The Case for Bob Apodaca: Headcases and Ground Balls

According to Wikipedia, a pitching coach's role is defined as such:

"A pitching coach, as the title suggests, mentors and trains teams' pitchers. He advises the manager on the condition of pitchers and their arms, and serves as an in-game coach for the pitcher currently on the mound. When a manager makes a visit to the mound, he typically is doing so to make a pitching change or to discuss situational defense. However, to talk about mechanics or how to pitch to a particular batter, the pitching coach is the one who will typically visit the mound."

Now, when your pitching staff just stinks, it's hard to really just blame the pitching coach.  The Cleveland Indians currently have the worst pitching staff in terms of ERA. Outside of Cliff Lee being pretty solid again this year and Carl Pavano having a nice rebound to his time in the Bronx, the rotation has been pretty much putrid. With so little to work with, how much of the Indians' poor performance do you pin on Carl Willis? The Indians had a relatively bangup staff in 2007, only to see their future studs fall apart in the subsequent seasons.

On the flip side of the coin, you also have (arguably) the best pitching coach of the past 20 years in one Leo Mazzone, who ESPN rates as the best assistant coach of All-Time. Mazzone made some gems out of pitchers such as John Thomson, Denny Neagle, and John Burkett, which should give credence to the influence of the best pitching coach around. However, he also was the man who coached John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux. How much of Mazzone's success was inflated because of the sheer level of pitching talent he had? Or, to rephrase, did Mazzone make the Big 3, or did they make Mazzone? Mazzone was later hired by Baltimore and fired with a year left on his contract, and maybe that's just because Baltimore's pitching has stunk outside of Erik Bedard (and I guess Jeremy Guthrie) the past 4 years, Leo Mazzone or no Leo Mazzone.

So somewhere in the middle of the worst pitching and the best pitching is the Rockies' pitching, headed up by one Bob Apodaca. The guy is in the most precarious position in baseball coaching (outside of Joe Girardi's), trying to get the Colorado Rockies to pitch like a winning club should.

Years ago, the advanced baseball minds thought to themselves "We need to find a way to pitch effectively in Coors Field." Any fly ball was prone to landing on I-25, so the next thought was "well, maybe we just won't put the ball in play, therefore no fly balls!" but strikeout pitchers were always in high demand, and therefore expensive and oftentimes prone to being terrible in the high altitude and thin air. So the next thought was "well, let's get groundballers and a good defensive infield, that'll prevent homers!"

And so it came to pass that Aaron Cook didst taketh the mound and didst forceth batters to poundeth the ball into the ground...th.

Ok, silliness aside, we know that groundballers are going to never really be Aces, but they're going to be very effective in a big park like Coors Field, especially with a strong middle infield and Todd Helton at 1B. So our new strategy is: draft groundballers. Seems cut and dry, but what happens when we need to make acquisitions, or when a guy who is MLB ready doesn't show the ability to keep the ball low and the infield busy?

That's where Bob Apodaca comes into play.

 

Join after the jump and we'll examine what Apodaca has done with some of our starters.

Looking at Jason Marquis, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Jorge De La Rosa, I'm going to propose that Apodaca is doing something right. Maybe not the same thing for each pitcher, but something is being done right.

Marquis is kind of a no-brainer at the moment. His NL-leading 11 wins (shudder) and All-Star selection have forced baseball fans and sportswriters alike to notice our unassuming stud. Coming into 2009, many pundits made the claim that Colorado would be disappointed with Marquis, thinking that we would be getting a groundballing-inning-eating back end starter, but the sad reality was to be that his groundballing ways had tapered off and he'd simply be batting practice in the form of 170 innings.

2007 and 2008 seemed to lend credence to this pessimistic view, as his GB% had dropped from a career-high 55.2% in 2004 with St. Louis to 47.6% in 2008 with Chicago. While still passable, you couldn't really call him a groundballer. Since arriving in Colorado, Marquis has improved this tally to 57.8%, good for 2nd highest in the majors behind St. Louis' Joel Pineiro.

Interestingly, a lot of this is to be credited to his fastball. Fangraphs rates Marquis' fastball as a negative pitch since 2005 with the Cardinals, and it hit its absolute lowest in 2006, costing the team 1.13 runs per 100 fastballs. From there, Marquis did his best to rely on his slider, with it peaking as a 1.84 runs/100 pitch in the 2008 season. This season, however, Marquis' fastball has saved the team 10.6 runs (0.98 runs/100), and while his slider's value has dropped to only 0.38 runs/100, the improvement in his fastball is clear in his improved GB%.

Adam Dunn was quoted by Owen Perkins (MLB.com) as saying "When I first faced him, eight or nine years ago, he threw about 95, straight as an arrow, and then someone taught him a sinker. The difference between him now and in the past is he throws every pitch for a strike."

