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How pitching coach Chris Holt’s path to the Orioles prepared him for the club’s ‘big project’

Chris Holt, left, was named the Orioles pitching coach for the 2021 season and will continue his role as the organization's director of pitching.
Chris Holt, left, was named the Orioles pitching coach for the 2021 season and will continue his role as the organization's director of pitching. (Courtesy of Baltimore Orioles / HANDOUT)

Call it a cosmic coincidence, Chris Holt said, or maybe an alignment of the stars.

In December 2012, it was just a panel at the Texas Baseball Ranch Ultimate Pitching Coaches Bootcamp.

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There was Trevor Bauer, now the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner and one of highest-paid players in baseball. There was Kyle Boddy, whose Driveline Baseball facility made data-driven development mainstream.

And there was Doug White, a Houston Astros minor league coach, a few seats downstage from Holt.

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White didn’t have to hear much from Holt — who more than a year earlier had cut his own safety net to fully pursue being a pitching coach and was holding tight to that dream running a clinic in Florida — to know that he not only belonged on that stage, but belonged in an organization that was trying to redefine pitching instruction in modern baseball.

“When you meet somebody and you have a connection with somebody, you hear them speak, you know what they care about, you know how much they’re going to try to get better, it’s easy,” White said.

“I knew that Holty would help our system out just based on listening to him.”

White soon brought Holt to Houston, and Holt’s work there made him a significant early hire when Astros executive Mike Elias took over as Orioles general manager in November 2018.

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Now, Holt is the latest product of that progressive movement leading a major league staff as the Orioles’ pitching coach.

He brings a grassroots coaching background built on ego-less investment in his pitchers and total prioritization of their individual needs to as big a challenge as exists in baseball.

“He’s very analytically strong, but he’s also a former professional player, and kind of represents a blend of skills and credibility in both of those areas that I think is really hard to find,” Elias said.

‘Good at understanding the why’

A son of Maine raised on the Boston Red Sox of Roger Clemens, Holt was halfway through his college career at nearby Saint Joseph’s College before he left seeking more.

His high school pitching coach and mentor Kevin Smith connected Holt to his old pitching coach down in Florida, an area where Holt knew the level of baseball could push him.

Holt was working a camp for that coach, Mike McLeod, when in lieu of payment Holt was instead given a rental car to drive across Florida from Tallahassee to St. Augustine and throw at an open pro tryout at Flagler College.

A summer earlier, Holt said McLeod gave a few delivery tips that unlocked 5 miles per hour on his fastball in a 20-minute bullpen session. This time, the rental car and that trip earned Holt a spot on Flagler’s team. He pitched two seasons there and the Pittsburgh Pirates took him in the 21st round of the 2002 MLB draft.

“Honestly, I was a guy that threw 78-82 [mph] at a D-5 in Maine, and then two years later, I’m drafted,” Holt said.

Scott Emerson, Holt’s pitching coach that summer in Williamsport, recalled someone who didn’t have the stuff of a pro prospect but knew how to pitch and truly cared about learning more.

Emerson used a program called Dartfish to break down deliveries frame-by-frame, drawing out stride length and angles on the computer screen. Holt soaked it up.

“It’s one thing to ask questions, but you always want to get good answers and get to the why part,” Emerson, now the Oakland Athletics’ pitching coach, said. “He was good at understanding the why. Why do we want to be in these positions? Why do we want to have good pitching mechanics and good movements?

“Those are the guys I kind of would follow and wonder, ‘Is this guy going to get into coaching? Because he should.’”

Holt was released in 2003, pitched in Austria in 2004 and was back at Flagler as a volunteer coach in 2005. It began a period of intense research for Holt, all in the name of finding every possible way for the pitchers he was working with to reach their potential.

“He was a good communicator, the players and pitchers really liked him, and he was very knowledgeable,” Flagler coach Dave Barnett said.

Both at Flagler and Ponte Vedra High School in Florida, where Holt was the pitching coach from 2009 to 2011, he built credibility with his pitchers by trying out what he was researching on himself to ensure it worked.

Ponte Vedra coach Tom Stanton would watch Holt pronating his arm far from his body with a 12 pounds of ankle weights strapped to it and wonder how it was still attached. But his personal approach with pitchers, and the unique methods, worked.

“He was seeing increments in the pitcher’s velocity going up, the command going up, all these different things,” Stanton said. “He was definitely ahead of the game.”

Chris Holt, right, the Orioles' new major league pitching coach, talks with manager Brandon Hyde.
Chris Holt, right, the Orioles' new major league pitching coach, talks with manager Brandon Hyde. (Courtesy of Baltimore Orioles / HANDOUT)

‘A big leap of faith’

Holt, at that stage, was a middle school gym teacher and dean of discipline by day and coach after school. At night, he’d consume all the pitching research he could, tracking down the best resources he could find and trying to learn from those who practiced them.

Those influences, together, read like a directory of modern pitching thought leaders.

Holt was certified with Tom House’s National Pitching Association, and through Barnett connected with Astros pitching coach Brent Strom and the Texas Baseball Ranch, led by Ron Woolworth.

