Recently, I had an opportunity to talk to Sparky Lyle. (The circumstances behind this Grand Meeting Of Minds can be explained right here and will surely provide everyone around these parts ample opportunity to mock my stuttering televised image for the next few months. I do not deny deserving it.) Lyle and I had plenty of opportunity to chat, because we are both smokers, and smokers can always find something to talk about, even if one of them is a guy who sits and types nonsense all day and the other is a mustachioed former Cy Young Award winner. We talked more about whiskey and wine spritzers than about baseball, but I did ask him one question I'd always been curious about.
"Sir," says Leitch, inquisitive, probing, intellectually curious.
"Yep," says Lyle, taciturn, friendly, mustachioed.
"What exactly do pitching coaches say to pitchers when they visit them on the mound?" says Leitch, marveling that a human being could actually smoke a Winston.
"They don't do shit," says Lyle, amused, figgerin' this kid probably don't even got hair on his pecker yet. "Usually we'd talk about where to go to dinner."
I know what pitching coaches do during spring training, and during the week, setting schedules, putting together a plan, chewing products that are harmful to the gums and teeth, but I'm never quite sure if any of that matters, and I definitely don't understand what they do during the game and visits to the mound. Feelin' good out there? Yep. Can you get this guy? Yep. All right. Don't walk him. Throw strikes. Got it. You have your Dave Duncans, and your Leo Mazzones, but generally speaking, it seems like pitching coaches are just one step above hitting coaches: They exist to be fired when you don't have good pitchers but you can't replace the whole staff.
Then you have Mike Maddux. I enjoyed the lazy trope that the Rangers' pitching improvements last season were due to team president (and Ron Paul supporter) Nolan Ryan, as if Scott Feldman said, "Well, that scary guy who shows up in cowboy boots every couple of weeks used to throw 300 innings a year, so I guess I'll try for 189. Time to stop being such a puss." Maddux — and of course the dramatically improved defense — was the maestro of the Rangers' pitching resurgence.
There is something perfect and symmetrical about Mike Maddux becoming a world-class pitching coach. Always the inferior to his younger brother — his first game was a loss to Greg, who, despite being five years younger, had already been in the league for a month — he was a bit of a historical joke, Frank Stallone, Ozzie Canseco. It must have felt strange, considering Greg wasn't blessed with some 100-mph fastball or anything: Greg was a man who did it with his brain, and the assumption was that Mike's brain somehow just didn't measure up. Last year, along with Mike's time with the Brewers, clearly proved that incorrect.
But what does he do? Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who has turned the franchise around before his 33rd birthday, says Maddux is "the most prepared and the best communicator," which sounds like corporate speak to me: I half expect Daniels to congratulate Maddux on his ability to think outside the box and not jump to conclusions. But maybe that's it: Maybe the job of pitching coach is such a fungible, mercurial one that someone who shows up and treats it like an actual job, with charts and graphs and tendencies and scary Excel documents, really can make a difference. Maddux appears to have wanted to be a pitching coach since early in his career, and his strength appears to be "understanding the art of pitching." This seems like a corollary to the What Makes A Good Manager formula: Being a substandard player who spent a lot of time on the bench. Those who can't do, teach.
Maybe Sparky Lyle had lousy pitching coaches. Maybe the job is more than we think. Or maybe asking where everybody's going to dinner afterward is the most important part of the job: Relax the pitcher, make them feel at ease, get them thinking about steak. Whatever it is: Mike Maddux, no longer Roger Clinton, has it figured out. It makes Texas a more dangerous team, and considerably more fun to watch. Now he should try it with cowboy boots and an NRA card. More people might notice.