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Interview with Grand Junction Rockies pitching coach Ryan Kibler

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I sit down with GJ pitching coach, Ryan Kibler, to discuss Jon Gray, Eddie Butler, Kyle Freeland, pitch-to-contact, developing a bullpen, and dealing with the inevitable injuries all pitching staffs worry about.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Grand Junction, Colo. -- Pitching is a thinking man's proposition and Grand Junction Rockies pitching coach, Ryan Kibler, is a thinking man.

There are so many intricate facets that go into making a successful pitcher that conversations like these could go on for hours. I sat down with Kibler before a game in GJ to discuss many of the hot-button topics surrounding pitchers throughout the Colorado Rockies organization, including pitching to contact, injuries, switching roles, and players to be excited about in the future.

DC: Let's talk some pitching! Firstly, there seems to be a lot of discussion around the Mark Wiley era and the philosophy there. Pitch-to-contact is maybe the oversimplified way of stating it, so how would you describe the Wiley philosophy and how you guys are trying to implement it here at the lowest level?

RK: Well, strikeout guys are hard to come by. You don't see many starters in the big leagues going and punching out 12 guys a night. Those guys are few and far between. And then those guys also, since they are strikeout pitchers, get their pitch counts high so they aren't out there very long, usually five or six innings.

We'd like to see our guys get deeper into games and pitch efficiently, and pitching to contact is a start. Not everybody has strikeout stuff, especially not every night.

DC: And nobody is striking out 27 a game, so those other outs have to come from somewhere.

RK: No. Nobody is doing that. Even if you can do that, you're not going to be able to do it every night. You aren't going to have your best stuff every single night. But, if you know how to pitch to contact and locate, you are going to be able to regulate the stuff that you have night in and night out.

DC: So, is there an aversion to pitching high or pitching inside?

RK: There's a time and place to do it. We teach that later on in the minor league process. Here, we try to give them the solid foundation that is fastball command. Every good pitcher in the big leagues has fastball command. There's just not many pitchers at that level that go out and have no fastball. Because it's a tough pitch to hit; it gets on you quicker, it's tougher to recognize, and it's got late movement ... it's just the toughest pitch in baseball to hit.

So here at this level we start off with pitching down and progress into pitching inside which makes their breaking balls better. If you can throw your fastball inside for strikes and in off the plate for effect, it makes your breaking ball better without making it sharper or harder, or having to command it better; that automatically does it.

Later on down the line -- and we get to it here some; in fact as of late [Javier] Palacios has done a great job elevating the fastball -- we learn about hitters and who we can elevate on, but here we don't want to train that throwing motion as a foundation because they do have to go pitch in Denver and if the ball is elevated it has a chance to get into that huge outfield or over the wall.

DC: Some guys have come through here and only had four or five starts -- Jon Gray last year, Kyle Freeland this year -- so what do you think is the benefit of having those guys for a short amount of time and what did you see out of them that made them so effective here?

RK: First, they come here because the need a little bit of a break from a long college season. And high pressure, each pitch is a high-pressure pitch [in college] and they typically throw a lot of innings so they come here to get their feet back underneath them again.

Also, you get to taste pitching at altitude a little bit. The ball flies out of here. And you also give them an opportunity to work on certain pitches. In Gray's case it was the change-up, in Freeland's case it was the change-up, and for Eddie Butler it was throwing strikes. This gives them a place to do that.

Then, as they progress and get back into pitching shape, you start to see here at the lowest levels that guys with that kind of stuff can just out-stuff the league. So when they do make errors, they do make a wrong pitch, or they aren't able to locate, they can still get away with it here. They don't always pay for it. When that starts to happen, that's when they go ahead and move on to somewhere they will pay for mistakes.

DC: What is being done and/or can be done -- I mean pitching injuries are just a plague on baseball right now -- but it's obviously got to be a part of the conversation whether it's conditioning, long-toss programs, even pitching to contact to preserve number of pitches in a game or over the course of a season. So how much of that, especially as development guys, goes into what you're doing here?

RK: It's huge because like you said ... and guys are stronger, just overall stronger. They can give more effort. They can sling their arm a lot faster. And those small muscles in the joints maybe aren't making that same progress as well and that probably has a little something to do with it.

And also, we try to keep the pitch count down to try and stay away from some of these kinds of injuries. If you're going to be out there for five or six plus innings, you better get some contact early in counts or you're gonna be done at 90 or 100 pitches. And now you've taken a toll on your relievers because you've got to fill in four innings with relief pitchers. You can't do that night in and night out or your bullpen will get destroyed. No doubt.

But that does have something to do with it, pitch counts and staying away from injuries. It's wear-and-tear from an unnatural motion, so we try to stay away from that with limited pitch counts.

You know, [Rafael] Betancourt came here and I'm sure he had been battling his elbow for a while until he finally got the surgery done. I think now guys are quicker to go to the surgery and that's because the surgery has turned out to be pretty successful as of late. Therefore, I don't think the number of elbow injuries is actually more, there's just more [players] having the surgery and having it quicker. They have more faith in the process.

DC: Interesting. A bit of a double-edged sword but maybe for the best in the long run ...

RK: I wonder if there is something too with the showcases. The amateur showcases are the thing to do now. When I was coming up as an amateur, there were showcases, but there were maybe two. Now it's showcase after showcase after showcase, and I understand that; it gets all the talent in one spot and it's easier to recognize the talent and it's great for the scouting people and I get that. But I see it with the high school kids I work with back home. In the offseason, they won't throw until there's a showcase coming up.

And now it's "I've got 30 radar guns in front of me, I'm gonna let it go and impress and I feel nice and fresh." But your endurance and your strength cannot be up if you haven't been throwing. The time off, and then the showcase to really let it go ... I think that's having an impact.