He studied Mike Marshall, a former big league pitcher with a doctorate in physiology, and Paul Nyman, an engineer with a revolutionary science-based approach to pitching movements. He’d call on Paul Jaeger, another progressive trainer of the game’s top arms.

He sought out Strom and his peers at the Texas Baseball Ranch, and Derek Johnson, who was building a stellar program at Vanderbilt and now works as the Cincinnati Reds’ pitching coach. Same goes for Eric Cressey and Matt Blake, whose work training top pitchers and athletes over the last decade-plus landed them with the New York Yankees. Boddy was a peer trying to learn just like Holt was, and they pushed each other’s pursuits.

“When you have a passion for something, you’re going to dig it up,” Stanton said. “I don’t care if it’s pitching, or if you’re an archaeologist. Archaeologists don’t get better unless they go dig stuff up. He’s digging stuff up, trying stuff out, working on it, seeing what works.”

Smith, his high school coach, said:He just always wanted more. I don’t mean that in a negative way like he needed more. But he wanted more.”

To achieve that, he had to fully dedicate to coaching.

“I left having a salary and school district insurance,” Holt said. “I took a big leap of faith to pursue the furthest possible development as a coach that I could, and pursue excellence in coaching pitchers.

“I just kind of made a deal with myself, and ultimately my wife, and said, ‘I’m going to take this absolutely as far as I can go.’”

For most of 2012 and 2013, he was training pitchers at The Winning Inning academy in Clearwater, Florida. He built holistic programs including strength and conditioning, delivery work and pitch development for high school athletes to professionals, and everywhere in between.

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He’d been, by then, a pitching coach and a throwing coach. All that experience and all those late-night pitching calls made him a formidable presence on the Texas Baseball Ranch panel in December 2012.

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White was a roving instructor overseeing the Astros’ short-season pitchers and saw Holt as an easy perfect fit for their program.

“He’s always been a dude who thinks for himself, and he’s always been a dude who is trying to figure how he can get guys better and doing things off the field that can help support training,” White said.

In 2013, they spent the year having “very normal pitching guy conversations,” Holt said, before he was hired as a pitching coach for the 2014 season.

One of his hiring interviews was with Sig Mejdal, now the Orioles’ assistant general manager.

“His ability with pitchers, his ability also to work with the front office and new ideas and new technology, and to be open yet skeptical, was in my opinion, what you’re looking for in any modern coach,” Mejdal said.

Astroball

Holt coached in the lower levels with the Astros, with short-season assignments creating time to work with their forward-thinking staff on a philosophy that eventually became the envy of baseball.

White said Holt was crucial in building the process of how the Astros would improve deliveries on a personalized basis, creating a step-by-step method to help each pitcher reach his own personal ideal delivery and learn more easily.

Holt said his early focus was curriculum content, involving everything from deliveries and pitch spins to throwing programs and arm care. “Affecting actual development, not just standing over a guy in a bullpen spitting seeds and keeping his pitch count,” he said.

In 2015, they began using TrackMan data, which captures dozens of data points about pitched and batted balls, and slow-motion video for delivery work and out-of-hand pitch improvement.

The new data streams allowed Holt to become a more accurate coach, he said, and he’s proud to have helped the Astros develop a progressive program.

“I feel like everything I’d done up to that point was a nice kind of segue into that growth mindset approach to where that was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’” Holt said.

It was an off-field assignment, however, that connected him to Elias, Houston’s amateur scouting director.

Elias tasked Holt with grading amateur deliveries to highlight those who would work well in Houston’s program and flag injury risks. He expected their close working relationship to end in 2018 when Elias took the Orioles’ top job. But Holt, then Houston’s assistant pitching coordinator, was a popular name for clubs looking to fill the top coordinator’s job.

He was likely leaving the Astros anyway, Elias thought, so he requested permission to bring him to Baltimore.

‘Meeting a new challenge’

Doing so, Mejdal said, gave the Orioles a “jump-start” on recreating all those processes that worked in Houston. They had to start from scratch, but results came quickly in the 2019 season.

Four Orioles affiliates, highlighted by Low-A Delmarva and Double-A Bowie, led their leagues in several pitching categories. As an organization, the strikeout rate climbed from 8.3 per nine innings to 9.1, while the overall WHIP and ERA fell.

“It was fun to watch the players,” Holt said. “These players were ready for it, for some new challenges and information, new, I guess, player development plans, things that were more specific in nature. I think ultimately it was about meeting a new challenge.”

Adding major league responsibilities as director of pitching in the 2020 season and now major league pitching coach in 2021 means those challenges are growing, though he’s ready to meet them. In assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes, he sees an equal in their approach to building success through relationships.

Holt knows the big leagues are about winning games, and like the rest of the Orioles’ staff he badly wants that to happen more often. But manager Brandon Hyde has also stressed for years that improvement doesn’t end once a player reaches the big leagues.

Holt’s blend of pitching development background and his time spent in the dugout as a pitching coach in high school, college, and the minors mean he’s equipped for both.

“It’s going to be a big project, I think, organizationally, getting the Orioles’ pitching program going,” Elias said. “It’s historically been a challenging one. I think he’s doing a really good job, and we’re very lucky that we have him.”

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