This week I interviewed Rick Peterson. Rick is a former pitcher and pitching coach. He coached with Major League organizations for over 30 years. He was kind enough to share some amazing stories about his career, approach to working with pitchers and what it was like to be in Oakland during the start of the Moneyball era.
Josh Wahler: What was it like growing up with your dad having been a Major League player?
Rick Peterson: Well it was interesting because I put a uniform on when I was two and pretty much kept it on my entire life.
I think what was fascinating was growing up around Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski and some guys who are Hall of Famers, but at the time as a young kid you don’t know how good these guys truly are.
It’s interesting because the Pirates were a family, probably like many teams. There wasn’t the migration to other teams back then, so if you were with a team you were often with that team your whole career. The Pirates really were a family and Danny Murtaugh who was the manager and his pitching coach Don Osborn they were all like Uncle Danny and Uncle Don. I was about 12 or 13 when my mother finally said, “You know Danny’s really not your uncle?” And I was like “gosh, really?”
It was really cool. The one thing I really understood early on as kid, I was probably 13, 14 years old, and I remember asking my dad, why do some of these guys make it to the big leagues and other guys with the same physical talent, if not more don’t make it? I realized at an early age that the mental game was the difference maker, the physical ability and physical talent was not the difference about guys making it. It was about having the mind of a champion in order to perform at your best under pressure.
When Dad started managing in the minor leagues I would go to the ball park with him every day, literally, I grew up on a baseball field up until my freshman year of high school. Then dad went into the front office at that time, but up until that time I didn’t know any different other than I just went to work with dad which was at the baseball field.
JW: Speaking about the mental side of the game what is the mentality that a pitcher needs or what do you say to a pitcher when you’re up by one run and the bases are loaded and he needs to work his way out of a jam?
RP: Well it’s all about being present and focused on the task and I always called our pitchers, tongue and cheek, professional glove hitters. You get paid to hit the glove, if you hit the glove you pitched good, if you missed the glove you don’t do so good.
It was really all about understanding that each hitter is a separate game, focus on executing one pitch at a time to hit the glove and you need to win three separate games to close out an inning.
Ken Blanchard wrote a best selling business book years ago called The One Minute Manager which I read early in my career because I realized that the pitching coach is really the only person in all of sports that has a uniform on that calls time out in the middle of the play. Runs out, and has a private conversation with a player on the field.
No other coach does that when you really think about it. I read The One Minute Manager because it’s a business leadership book about communicating effectively in really short periods of time. As a corporate executive you don’t always have time to sit down with your employees for 45 minutes at a time. You’re really trying to keep people focused with these little sound bites of a one minute message and you really want to be able to hone that skill in order to effectively communicate to the pitcher what he needs to hear at that moment.
In coaching you often times hear people talk about the golden rule, I’m going to treat players the way I want to be treated. Well, the reality of it is that nobody cares about the way I want to be treated. The reality of it is the platinum rule. You need to treat players the way they need to be treated in order for them perform at their best. Understand what their language is, and how they speak to themselves and how they communicate to themselves.
For example, Tom Glavine. I’ve played several rounds of golf with Tom and we often have golfing conversations on the mound. There would be times in a game where maybe Tommy’s trying too hard and he’s trying to throw too hard and I would go the mound and put my hand on his shoulder and say, “Hey Tommy listen, the long drive contest is over, put your driver back in the bag, get your three wood out, we need fairways and greens” and that’s all I would say and I would leave. He got the whole concept because that’s the way he communicates to himself.
Probably the most unique story is one of the first stories in our book, Crunch Time: How To Be Your Best When It Matters Most. We went into the Yankee Stadium in the middle of the season for a big series and we have Jason Isringhausen, who was our All-Star closer. We bring in Izzy with a one run lead in the bottom of the 9th inning. First pitch to Bernie Williams, home run, tie game. First pitch to David Justice, home run, we lost. It took two pitches literally and it took literally 40 seconds. He was totally devastated, just devastated.
The next day he comes up to me in the locker room before the game and he says, “Hey I need to talk to you.” I said, “Yeah sure what’s up?” He said, “No, I really need to talk to you.” So I said “Yeah sure.” We go into the back room and he said listen, “I can’t go back out there right now, I can’t do this right now. I need a break.” I said “Izzy, we all have setbacks, that’s not your first setback, but the opportunity with a setback is to now prepare for a comeback. We’ll give you a few days but we’re in a pennant race, we can’t send you to the Bahamas to go wind surfing for two weeks.”
