The way Bud Black figured it, now he wasn’t the only one who had to answer the questions. Finally, there was someone else in his fraternity.
When Black was hired by the San Diego Padres in 2007, he was one of a kind: the only former pitching coach among the 30 major league managers. Then, in 2010, longtime friend John Farrell was named manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. Now there were two.
As Farrell said, “It was almost a passing of the baton, in a way.”
Though Farrell has moved on from the Blue Jays — he was hired last month to manage the Red Sox — he remains part of an exclusive group. While baseball executives are happy to give their clubs over to former first base coaches and bench coaches, former hitting coaches and broadcasters, they have proven wary of hiring pitching coaches.
It’s not entirely clear why. There are theories. All that’s certain is that, in general, pitching coaches remain pitching coaches, and don’t often get a chance to move up to the top spot. They are pigeonholed, told to stay within their difficult specialty.
“I think, a lot of times, once they get out of their playing career, the focus of uniform personnel who are ex-pitchers sort of channels to the pitching coach side,” said Black, the 2010 National League Manager of the Year. “Not the managerial side.”
Because of lack of interest, self-selection, or a bias among general managers, very few get the call. Just 16 managers in baseball history, including Farrell, have come from the ranks of pitching coaches, according to David Vincent of SABR and Retrosheet.
And even fewer win.
For every Bud Black or Wilbert Robinson (who won two pennants at the helm of the Brooklyn Robins in the dead ball era), there are more Joe Kerrigans or Ray Millers, men whose talents at working through pitching mechanics didn’t lead to success as a manager.
Kerrigan and fellow former pitching coach Larry Rothschild were fired as managers in 2001. Since then, only Black and Farrell have made the transition.
“This is a game that is steeped in tradition, which is a great thing,” Farrell said. “And yet, maybe one of those traditions might be that managers [jobs] go to former position players of all types.”
And not to former pitching coaches, who are seen by many as specialists whose skills don’t always translate to the broader job of managing.
So it’s telling that, when Red Sox GM Ben Cherington explained why the team was so taken with Farrell that it negotiated a trade with the Blue Jays to get him, he said, “In John’s case, we see someone who has been more than a pitching coach.”
Focus leads to fear
Former Padres GM Kevin Towers recalled watching Angels broadcasts and seeing the camera pan to manager Mike Scioscia. There was always another figure there, Black.
“It was Mike Scioscia and Buddy Black, kind of standing there hand-in-hand,” said Towers, who hired Black for the Padres. “I thought all those years of being around Mike, talking the game around Mike, he probably absorbed quite a bit of managerial knowledge in doing so. Probably no different than John was with Terry Francona.”
So even though he was only responsible for the 12 men on his pitching staff, perhaps Black wasn’t as insulated as most pitching coaches appear to be — a common argument against hiring them to manage.
“The fear, probably, for most executives is that he’s probably got a better feel for pitching, for making pitching moves, but he’s only been used to managing 12 players,” Towers said. “Where a manager has to manage the game, manage the staff.”
Of course, having a feel for the pitching staff might just be the most important aspect of the game for a manager. It’s something many managers struggle with, especially those who haven’t worked closely with a staff before.
And it’s something that a former pitching coach comes with, already installed.
“Who better to handle a bullpen than a guy who had worked in the bullpen, worked in the rotation, guys who did that for a livelihood?” said Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, one of the few pitching coaches whose name comes up in managerial discussions.
There is a single-mindedness that comes with being a pitcher, an ability to ignore everything but that catcher’s mitt.
“Pitchers, you have this little alley that’s 60 feet, 6 inches away,” Maddux said. “And that’s 90 percent of your focus. Your livelihood is what happens in front of you. Sometimes the rest of the field doesn’t get seen.”
When those pitchers become pitching coaches, and then potential managers, that singular focus can be a concern for a GM about to give over his team to a former pitching coach. General managers want to see a greater depth of experience.
“Pitchers who go on to coaching tend to be pitching coaches, and position players who go on to coaching tend to be hitting coaches or infield instructors or outfield instructors or bench coaches or bullpen coaches or first base coaches,” Cherington said. “Perhaps that could be part of it. Not many have gotten the chance, but the ones that have and have succeeded seem to have more broad-based experience.”
Black and Farrell both spent time in major league front offices, running other parts of the organization. Both were considered potential GM candidates, men who would succeed at anything they chose in the game.
Cherington, for instance, said that as pitching coach, Farrell “approached the job in a different way than often pitching coaches approach the job. He took a very comprehensive approach to the job, almost as a coordinator might.”
That was intriguing to the Red Sox. But for other clubs, a good pitching coach is such a rare commodity that they are often considered more valuable where they are.
“I think that if you get a good pitching coach, people want to take advantage and keep that good pitching coach,” Maddux said. “And sometimes they get overlooked by an organization because they’re good at what they do. ‘Let’s keep it that way.’ ”
Sometimes that’s what the pitching coach wants. A few, such as Farrell, want more.
As pitching coach of the Red Sox, Farrell said, he tried to understand offenses, too. Not necessarily because he was preparing to be a manager, but because he wanted to be a better pitching coach.
Yet when he got the job in Toronto, he realized all he didn’t know. So he had to ask. He had to listen to his staff. Farrell needed to formulate not only his own opinions but, as he called it, a mental “drop-down menu.”
Because of that, building a complementary staff becomes extremely important for a former pitching coach. The bench coach becomes crucial. It’s something that came up in discussions between the Red Sox and Farrell.
And something that came up in discussions between Farrell and Black, in terms of how to choose a staff.
“You’re a former pitching coach, you’ve got a pitching coach next to you,” Farrell said. “Do you start to over-weight the staff with former pitchers? Because how many staffs around baseball do you have more than two pitching people on it? And do you start to take away from the position player needs because of the set of experiences of the coaching staff?”
All this places some responsibility on Farrell’s shoulders. In a game that tends to jump on trends — young, analytical GMs; defensive metrics; on-base percentage — success breeds chances. Should Farrell do well in Boston, there might be opportunities for other pitching coaches.
“It’s almost like you’re waving the flag for your certain group of people that you come from,” Farrell said. “But opportunities are going to present themselves to guys who do well, and that makes other people take note.”
For now, the trend might be players fresh off the field, in light of the success of Mike Matheny’s Cardinals in getting to the NL Championship Series.
Mike Redmond is a leading candidate for the Marlins’ open job, and Robin Ventura just finished his first season with the White Sox.
But the Marlins are also interviewing Bryan Price, the Reds’ pitching coach. His is a pitching name that frequently comes up in terms of options for managerial jobs, along with Maddux’s.
Excellence in the role of pitching coach, though, hasn’t always been enough. There is a long list of well-regarded pitching coaches who have never gotten a chance to manage, including Leo Mazzone and Dave Duncan.
“You can be a great outfield coach, base running, third base coach, whatever the case may be, and be a victim of your own success,” Maddux said. “Unless you market yourself, that that’s something you want to do, people may not know that.”
Maddux said he wants a chance, eventually. He has had discussions about becoming a manager, but for now the job doesn’t work with his personal timeline. He hopes that, when the time is right for him, some GM will be ready to make the leap.
“I think over time, if more get chances, if they succeed, then more and more will get chances and they’ll get second chances,” Cherington said. “If they don’t [succeed], then maybe it will stop.”