After nine successful years, the Yankees have moved on from longtime pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Bullpen coach Mike Harkey is now the last holdover from the Girardi regime and is also the longest-tenured member of the coaching staff.
If you listened closely to Brian Cashman’s end-of-year press conference last week, you could hear in the subtext that there were some major changes coming to the coaching staff. When asked whether or not the entire coaching staff would be back for 2020, Cashman had this to say in response:
“I’m not in a position to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on that because we haven’t gone through that process.”
Not so subtle in hindsight. (Nor was it particularly subtle at the time, really.) Anyway, the change in direction comes amid an organizational shift in pitching philosophy. As you can imagine, I have a bit to say about all of this. Here’s what’s on my mind.
1. What’s a Pitching Coach, Anyway?: I know this is heretical coming from someone like me, who writes a lot of opinionated words about the Yankees in my free time, but I never managed to get too worked up about Larry Rothschild. That seemingly counts me among minority, or at least among the silent majority. It seems like every fan wanted him gone and/or thought he was bad at his job, but I just couldn’t muster that energy. That’s because there’s absolutely no way for us to evaluate a pitching coach from our vantage point.
I know that’s boring, but so much of what a pitching coach does is behind-the-scenes. It is literally impossible for us to determine if one is good at his/her job or not. Believe it or not, there’s much more to the job than just trotting out to the mound during the games. That’s all we can see, though.
This is all a long way of saying that you should take the Larry criticism with a grain of salt. His critics were quick to point to the fact that Chad Green had to be demoted to be “fixed” earlier this year, that Special Advisor Carlos Beltran was the one to identify James Paxton’s pitch tipping in Houston, or that Sonny Gray never lived up to his potential. They’ll even hand-wave the development of Luis Severino and attribute his success to Pedro Martinez. All of this sounds good in theory but there are simple explanations to each scenario, most notably that none of these things necessarily happened in a vacuum.
I highly doubt, for instance, that Chad Green’s mechanical tweaks in Triple-A occurred without Larry knowing. More likely, getting away from the pressure of the MLB helped Chad hone in on those changes. Ditto Severino’s workouts with Pedro. I’m not saying that Larry was perfect by any means (the initial handling of Paxton was weird), but pointing to Nate Eovaldi or Michael Pineda as definitive proof of his ineptitude always seemed like a stretch to me. Pitching is hard, and those guys never had the career they were expected to. Eovaldi, of course, did have a really nice run twelve months ago. You may be surprised to hear to whom he gave the credit for that run, but you shouldn’t be: the Yankees are an extremely smart and forward-thinking organization. They wouldn’t have kept Larry around for nine years if he was not that himself.
2. Don’t Fall for Revisionist History: With all of that said, there is one straightforward way to evaluate a pitching coach: the performance of his pitching staff. By that measure, Larry’s tenure in the Bronx was an unmitigated success. Yankees pitchers threw 13,038.0 innings with Larry at the helm (2011-2019), not counting the postseason. Here is how that staff compared to the league during that time:
- Average Four-Seam Velocity: 93.8 mph (T-1st)
- Strikeout Rate: 22.9% (2nd, behind LAD)
- Strikeout-Walk Rate: 15.3% (2nd, behind LAD)
- Average Fastball Velocity: 92.9 mph (2nd)
- Walk Rate: 7.6% (T-3rd)
- fWAR: 169.5 (4th, behind LAD, CLE, and WAS)
- ERA-: 93 (T-4th)
- Ground Ball Rate: 44.7% (T-6th)
- FIP: 3.95 (8th)
You get the idea. All of this is to say that, for a heavily-criticized man with a staff that many people (including many of us here at VF314) passionately argue has consistently not had enough quality pitchers, that’s a pretty damn impressive track record. The data show that Yankees have been a much better team on the mound than they’re frequently given credit for. It’s indisputable. To not give Larry any credit for this sustained run is willful ignorance.
