Schmidt staying strong in Orioles' minor league plans through 25 seasons

CLEVELAND - The enormous amount of turnover in personnel within the Orioles’ organization since the rebuild began, departments reshaped or created with a definite slant toward youth and modernized thinking, never reached Dave Schmidt.  

He’s a survivor who turned 65 in April and shows no signs of slowing down.

It’s 25 years and counting for the former pitcher, who jokes about the number of jobs he’s held with the Orioles during that span.

Asked earlier this week about his current responsibilities, Schmidt replied, “My title, if you’re into titles, is ‘Florida rehab pitching coordinator.’”

Schmidt paused to laugh halfway through that sentence. He knows it’s a lot of changes following his retirement as a player, with his last major league season in 1992. He didn’t start after the 1989 “Why Not?” season with the Orioles.

The exact title is listed as “complex pitching and rehab coordinator.” Based in Sarasota, where he lives, Schmidt sets up or follows the rehab schedules depending on who’s recovering from injury. He works with physical therapist Byron Campbell, “making sure our guys are heading in the right direction, getting better.”

The pitchers included Grayson Rodriguez, who started last night at High-A Aberdeen after returning from a Grade 2 right lat strain. Tyler Joyner, a 30th-round pick in 2018 who relieved last summer with Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, just left the complex. Noah Denoyer and Nolan Hoffman are back with the Baysox, and Antonio Velez is trying to get to them after reporting to Aberdeen. Travis Lakins Sr. and Alexander Wells left Sarasota and progressed to Norfolk’s roster.

That’s just scratching the injury surface.

“I can’t remember a year when we’ve had as many people down here rehabbing injuries,” Schmidt said. “It’s been amazing, the sheer numbers. I’m not sure why.

“There’s still a bunch down here who have had surgery and are recovering that will be here for a while longer.”

Schmidt has been in the organization for so long that he dates back to the days with Syd Thrift serving as farm director in 1998.

“There were some lean years in the early 2000s when we weren’t very good, as you know, major or minor league teams, and those drag a little bit longer, but I’ve enjoyed my overall time here a lot,” Schmidt said.

“I’ve been a pitching coach pretty much at every level, I’ve done two stints as a pitching coordinator. This is my second time being the rehab coordinator. I’ve done the Sarasota job and was overseeing the Dominican program, as well, for a few years. I don’t know what I haven’t done here as far as the pitching, but I have really enjoyed it all. Every level, every job.

“I just enjoy working with pitchers and hopefully seeing them improve. I have the pleasure of seeing guys when they first sign and come down here, and then to see them progress and watch them pitch in the big leagues is really a big reward for me. I kid some of them when I see them later and say, ‘I remember now. I knew you when you were that little punk kid in Sarasota.’ Just kidding around with him. But that’s the biggest reward for me is seeing guys go from here, just signed, and then being part of the big league club. That’s huge.”

Schmidt didn’t know that this would become a long-term relationship. Gary Adams, his former coach at UCLA, always told Schmidt that he believed the right-hander would make a good coach and invited him to be a volunteer assistant. Show up as much or as little as he wanted for practices and games. Schmidt enjoyed it so much that he came every day and traveled with the team.

The pitching coach job was given to Schmidt the following season, and by the third year he was told to choose the pitchers, set the rotation and make the in-game changes.

“He said, ‘Don’t even come ask me, just go and do what you want to do,’” Schmidt recalled. “I said, ‘Really? OK.’ He said, ‘You’ve forgotten more than I ever knew about pitching.’ So, what a great opportunity.

“As any manager or pitching coach would tell you, running the pitching is a huge part of the game, when to take a guy out, when to stick with him a little while longer. It was a great experience and something I can always fall back on, making some of the decisions.”

The college game wasn’t entirely of Schmidt’s liking. He found some things “distasteful” and “oily” in the recruiting process.

“I discovered that to be a great recruiter, you’ve got to be a liar, and that’s not me,” he said. “I can’t lie to a kid and his parents just to get him into school. That’s not the way I was brought up.”

Schmidt made some calls to professional teams and heard back from Thrift, who set up a meeting in Arizona while also attending fall league games.

“It was kind of a strange interview. I don’t think we talked about baseball much, really,” Schmidt said. “He called me back the next day and said he had an opportunity as pitching coach in Delmarva, our low A team. I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ And that’s where it started.”

It keeps going, with Schmidt, owner of a career 3.88 ERA in 12 major league seasons, making an impact out of public view in whatever he’s doing.

“I’ve had 25 one-year contracts,” he said.

“Just felt like, if I do the job I’m asked, I’ll probably be OK for next year. And I enjoyed every challenge, going from A to Double-A to pitching coordinator to Triple-A, back and forth. When I pitched I wasn’t really demanding about, what’s my role? I would tell the manager, whoever the pitching coach was, ‘Yeah, I’ll pitch whenever. Just let me know what you need.’ So, I think that personality helps. If you do change roles, not every year but every few years or something like that, you just adjust and figure out what’s needed and what you need to do and what the players need and what the organization needs. And that’s what you do.”