Adam Dunn knows a thing or two about straight fastballs.

Dave Krieger quoted Marquis in yesterday's article as crediting Apodaca for his improvement: ""I'm glad I came here, worked with 'Dac,' and it got me right to where I need to be. I feel like this is where I want to be, and this is where I want to stay."

Clear-cut proof that Apodaca is good? Probably not, but we can see the improvement in Marquis, and he feels as if Apodaca has been instrumental in this turnaround. To quote Crash Davis, "If you believe you're playing well because you're getting laid, or because you're not getting laid, or because you wear women's underwear, then you ARE! And you should know that!" Well, hopefully Marquis isn't bringing that kind of information (the Too Much kind) to the ballpark, but if he thinks Dac is helping him, he probably is.

Our next 2 cases will be far briefer, because I just felt that Marquis needed more attention from me.

Ubaldo Jimenez was the big pitching thing to come out of our farm for the longest time, promising 100 mph heat and a slider that breaks like movie glass. Well, he's here, and he's delivered. Am I attempting to credit Apodaca for Jimenez being good? Well, maybe a small bit, but the fact of the matter is that Jimenez is a prospect that simply panned out. Good talent makes good pitchers in a general sense.

However, it's not to say that Apodaca hasn't left his mark. Jimenez came to the majors carrying a career minor league 40.8% GB%. Granted, it had bumped itself up to 47.2% by 2007 in AAA, but he clearly was on the flyball side of things.

To date, Ubaldo has a 53.0% GB% to follow up his 54.4% GB% from 2008. Currently, he ranks 8th in the majors in GB%, behind fellow Rockies Jason Marquis and Aaron Cook (who are incidentally 2nd and 3rd), but also behind prolific groundballers Roy Halladay and Derek Lowe. Additionally, we have watched Jimenez' BB9 fall from 4.67 last season to a respectable 3.69 this season.

Young, wild pitcher, refining his game, his control, and his ability to keep the ball on the ground? I'm detecting a trend here.

Now DLR is kind of the wild card here. He has his proponents and opponents on this website, and has shown the ability to absolutely dominate the opposition (7/3 - 8.0IP, 6K, 4BB, 0R or 5/15 - 7.0IP, 1ER, 10K, 0BB) or become batting practice (6/16 - 2.1IP, 7ER, 4K, BB). But the things he's doing as a whole look pretty decent, at least for a back end starter: 5.14 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 9.37 K9 (6th in the majors), 2.21 K/BB. You look at everything but the ERA and you might think you had a upper-end starter.

Since he's been with the Rockies, we've seen his K-rate jump 5.68 in 2007 with the Royals to 8.86 and 9.37 in 2008 and 2009, respectively. While his fastball is very hittable, his changeup and slider have been excellent weapons for him, and we've seen his GB% jump 5-6% over the past 2 years (from ~40% to around ~46%). While it's not extreme in any way, he's making more use of his infield defense to complement his high strikeout ability.

Now this is where the opponents step in and reference more of his Jekyll/Hyde propensity, and how Apodaca can't handle De La Rosa and therefore isn't a good coach. My response is that it's a coach's job to work on how a pitcher pitches, and with the more stable guys, be able to provide a calming word or two. De La Rosa is clearly not a more stable guy, being prone to having emotional outbursts in the forms of profanity and baseballs in the seats. But before we hang Apodaca for not fixing De La Rosa, take a look at the game logs from DLR's 2007 in KC. Looks pretty familiar, doesn't it? Maybe it's just DLR, but the point is, he's harnessing his tools and abilities very well, and playing to the team's strengths more than he was in KC.

Looking at the big picture with DLR, in fact, the only thing that has really changed about his peripheral stats is that he's striking more guys out. His BB9 is .06 lower than last year, and his HR9 is .01 greater. His BABIP has jumped .004, but his FIP has dropped 0.25 runs. For an inconsistent pitcher, that's downright consistent.

So to summarize, Apodaca has had varying degrees of talent to work with the past few years. He's worked with prospects, veterans, and reclamation cases. He's worked with Jason Marquis to fix his fastball and get the ball back on the ground. He's started to rein in Ubaldo Jimenez and added a groundball propensity. Finally, he's taken Jorge De La Rosa and made his breaking pitches start to work for strikeouts again. Granted, he's still a headcase, but that's what we have shrinks for.

Despite criticism and spells of bad pitching, I really think that Bob Apodaca has done a good job with what he's had to work with. He's improved areas of strength, worked around weaknesses and made these guys into pitchers that play as part of a team, and not just hurlers surrounding by 8 fielders.

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