 2009, entering his third full season in the job. Served as bullpen coach for the seven and a half seasons prior to his promotion. Part of the Jays organization since 1996, after his retirement from 11 seasons as a professional pitcher mostly at the AAA level.

What We Know About Him: Walton sat down with Tom Dakers from Bluebird Banter in January for a lengthy discussion, and seriously, pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about the guy, you can find in his five-part writeup. One of the more interesting tidbits I gleaned from that discussion was the role, and value, of the bullpen coach. Walton sees the position as more than just a guy to squat behind the plate while relievers warm up. Having graduated from the position himself, he sees the bullpen coach as an “extra pitching coach”, which he finds useful given the large percentage of the roster occupied by pitchers. In short, two coaches manage about half the roster (the pitchers), while you have about a half dozen managing the other half (the position players). It makes sense to me for a team to beef up its coaching staff for such an important spot on the diamond, and I’m glad to know that the Jays are at least philosophically on board.

Looking Back: Blue Jays pitchers gave up 761 runs last year, good for fourth most in the American League. Of course, that can’t be entirely chalked up to the pitchers themselves, what with the likes of Juan Rivera haphazardly chasing down fly balls in left field for part of the year. But the team did allow the second-most home runs in the AL, and tied for the second-most walks allowed. The team xFIP for 2011 was 23rd out of 30 MLB teams. The rudimentary and more advanced stats tend to match what I felt like I saw for most of 2011 – a pitching staff that had a lot of holes, lacking talent and depth beyond Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and a couple of relievers.

Is all of this attributable to Walton and his handling of the staff? In fact, I’m more inclined to give Walton some credit for piecing things together as well as he did over the course of 2011. It was hardly his fault that Jo Jo Reyes started 20 games, for instance. You can question whether Pappy should have got more out of pitchers like Reyes – renowned for having good stuff that could never be harnessed – but it’s not like Walton failed where others succeeded.

Looking Ahead: Walton seems to have some better pitchers to work with this year. Romero, Morrow, Henderson Alvarez, Brett Cecil and Kyle Drabek (to name a few) have another year of development under their belts; Darren Oliver, Sergio Santos, and Francisco Cordero should be upgrades over Jon Rauch, Shawn Camp and (possibly) Frank Francisco. (I still have a soft spot for Frank. Sue me.) The Blue Jays are far from the only team in baseball that is relying on one or two of their heretofore mediocre pitchers to take a step forward. If you believe what the Jays beat reporters in Dunedin are saying about the early showings of Cecil, Drabek and Dustin McGowan, you’ll be excited at the prospect of four or even five high-quality arms in the rotation. If it all turns out like that, I expect Walton will get a lot of credit for it.

2012 Expectations: I’ll be looking more closely at how Walton deals with the adversity that the season is sure to present – how does the rest of the staff to respond if a key pitcher gets hurt? How does Brett Cecil work his way out of a few tough outings? It’s easy to look ahead to a season of perfect health and predictable prospect progression, but it never works that way. Guys get hurt. Young pitchers will break your heart.

If, by mid-June or so, the team actually has a clear idea of who its starting rotation will be for the rest of the season, it’ll already be miles ahead of where they were last season. I think it’s fair to expect the staff to be improved over 2011, with at least one of Cecil, McGowan, or Drabek becoming a steady third or fourth member of the rotation behind Romero and Morrow. I’d also expect a more reliable and even performance from the relief corps. Walton's job is chart the path to all of that happening.


Anonymous said...

What is going on with Joel Carreno? He came up and pitched great last year - his ERA was 1.15, and he struck out 14 while walking only 4. Read a bunch about projections for the bullpen spots, and he rarely gets mentioned - why is that? And if he doesn't break with the club, where is he likely to start the year?

Anonymous said...

Jo Jo Reyes...ugh

Anonymous said...

Carreno has mostly been a starter in the minors and there's no real spot for him in the rotation with the big club; nor does there look to be a bullpen spot the way it's shaping up. He'll be a nice injury call-up at some point, I assume. You can never have enough of them.