So a few days later we get a big win and he comes up to me after the game and he goes “Hey, I’m the closer on the team, that’s my job, I want my job back.” I said, “Hey good to see you again, welcome back, we’ll get you in there tomorrow night.”
So we put him in the next night and he closes out the game and he picks up right where he left off. So now we go fast forward to the playoffs and believe me there’s no place like Yankee Stadium in postseason. There’s no place. That’s really crunch time.
We get a big win in the first game and in the second game we have a two run lead and we bring in Izzy to close the game out. He’s gotta go through Bernie Williams and David Justice again. Bernie leads off with a double which was a slight improvement from last time (laughs). Then he walks Tino Martinez. Jason Giambi, runs over from first base to talk to Izzy. I look at Art Howe, the manager, I said “Art let me go the mound.” I run out to the mound, I put my hand on his shoulder and he is literally quivering, he’s shaking. I said “Izzy are you okay?” He said “Rick I can’t feel my legs.” I said “Yeah, but the good news is we don’t need your legs to kick a field goal we need your arm to make a pitch.”
He laughed and he smiled and exhaled and I could feel the tension come out of his body. I said “Izzy, one pitch at a time, simply hit the glove, hit the glove one pitch at a time, you’re an All-Star, you can do this.” I could just see the look of confidence in his face that he finally just relaxed.
So anyway, he strikes out Posada, he pops up David Justice and then he pops up Brosius to close the game out. After the game, after we celebrate and we’re in the locker room, I said “Hey what did Giambi say when he came over to talk to you?” Izzy said, “He asked me if I’m okay and I said “Gia I can’t feel my legs” and Giambi looks at the sell out crowd in Yankee Stadium and he looks back at Izzy and goes “Dude, just relax, it’s okay if you screw this up, nobody’s watching.”
JW: That’s a great story!
RP: You never know when you get to the mound who you’re gonna see when you get out there, it’s all tension. The one thing I also realize is that if you can bring some humour to a situation it really helps. It’s impossible to have high anxiety and be nervous while you’re laughing, the two don’t go together. If you can get someone to laugh a little bit and see things a little differently it really helps reduce the tension.
JW: Talking about some of those Oakland A’s teams, you were in Oakland during the whole Moneyball era, what was it like being there for that and what effect did it have on your role and operations?
RP: It was absolutely amazing. It was the most unique special time of all our careers. The process of how we went about our day to day operations was totally unique from ever before.
The other big factor was Michael Lewis came out to write an article for the New Yorker and he wanted to write a story about how the Oakland A’s with and under $40 million dollar pay role can compete against these other big market teams like the Yankees with a $200 million dollar payroll.
After the 2001 season we had won 102 games and Jason Giambi was MVP. Giambi was a free agent and he went to the Yankees, All-Star centre fielder Johnny Damon was a free agent, he signed with the Red Sox and All-Start closer Jason Isringhausen signed with the Cardinals.
So we lost three All-Stars, one MVP and we had no money to replace them. I mean we replaced Giambi with Scott Hatteberg who was a back up catcher for the Boston Red Sox, who never played first base a day in his life including little league. He had a high on-base percentage though and ended up having a career year and really launched back into his career.
Michael Lewis after three weeks in spring training called his publisher and said this is a best seller. The publishing company said go for it and he travelled with us the entire season and I had the good fortune of sitting next to him for six months on the team bus. It was absolutely amazing because he looked at baseball from a Wall Street perspective and that’s why he named it Moneyball.
Moneyball was really about the fact that for us to win 100 games, it cost a little over $400,000 per win. For the Yankees to win 100 games it cost them $2,000,000 per win. I mean we’re doing it 25 cents on the dollar compared to what the Yankees had.
So from that standpoint we started looking at every data point you could possibly imagine. We didn’t even know why we were looking at some of the stuff we looked at. We just collected the data points and looked at it and really just tried to find what are some of the really key elements here as it relates to predictive analysis and statistical probabilities.
We found so many different nuggets that it really transformed all of baseball to the point when I came to the Mets which was 2 years later, the Mets bought over 100 copies of Moneyball and passed it out throughout the organization.
