xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Anatomy of a pitching coach: How Darren Holmes’ ‘unique’ background helped the Orioles’ bullpen become baseball’s most improved

As Orioles assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes watches members of his staff warm up to enter a game, he scrolls through a mental checklist.

An attentiveness — found after a demotion to the minor leagues, used during a lengthy pitching career and expanded upon in medical settings after it — prompts him to first watch their feet, then their knees, and on up, tracking each link in the chain of their delivery.

Advertisement

“My mind kind of works in small details,” Holmes said.

He knows from experience how vital they can be. When the Orioles hired Holmes as their bullpen coach before last season, he inherited baseball’s worst relief corps. No bullpen has improved more in the past two years than Baltimore’s has under his tutelage.

Advertisement
Advertisement

His impact does not stop at relievers. Holmes was the Colorado Rockies bullpen coach for left-hander John Means’ All-Star 2019 season, but as he compared video of that Means with the one that posted an 8.10 ERA through his first six starts of 2020, he noticed a clear difference. Routinely watching pre-start bullpen sessions from behind home plate, Holmes spotted a change on Means’ leading pant leg.

“I could always see, when John raised his leg up, his pinstripe on his pants,” Holmes said. “When he started over-rotating, his pinstripe would disappear.”

That over-rotation caused Means to have the same issue that once sent Holmes to the minors: His arm was late, and his command suffered. With a fix made, Means has dominated in his 12 starts since, culminating in last week’s no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners.

But Holmes, along with pitching Chris Holt, is not always able to rely on apparent visual cues. He’s quick to admit the game has changed in the nearly two decades since he played it at the major league level. His ability to adapt has led him to Baltimore, where he’s able to put his experience in the majors, biomechanics and analytics to use to oversee a bullpen turnaround. After posting a major league worst 5.79 ERA in 2019, Orioles relievers have a 3.39 mark in 2021, sixth best in baseball entering Wednesday night and the largest two-year improvement of any team.

Advertisement

Manager Brandon Hyde credits that to relievers feeling comfortable enough to be themselves. That’s an environment Holmes creates.

Along with a couple of relief pitchers, Orioles assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes, left, carries on a bullpen ritual of drinking a Red Bull energy drink as the starting pitcher throws the first pitch of the game.
Along with a couple of relief pitchers, Orioles assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes, left, carries on a bullpen ritual of drinking a Red Bull energy drink as the starting pitcher throws the first pitch of the game. (Kenneth K. Lam)

As the Orioles’ starting pitcher prepares to throw a home game’s first pitch, Holmes will join relievers as they clink Red Bull cans in the bullpen, popping the top and chugging the energy drink when the pitch is thrown. Holmes kept quiet when he turned 55 last month, but when word got out, the relievers picked him up, carried him into the trainer’s room and dunked him into the ice bath.

“A pitcher has to trust you before they’ll listen to you,” Holmes said.

A simple fix

Holmes figures his interest in pitching mechanics began relatively early in his major league career. He was part of the Rockies’ inaugural roster, taken with their third pick in the 1992 expansion draft to be their closer.

But Holmes struggled. Through nine outings, he had a 17.18 ERA. Colorado sent him to the minors. Early in Holmes’ first Triple-A bullpen session, pitching coach Frank Funk told him to stop.

“It wasn’t literally three pitches in,” Holmes said. “He goes, ‘Oh, I know what you’re doing wrong.’”

Funk pointed out that Holmes was pulling his hand out of his glove too late in his delivery, causing command problems. With the correction made, Holmes soon returned to the majors, where he finished the season converting 23 of 25 save opportunities with a 2.43 ERA.

“It was that small,” Holmes said.

That moment hangs with him in his modern career, even as he now has the added benefits of slow-motion video and advanced data to point out that a pitcher’s release point has dropped 3 inches (as right-hander Shawn Armstrong’s had), or that he was driving off the front of his back foot rather than his heel (as left-hander Tanner Scott did when he walked the bases loaded for a second straight outing). It also stuck with him over the next decade as a player.

