Last December, about a month before he died, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre helped his son, Mel Jr., with a decision about his job. Junior couldn’t decide among several offers about what pitching-coach job to take for the 2019 season.
Senior advised Junior to take the Marlins’ offer because he was comfortable with team owner Derek Jeter and manager Don Mattingly, given their connections with the Yankees. Senior thought that Junior needed a challenge of building a young staff with plenty of potential.
Mel Sr. died on Jan. 13 after battling blood cancer. His legacy was that he was the Yankees’ best pitcher during their infamous lean years in the 1960s and 1970s. And, he was a pitching coach for 23 seasons, employed by four different teams, the two in New York, the Astros and Mariners. Senior was on the coaching staff when the Yankees and Mets won World Series titles.
Senior’s pitching philosophy lives through his son.
“He always talked about patience with young pitchers,’’ Mel Jr. said during the Marlins’ weekend at Nationals Park. “He said young guys need to go through growing pains, they need to get their rears kicked to learn how to pitch.’‘
The Marlins are the National League’s version of the Orioles.
The Orioles and Marlins are going through the same growing pains. Each is trying to establish a nucleus of young players. Each has starters that pitch well, then not so good. Both are last-place teams at the bottom rung of rebuilding, although the Marlins started almost a year before the Orioles.
Before last season, the Marlins traded star players, such as Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon, to build a strong farm system that they hope will develop into a consistent contender in the next few years.
Last year, Miami lost 98 games. The Marlins won their 17th game Monday 3-2 against the Nationals in D.C.
This process is called rebuilding, a natural business cycle in baseball. But don’t mention the R-word in the Marlins clubhouse.
“We never use that word,’’ Marlins outfielder Curtis Granderson says. “None of the players come in here, get excited and say, ‘I can’t wait to see what we are going to become.’ We play to win every game. We don’t think about losing. We understand how that word gets used on the outside, but it’s not for inside the clubhouse.’‘
As an owner, Jeter’s first trade on Nov. 23, 2017 was the under-the-radar trade that sent a prospect named Mike King to the Yankees for lefty starter Caleb Smith and outfielder Garrett Cooper, who hit a key grand slam in Detroit during the Marlins’ six-game winning streak against the Mets and Tigers.
Cooper hated to leave the Yankees, but he was blocked by big-name players, so going to Miami was an opportunity.
“The big leagues are the big leagues and this is a much better opportunity for me to play,’’ Cooper says. “We are having fun. We have a good attitude. We’d like to win more games, but we are just concentrating on playing good baseball.’‘
All rebuilds began with a consistent rotation. The Marlins rotation is a group of pitchers in the early 20s.
Smith has 72 strikeouts in 56 innings, although he pitched his worst game against the Nationals over the weekend. Trevor Richards has pitched at least six innings in four of seven starts, but his ERA is 4.40. Jose Ureña, the Marlins’ best pitcher, had two clunkers to start the season, but has pitched eight consecutive games of at least six innings, including Monday’s seven-inning, two-run performance against the Nationals.
Sandy Alcantara, who arrived from St. Louis in the Ozuna trade, had an eight-inning shutout against Colorado and a two-hit shutout against the Mets, but he struggled in D.C. as well. Pablo López has a 5.40 ERA, but also a strikeout per inning.
With a six-game winning streak, it was easy to see the boost in the players’ confidence, Mattingly says. “You could feel the difference because it was a reward for the hard work that they do.’‘
The common thread for the young pitchers is trusting their stuff and the best teaching tool for this experience, Mattingly says: “You miss spots, you pay.’‘
In one eight-game stretch, Marlins starters held opponents to three earned runs or less. In their six-game winning streak, Marlins starters had a combined 1.85 ERA. That was before they came to Washington.
“You take one crooked number out of their games and the numbers will say they are doing a pretty good job,’’ Stottlemyre says.
Stottlemyre is daily telling pitchers to repeat their mechanics, develop a game plan and get in the habit of pitching in favorable counts. He wants them to limit the damage and learn how to pitch out of trouble.
“These guys stray and don’t know where to go when they get in trouble,’’ Stottlemyre says. “At what point can they get out of trouble? At what point does the light come on. We are not there yet. But, eventually, these guys will get into trouble and say, ‘I know how to fix this.’ ‘’
Stottlemyre was with the Mariners last season when the light came on from a struggling lefty, James Paxton. In one game against the A’s, Paxton pitched out a jam with runners on second and third.
Then the light apparently came on. Paxton struck out the next three hitters, limiting damage by using his elevated fastball and hard-breaking slider, instead of trying to using his down-and-away soft-contact pitches, Stottlemyre says.
From that point on, Paxton was a different pitcher.
“Pitchers have to keep working because you never know when they are going to figure it out,’’ Stottlemyre says.
In Baltimore, Orioles fans can relate.