Schmidt is getting it done without concerns about being pushed aside for lack of knowledge about the analytics that would be infused into the organization from top to bottom. Plenty of experienced contributors over the years have been replaced in the front office and farm system, but Schmidt remained after Mike Elias’ hiring as executive vice president/general manager and Chris Holt as director of pitching, and later pitching coach.

“I’ve gone through quite a few regimes, going back to Syd and numerous other farm directors and GMs,” he said. “When Mike came, I remember meeting Chris Holt over at Twins Lakes, and we sat and talked. I was interested in analytics. I wanted to know what it was all about. I think the veteran coaches, and some of them are my good friends, the ones that absolutely rejected it out of hand are the ones that are no longer here. If you’re not even going to try, then you’re not going to be here.

“I showed an interest, I learned as much as I could about it, and as I learned more about it, I found it fascinating, to be able to come up with all of this data from a machine and showing you exactly what the ball is doing.

“As a coach, Trackman data can be very useful in a number of different ways, but one really big way for a pitching coach is it takes away the argument that you have sometimes with a pitcher about what exactly the ball is doing. I remember speaking with pitchers and I’m saying the ball’s doing this and they’re saying, no, the ball’s doing this. Well, you simply point to the computer and you say, ‘OK, what does that say? There it is. This machine is not lying.’ So, you get right past that part of the conversation to, OK, what do we need to do to improve it? It saves a lot of time, it saves a lot of possible personality conflicts. It’s just very helpful in that way as a coach.

“The data and the analytics are here now. It’s not going anywhere. I’ve embraced it, I’ve enjoyed it and I find it fascinating to look at it. Now, am I an analytics wiz? No, I am not, but I’m trying to learn as much as I can as we go along every year and try to get more versed in it. There’s still some things I don’t understand, and I try to ask questions of the people who I know are the smartest people in the room. But I also try to merge my experience watching pitchers with the data. There are times when what I see on the computer is confirming what I see with my own eyes, which is nice. It validates what I think I’m seeing.”

Schmidt hasn’t met much resistance from the young pitchers while he’s served as a coach. He’s also finding that the majority aren’t introduced to it by the Orioles.

“Kids nowadays love the data and they absolutely want it and need it,” he said. “Most of them who have come into our organization have already had it, so they’re well-versed in it, they’re comfortable with it, and if you didn’t have it, they would think, ‘What the heck is going on here? You guys are in the Stone Age.’”

What period of time will intersect with Schmidt’s retirement?

“I’ll do this until I don’t like it anymore or they say, ‘We don’t need you anymore,’” he said. “But I still love it. I think working with 18-to-22 year olds keeps me young. It keeps me in the knowledge of what’s going on in a young person’s world, and I like it. I’m not trying to be a young kid, but I enjoy their personalities and their energy and their enthusiasm. I can see it in their eyes. They’re ready to go to work and try to get better and get to the big leagues.

“Kids these days are bright enough and smart enough to know that, if you can’t teach, you’re just another guy who played in the big leagues and can’t coach. It helps initially, but you’ve got to earn their respect. They don’t care what you know until they know you care. I’ve always tried to remember that, tried to earn their respect, get to know each one of them a little bit personally, which helps with the trust factor, that someone is taking the time to get to know you. And it’s worked all right.”

Schmidt spent five of his 12 seasons with the Rangers, but older Orioles fans remember him for being on the 1988 team that lost its first 21 games and 107 overall, and the ’89 team that shocked the baseball universe and contended until the final weekend in Toronto.

Sound familiar?

“Here we go again,” Schmidt said, laughing.

“I go back to ’87, my first season, and we weren’t good, either. We were a bad team full of older, slower players. We didn’t pitch well, we didn’t play great defense. When you come back in ’88 with virtually the same club, what do you think is going to happen? We were terrible. And to this day, any team that starts out, say, 0-10, 0-12, I’ll get a call from some reporter asking what it was like. I say, ‘What do you mean what was it like? It sucked.’ So, ’88 was bad, no doubt about it. It was horrible. When you almost go 0-for-April, that’s not good.”

The Orioles won 9-0 on April 29 in Chicago. Manager Frank Robinson called Schmidt and Mark Williamson into his office the previous night and laid out the plan. Williamson would cover the first six innings and Schmidt would handle the last three.

“He said, ‘This (stuff) ends tomorrow,’” Schmidt recalled, “and that’s what happened.”

Schmidt remembered how much the roster changed in ’89, with the Orioles getting younger and faster. With good, young arms on the pitching staff, whether through trades, waiver claims or minor league promotions.

“We played really good defense and we pitched well,” he said, “and when those two things go together, you’re going to have a chance to win a lot of games.”

Exactly what’s happened this season.

“I see similarities there,” Schmidt said. “We’re pitching a whole lot better, obviously. Last year we were last in ERA. The bullpen has been outstanding, and the starting pitching has come along to where they’re starting to gel into a until that gives consistent innings now, which is huge for the bullpen. Right along with that, we have a very good defensive team. When you play defense like that, I think it gives the pitching confidence to attack these hitters, because if they hit it, so be it. We’ll make the play.

“The lineup has come into its own. Some young hitters are starting to become consistent, solid, major league hitters. They have the ability to score some runs and hit the ball out of the ballpark. So, I guess the similarities are the pitching and the defense, and an offense that’s coming along. I do see similarities between ’89 and this year.”

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