Orioles assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes, left, and two pitchers get ready to drink a Red Bull energy drink as the starting pitcher throws the first pitch of the game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 27.
Orioles assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes, left, and two pitchers get ready to drink a Red Bull energy drink as the starting pitcher throws the first pitch of the game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 27. (Kenneth K. Lam)

He spent four more years with Colorado before bouncing around the next six, including a brief stint with Baltimore in 2000. After back surgery cost him the 2001 season, Holmes had a resurgent campaign for the Atlanta Braves. He also played an important role off the field.

John Smoltz, already a Cy Young Award winner and four-time All-Star as a starter, had never closed until he returned from Tommy John surgery. He turned to Holmes for guidance on how to handle the role, then set a National League record for saves.

Smoltz’s career continued — he entered the Hall of Fame as the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves — while Holmes retired after the 2003 season. But the next year, they reunited as owners of Acceleration Sports Institute, a clinic in Holmes’ native Asheville, North Carolina, designed to help training and rehabilitating athletes. Smoltz is quick to clarify “it really was his baby.”

“He was one of those in-the-trenches guys in how he survived the game,” said Smoltz, now an MLB Network analyst. “He understands the game of what he did, how hard it was and how to translate that to the next generation.”

While overseeing the training of athletes as ASI’s director of sports performance, Holmes continued to research the biomechanics of pitching, earning a certification in exercise physiology from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. ASI eventually became part of the Steadman Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas’ sports medicine practice, leading to an invitation from Dr. Mike Kissenberth, an orthopedic surgeon focused on sports medicine, to join some pre-med students in dissecting shoulder and elbow cadavers; “Sounds fun” was Holmes’ response to the chance to study how those two major arm joints function. Kissenberth also welcomed Holmes to sit in on a handful of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgeries, a procedure that has become common for modern pitchers.

“I think it just sort of changed the way, even to this day, he looks after the pitchers,” Kissenberth said. “That’s what makes the story of Darren unique, honestly.”

‘The modern pitching coach’

When Scott issued six walks over two outings, Holt and Holmes quickly went to work finding the issue. With the use of slow-motion video, they were able to show Scott side-by-side footage that same night of the differences in his successful mechanics and those that caused the flawed command.

“You can actually help a player 15 minutes after a game,” Holmes said, “where normally it would take you struggling two, three, four games before somebody could actually figure out what was going on.”

Holmes has seen that progression since his return to affiliated baseball as a biomechanics pitching consultant for the Braves in 2014, followed by five years with the Rockies. When Colorado created a small analytics staff, he met with them regularly to learn each number’s purpose. In time, he could extract the value of the data for each of his pitchers, finding which of their pitches were most effective in given counts and locations and which opposing batters they best matched up with. He continues to do so in Baltimore.

Orioles assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes, right, watches starting pitcher Bruce Zimmermann warm up in the bullpen before a game against the Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 27.
Orioles assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes, right, watches starting pitcher Bruce Zimmermann warm up in the bullpen before a game against the Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 27. (Kenneth K. Lam)

For coaches, understanding those figures has grown into a vital skill, one Orioles assistant general manager of analytics Sig Mejdal said Holt and Holmes both possess. He traveled with the Orioles on their recent West Coast trip, seeing how the pitching coaches put the data from his staff to use.

Advertisement

“The modern pitching coach is not just relying on his experience and video, but there’s a lot more information and tools that we’re sharing with him, and now, his job is to synthesize this,” Mejdal said. “If you’re asking me if we could compete with a coach who is not interested in using this information, I would say it’s like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. You might get lucky, but it’s not a good strategy we want to go to battle with.

Advertisement

“You’ve got to get a coach with a good mind. We don’t want to hire a kid in high school to do this who understands the tech. You need somebody who’s going to be able to do both and garner the respect of the pitchers.”

From that bullpen with Funk to his work with ASI, Holmes has spent almost three decades growing into that mold.

“Many [coaches] are high-level athletes who pitched at the highest level as Darren did, and then they moved into coaching,” Kissenberth said. “He had this pause, which I think really contributes to his growth as now a coach.

“He’s taking that back to taking care of these young players.”

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement