What makes Phillies think a data-driven, techno-based pitching coach will work this time?

Jim Salisbury
·5 min read

What makes Phils think data-driven pitching coach will work? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Phillies jumped back on the information and technology superhighway on their route to hiring their new pitching coach. Caleb Cotham, in the words of manager Joe Girardi, “knows all the new stuff.”

Cotham, whose appointment was officially announced on Friday, is the team’s fifth pitching coach in five years. He replaces Bryan Price, who retired one season into a three-year deal in October, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Price, who had previously managed in the majors and been pitching coach with three clubs, had joined the Phils a year earlier as a highly regarded old-schooler ready to strike a more traditional tone with a pitching staff that had rebelled against the new-school ways of Chris Young a year earlier.

Girardi admitted to having significant influence in hiring Cotham. What makes him think new school is going to work this time?

“Caleb wants to get to know every pitcher,” Girardi answered. “He’s about giving them the information they want and want to handle. He’s not about saying, 'You have to do it this way.'

“He’s not going to take anything away from anyone. He’s going to look for every opportunity to make every pitcher better through his knowledge, which I think there’s a ton of. But he’s not trying to make cookie-cutter pitchers. Zach Eflin is going to pitch different than Zack Wheeler who is going to pitch different than Aaron Nola and Caleb understands that.”

Cotham comes to the Phillies after two seasons as Cincinnati’s assistant pitching coach. He worked under highly regarded head pitching coach Derek Johnson. The Reds’ staff was a collection of diverse talents, from National League Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer to Sonny Gray to Luis Castillo. While Bauer thirsted for every bit of data and techno-instruction he could drink in, others did not and that was OK. The Reds had the second-best team ERA in the NL in 2020.

Girardi was impressed with the way Cotham tailored his teaching approach to each individual pitcher.

“That was attractive because each pitcher was different,” Girardi said. “There’s not one set way to make a pitcher. Caleb was taking that pitcher and trying to enhance their gifts and talents to make them the best version of them that they could possibly be.”

At 33, Cotham is just a few years older than the pitchers he will be leading. He pitched in the majors for Girardi’s New York Yankees in 2015 and the Reds in 2016 so, as Girardi said, “he understands what it’s like to be on the rubber all by himself and go through the good times and bad times.” 

During his pitching journey, Cotham became devoted to the science, data and technology-based instructional strategies of Driveline Baseball. Cotham pitched for Vanderbilt University when Johnson was pitching coach there. When Johnson moved from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Reds in 2019, he brought in Cotham as his assistant.

Cotham said he loves helping pitchers, loves “honoring and serving them.” And though he enthusiastically embraces the science of pitching and pitching instruction, he knows pitchers are human beings first.

“You can fine-tooth comb anything with the technology we have now,” he said. “But they're all just pieces of the puzzle and it’s a matter of getting to know each pitcher and finding out what piece of the puzzle makes the most sense for him.”

Baseball these days is not unlike the political scene in the country. It's largely partisan, the old-schoolers pitted against the new-schoolers, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Cotham recognizes the different philosophies and acknowledges that technology and science can have a downside.

“It can strip away from the soul of the game so it’s about having that balance – using the tools and not letting them use you.

“At the end of the day, players want to get better. There are so many options in our tool kits as coaches that no matter what you want, there is something for you. So, it’s just a matter of having that conversation with the player to find that one thing. What is it in this tool kit that we can pull from to maximize your strength, to find that 1 percent, that little thing you want to get better with?”

Cotham said he will spend the winter getting to know his new pitchers through personal interaction and video and data study. He recognized the strength at the top of the starting rotation and said Nola, Wheeler and Eflin represented “three guys who could go out and be Cy Youngs.”

It’s not clear who the assistant pitching coach will be, though Dave Lundquist, who held that role the previous two seasons, is expected to remain on the staff in some capacity. The Phils have an opening at bullpen coach.

The bullpen was the worst in the majors in 2020, a fatal flaw that derailed the team’s playoff hopes and extended the postseason drought to nine years.

“I know how that went for them last year,” Cotham said of the bullpen. “I’m interested in digging in on that.”

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