Thanks to Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti, Orioles' pitching now a strength
By By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun|
Sep 30, 2014 | 11:42 AM
While introducing Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti to Camden Yards this offseason, Orioles manager Buck Showalter pointed out the bronze statues of the team's six Hall of Famers beyond the left-center-field fence.
"You know, if you two guys figure out this pitching here," Showalter joked, "there will probably be a statue out there of you two guys."
And after the strides the pitching staff has made under Wallace, the pitching coach, and Chiti, the bullpen coach, in their first year working with the Orioles, Showalter recently joked that he's going to have to make good on his promise and give the duo miniature statues of themselves.
As a staff, the Orioles posted a 3.43 ERA this season, third-best in the American League and their best since they had a 3.28 ERA on their way to the World Series in 1979. Last year, the Orioles' team ERA was 4.20, just 10th-best in the AL.
Wallace and Chiti are baseball lifers — they've combined for nearly seven decades of baseball experience in coaching, managing and front office work — whom the Orioles plucked from comfortable jobs with the Atlanta Braves.
Wallace, who has been a major league pitching coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox, was the Braves' minor league pitching coordinator before joining the Orioles. Chiti had spent five years in Atlanta's front office as a special assistant, working his last year there in charge of pitching development.
Molding young pitchers has been a passion for both longtime coaches. With an up-and-coming rotation that had untapped potential and a bullpen that needed to be reworked after trading 50-save closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics, the Orioles provided a challenge.
Wallace, who had two hip replacements, finally felt healthy enough to venture into a major league dugout again. And he wanted Chiti, who also worked with Showalter when he was managing the Texas Rangers, as his right-hand man.
The results of their first year on the job are just short of amazing. Even though they have different titles, Wallace and Chiti essentially share pitching coach duties. They've earned the pitchers' respect and adoration with an individual approach to teaching but a consistent message. The pitchers talk about how much more relaxed the atmosphere is and how Wallace and Chiti have shown their investment in them as pitchers and people.
"It's hard to imagine any guys who have had more impact [on the pitching], but that takes away from the players," Showalter said. "Dave has such a great resume, and we were lucky to get him. A lot of teams didn't realize he was available and healthy again.
"A lot of people who are 30 years old would love to have his energy level. He's got a tough side to him. There's some tough love, but he's very organized, very prepared. I knew Dom before, and I was kind of hoping this was where he wanted to go. Dave and he really play off each other's strengths."
Wallace and Chiti know each other well from working together with the Braves for the past four years. They go to the ballpark together, they eat together, they leave together. Early in the season, the pitchers presented Wallace and Chiti with T-shirts saying "I'm with this guy" with a cartoon likeness of each other on them.
The foundation of their work with the Orioles staff was laid out in January, when they watched all the pitchers throw bullpen sessions, first during a minicamp in Sarasota, Fla., and then in Southern California, where a group of pitchers work out in the offseason.
There wasn't much critiquing, just watching, which surprised closer Zach Britton, who was fighting for a roster spot at the time.
"They watched our workout [in California] and pulled us in the stands and at the track," Britton said. "They said, 'You guys are good big league players. We've seen your video. I know you guys have been through your ups and downs, but you guys have the stuff to be very good at the big league level.'
"And that was it. We were like, 'Are they just blowing smoke?' What is it? We were like, 'Do you guys have anything else?' And they were like, 'No, we'll see you in the spring.'"
Spring training came, and Wallace and Chiti still watched — most of the time next to each other. Eventually they held one-on-one meetings with each pitcher. But instead of telling them what they needed to do to get better, it was a back-and-forth discussion of the process.
"I think once a player feels like he has some ownership of what he's doing, and he has an invested interest in himself — which obviously they do — it helps," Wallace said of the importance of those meetings. "And did we offer ideas? Yeah. But you never force something down a player's throat. You ask, 'Hey, what do you think?'
"Everybody is different. Chris Tillman and Zach Britton are two totally different animals physically. … Miguel Gonzalez is different. Bud Norris is different than Andrew Miller. In our minds, developing young pitching is almost an individual development process. You have to take each guy for what they are, what they do and work within what they have."
The pitchers — feeling like they were an important part of a process instead of recipients of a directive — embraced the approach.
"It's not always what they say, sometimes it's what they don't say," Tillman said. "They let you work through it. All spring, I can't tell you one time that they told a guy, 'This is what you need to change.' They let you do what you need to do, get a feel for you and then they'll speak up. But I think they let you do what you need to do. It's new. It's interesting, actually it was kind of a shock. In the past, we've always tried to fix it right away.
Starters and relievers saw that same approach from Wallace and Chiti.
"What was surprising was at first they just watched," reliever Darren O'Day said. "A lot of guys would try to come in and try to make their mark right away to prove their worth. They've been around so long that their reputation precedes them. They know they needed to take the proper route instead of the quick route."
When Wallace and Chiti were introduced at baseball's winter meetings last December, the analogy used to describe their personalities was that Wallace was like a crock pot and Chiti was like a microwave. The pitchers have seen that play out over the season.
Wallace is quiet, laid-back, uncomfortable in the spotlight. He's old-school, carrying a fungo bat everywhere he goes.
But if there's a question, he will give a thoughtful answer. Right-hander Kevin Gausman asks a lot of questions, and Wallace enjoys the peppering he gets from the 23-year-old rookie, whether it's about mechanics or mentoring Orel Hershiser or Pedro Martinez.
As for Chiti, he's one of the guys in the bullpen.
"He's still thinks he's mid-20s in his mind," O'Day said. "He laughs at fart jokes. He's silly. We have a good time with him. He keeps the bullpen loose until the phone rings."
Wallace and Chiti have different personalities, but when it comes to pitching, they share the same ideas.
"I think the players will tell you it's one voice coming from two different people, but it's the same voice," Wallace said. "We might say the same thing in a different way, but I think the biggest thing is that they know we care about them, and our vested interest is in each and every one of them reaching their potential and be as good as they can be."
Said Chiti: "Two heads are better than one, four eyes are better than two. And we're committed to one thing, and that's to see the players grow. They have to learn to see what they see and make adjustments from it. That's been a constant message."
One of their ideas was for the starting pitchers to watch one another throw bullpen sessions, something that has occurred regularly since the team's trip to Houston in late May. It's an extension of Wallace and Chiti's collaborative effort with the pitchers.
"They said, 'We want guys looking at other guys to see if you seen anything wrong with their mechanics,'" Gonzalez said. "The more eyes you have watching someone throw a bullpen, the better it's going to be. There's going to be more help. It's helped us as a team. It's helped us as a pitching staff in general."
Wallace and Chiti have impressive credentials, but they're not comfortable taking any credit for the pitching staff's strides. And Showalter said that they're part of the process laid out by former pitcher coaches Rick Adair and Mark Connor. But there's no mistake that this was the time when the Orioles pitching staff needed to make that step forward to become a legitimate postseason contender.
And the two veteran coaches helped to do that, by letting their pitchers know that they are just as much part of building a winner as anything else.
"Two things that we both subscribe to is that players don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," Chiti said. "And when you're coaching, you better make sure that first bullet hits, and that takes time. Players here have done something right to get here, and it's almost a slap to the face or a lack of respect if you don't allow them the time to show you exactly what they do.
"I think we both thought to run in here on a big white horse [wasn't right], I think a lot of that stuff is overblown. I think all of our pitchers know it's about them."