We did conference calls and book reports, that’s the impact that it had on the industry. It’s amazing, people wanted to know what we were looking at. When the Mets said so how do you lay out a game plan for your pitchers? I started pulling out all these folders with all these data points and they said where the hell did you get all this? I said I worked closely with Paul Dimatestas and I’d say Paul what about this, can we find this, can we get this, what about that? We just looked at things totally different than other teams and I think that’s one of the ways we revolutionized the game. Now every team’s a Moneyball team.
JW: Speaking about how you game plan your pitchers and set a rotation, what do you think is the biggest mistake teams make in managing their pitchers?
RP: That’s a great question. I’d have to really think about that. You know, when you’re managing and dealing with your own situation you really don’t know what other people do, so it’s really tough to even comment on it because you don’t know what their processes are.
I mean a lot of people ask me what about so and so as a pitching coach and I say I don’t know I’ve never spent a season with him, I only know him from the other side of the fence, he seems like a nice guy, he seems like he’s smart.
So it’s hard for me to tell what other people do. I know that we were so meticulous as we laid out our rotation and as we laid out schedules in spring training for our relievers. I know when I would share with other people what our process was they were like, wow I’ve never seen anybody do it this way before.
So I think as much as anything else Josh, is the fact that there were no boundaries. When people roll their eyes and say Rick’s out of the box, I say that’s not true because I never really got in the box, so it wasn’t like I was in and got out. (laughs)
Did you happen to read Billy Bean’s forward on our website?
JW: I did, yeah.
RP: I mean that’s a pretty good testimonial about what this was all about. Billy wanted to bring in people that had no guidelines, no boundaries, there was no limits of how we looked at things.
I think what’s really interesting is that when you’re in an environment of innovation you’re going to have mistakes and you’re going to have setbacks, that’s part of it because you’re not going to get it all right the first time.
If you’re all open to it though and you all move forward and you start to collectively look at things from different perspectives then I think you really start to be open to different scenarios.
Here’s a great example and I haven’t looked at this data in the last couple years, but here’s one of the data points that we found when I was with the A’s.
Look at total batters faced in a game for the opposing team and how many batters they’ll send to home plate in the course of a game. So if they send 27 batters to the plate you’re going to win every game, that’s a perfect game, no one got on base. 28 batters, 29, 30, the winning percentage keeps dropping, just incrementally. And then you hit a certain number where you’ll win just over 60% of your games, the next batter that comes to the plate is the biggest drop off of all, you’ll win only 40% of your games. It’s an over 20% drop off. You want to take a stab at it?
JW: At how many batters?
RP: At total batters faced, so like 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, it keeps dropping and then you’ll hit a number that you’ll win about 62% of the games, the next batter that comes to home plate you just drop to 40%.
JW: Let me think for a second… 39?
RP: 39 total batters you’ll win 62%?
JW: (Laughs) 40 maybe? I don’t even know.
RP: It’s 38. Thirty-Eight total batters faced, you’ll win just over 60%, the next batter that comes, the 39th batter it drops to 40%. That’s your 3rd hitter coming to the plate for the 5th time.
So what’s really interesting is when you start looking at lineups now and this is what my guess is because I haven’t looked at it, is that the number may have changed.
When you look at for example the Yankees, who’s their number two hitter? Judge. They have Machado hitting 2nd with the Orioles. When you look at some of these teams they’re starting to put their best hitter in the number two spot. So they’ve moved him up in the lineup one to get to 38, which is interesting. I wonder, I really wonder if that’s the reason why. My guess is that’s the reason why. I bet the analytics teams have looked at this and said we’re going to bat our best batter 2nd because the chance of him getting up five times is much greater than it is at 39.
JW: I’d love to get an update on what you’re up to now. Can you tell me a little bit about your 3P pitching program? What makes it unique? What kind of impact does it have on performance or reducing injuries?
RP: We partnered with ASMI and Dr. Andrews and Dr. Fleisig so you’re getting a biomechanical analysis at the amateur level. No different than the same measurements that you’d get from a professional that we’ve got for our big league pitchers.
Now it’s taken to the amateur market and all the drills that we use for our pitchers have all been tested in an ASMI lab to make sure they’re biomechanically sound. We know that if you do these drills over time you’ll build a major league delivery. You’ll be on time. You’ll have balance. You’ll have rhythm. And you’ll have the timing to execute quality pitches.