DC: Switching gears slightly -- and something that can be an important insurance policy for injuries -- I'd like to talk a bit about bullpen construction and development.  Developing a bullpen pitcher specifically seems like a tricky proposition. Some teams go with development as a starter and look later to convert, which has had varying degrees of success. So, what do you look at when you are working with your bullpen guys that is different from how you work with your starters?

RK: Well, starting pitchers I like to establish pitching inside. If they do that, and we've got the other team recognizing that we are going to come in, that's going to help the reliever out later in the game. He can go dominate on the outer half of the plate with his two-pitch mix, in some cases three-pitch mix, on the outer half while those guys are aware of the pitch on the inner half that the starter established.

They can go as hard as they want, as long as they want, as long as they can because we will only need them for an inning or two.

DC:  Regarding Yoely Bello last night, it seemed like the opposing couldn't touch his slider even though he couldn't locate the fastball, but he could do whatever he wanted with the slider.

RK: Yeah, that's been the story for him all year. The slider is not problem for him. He has a ton of confidence in it.

DC: It reminded me of watching Brian Fuentes pitch. Even the way he got into and out of trouble was very Brian Fuentes-esque.

RK: That's his thing. He gets in trouble but ... when he gets the bases loaded and one out, I wish he came into the game with nobody on and nobody out with that same intent and focus. But that's his thing, when it's time to step it up he's got another gear and it's great to have guys like that in the pen that can step up to the challenge and be fearless.

Put guys on base? It doesn't matter, keep making pitches. That's what makes a strong bullpen guy a strong bullpen guy. At Coors Field it's tough; you've got to have a good bullpen because each pitch the starter throws is so taxing with the mental strain and the elevation. You have to be okay giving up four or five runs and not give in and say "Oh, my night ‘s done, I'm gonna get the loss it's over." No-no. You keep pitching like it's 0-0. You have to be incredibly mentally tough to pitch in environments like this.

So, with that being said, that might shorten your night a little bit, leaving a lot more innings for your bullpen to eat up.  I've said it, and I've said it here [in GJ]: for us to win, and for us to win in the playoffs, we have to have late-inning pitching. Period.

DC: Well, you can give away entire games where 23 of the 25 men on the roster played well, but one bullpen guy can blow the whole thing.

RK: Yeah, from the sixth inning on, we need to throw up some zeroes.

DC: More philosophically speaking, I wrote earlier in the season that Jon Gray might make his debut in the bullpen to fill a need. The team not being competitive put an end to that thought, but Chad Bettis was a starter who was converted to the bullpen and now back to a starter. Juan Nicasio and Christian Friedrich have gone the other way. What do you think of all that switching around?

RK: I think as you evaluate the talent and you see who is coming up and what each individual guy brings to the table, I think it's pretty clear that certain lower-end starters show they might be better in the bullpen. They may be prime relievers, so keep giving those guys the opportunity and see how it works out.

I'm not a real big fan of taking a starter and putting him in the 'pen for a little while just because you have a weak 'pen and eventually just move him back to starter. I'd hate to interrupt the development process by doing that. But yeah, I don't have a problem with seeing a starter who's always been a starter -- say a Friedrich or Nicasio -- who has had limited success and trying them in a different role.

Sometimes they turn into a different guy when they go all out for as long as they can. They might turn into a different animal. You just have to pick and choose the type of guys that might happen to.

DC: There's a lot of young pitching talent depth in this organization. A guy like Tyler Anderson, to go along with the Grays and Butlers of the world, and even Dan Winkler is a guy people are forgetting about ... who have you seen in the last two Grand Junction seasons we should really be on the lookout for who is a bit less known? Maybe Alex Balog, Carlos Polanco, Zach Jemiola ... and you know Zach is one of those guys who is probably never going to be a huge strikeout pitcher but he understands how to miss the barrel and how to process a game ...

RK: Right and he does that with pitching with his change-up. I like Zach Jemiola a lot. He's kinda lost his breaking ball this year and he's had a tough time getting the strikeouts but ... you named the guys though. Tyler Anderson has been awesome. Freeland, Gray, and [Antionio] Senzatela all look good. Balog's got an out pitch; he's got a great curveball.

There are some guys coming through. Jon Gray is gonna be fine. Seriously, Jon Gray's going to be fine, he's got great stuff. Eddie Butler's going to be fine. You cannot teach the stuff that Eddie Butler has. It moves everywhere. Plus, he's got great instincts, and he competes. I'm excited about all those guys. I think all of them will have a chance. What they do with it [is up to them], but it's an exciting time.

DC: Is it true that Kyle Freeland was hitting 97 and 98 all of a sudden when he got here? I overheard that, is that apocryphal?

RK: He ... [Laughs] You know, I look at the video and the scouting reports before they get drafted ...

DC: Yeah, I looked at that stuff too, "92-93" ...

RK: 92, 93, 94 maybe. Locates the ball. And then all of a sudden he gets here and he's going 97, 98. And I went back and looked at the video and he's going all out, max effort. He could have commanded the ball better here, but if you wonder why he's didn't, it's because he went into a different gear and said "now I'll show ‘em what I've really got." But I'm not sure that's him.

I think he might be a better pitcher if he knocked it back down to 93-94 and located; 93 where you want it is much better than 97 all over the place. Without a doubt. But yeah, I was shocked. I was surprised and other people were surprised. We had no idea he could throw that hard.

If he would have done the same thing he did one night in Orem -- same velocity, same break on his slider, same location -- I don't care who the hitter or team he's facing: if he does that at Coors Field, he's going to win there too.