Now, this only tells part of the tale, of course. Those numbers above are the cumulative figures for everyone who threw a pitch in pinstripes during Larry’s tenure here. Split them up by starting pitcher or reliever and you can see the discrepancy. Really briefly:
- fWAR, Bullpen: 53.9 (1st, next closest is TB with 38.4)
- fWAR Starters: 116.0 (9th)
- ERA-, Bullpen: 85 (T-1st)
- ERA-, Starters: 98 (6th)
- Strikeout Rate, Bullpen: 26.3% (1st, 10% better than 2nd-place LAD)
- Strikeout Rate, Starters: 21.0% (7th)
So, yeah. That’s where the discrepancy always was, and I think that also explains why so many fans have been repeatedly frustrated with the pitching staff. The starters–while even they, might I whisper, were quite good–haven’t been as good as the relief corps. Starters are much more visible, though, so I think that explains that. If you’re going to knock Larry for anything, it has to be for the performance of the starting pitchers. But, again, that goes hand-in-hand with the argument that the Yankees have long-lacked a true ace atop their staff. Takes some of the sting out of that criticism, doesn’t it? Like I said before, I’m not sure how much of this was Larry’s work, per se. We just don’t know. But the numbers sure don’t hurt his case.
3. What Gives, Then?: And yet, despite all of this, I’m not upset to see Larry go. As a good friend mentioned to me on Twitter (behind a locked account), the situation with Larry felt reminiscent of the situation with Girardi after 2017. He is most likely a very good coach–one of the best out there, really–but one who is just a step behind where the Yankees are right now as an organization. His 45 years in baseball, the last 18 of which were spent with just two organizations, are surely a testament to his aptitude. But it was time to move on.
Like with Girardi, nine years is a long time with one organization. Things are a lot different in 2019 than they were in 2011. It felt like an appropriate time for a change here, and I’m sure Larry will be back on his feet very soon. Even though Cashman was the one behind his original hire–and keeping him prior to hiring Aaron Boone–Girardi just took a job in Philly. It wouldn’t shock me to see him land there.
4. The Winds of Change: As I said yesterday, the Yankees recently made a major change atop their organizational pitching structure a few months ago by hiring Sam Briend as Director of Pitching. Shortly thereafter, the team’s highly-regarded MiLB Pitching Coordinator, Danny Borrell, departed the team for Georgia Tech. Since then, there have been a number of additional changes to the team’s MiLB pitching flow chart. Those departures include:
- Scott Aldred: Pitching Coordinator, High-Minors
- Tim Norton: Pitching Coach, Double-A Trenton Thunder
- Gabe Luckert: Pitching Coach, Low-A Charleston Riverdogs
- Justin Pope: Pitching Coach, Gulf Coast Yankees
That’s five notable departures plus the recent change with Larry. I think it’s pretty clear that there are major changes happening organization wide. As I noted above, viewed in this context, it is not all that surprising to see Larry move on.
On a broader level, it’s also pretty clear that Briend is a man with influence with the Yankees. I’m sure this is not happening independent of Cashman or other team gurus, of course, but Briend is the man at the top here. He’ll likely play a major role in filling out the now-vacant positions and we may even see a visible shift in approach/philosophy. Remember, the Yankees have thrown the 3rd fewest fastballs by percentage in the league since 2011 (40.9% of all pitches compared to a 46% league average) but have recently targeted pitchers who rely on fastballs in recent years. Lance Lynn, J.A. Happ, and James Paxton all immediately come to mind.
Smart teams throw more breaking balls, but I do wonder if some of the rigidity here will shift. Something to watch, at least. I’m sure there will be other, way more subtle changes, too. Briend comes from Driveline, which is a lab for pitcher’s mechanics and maximizing velocity and spin rates, so my guess is that instruction/mechanical tweaks will be happening across the organization. I’m curious to see how that shakes out.
5. Possible Replacements: I have no idea who will replace Larry Rothschild, but I have a hard time imagining that David Cone won’t be in serious consideration for the post. Think about it: he’s young, a former player with championship pedigree, and loves analytics. More importantly, as a former player, he can translate those analytics into player-speak. He has no coaching experience but I don’t think that matters as much anymore. He strikes me as someone cut from the Boone cloth, who would buy in to the Yankees’ philosophy and then help implement it with players. I sure would hate to lose him in the booth, though.
There are other names already floating about, such former NYY reliever and current Brewers bullpen coach Steve Karsay. Internal candidates mentioned for the job include Desi Druschel, current NYY pitch development manager; Dan Giese, pro scouting director; and Matt Daley, assistant director in the pro scouting department. All of these seem like reasonable choices for candidates to at least get an interview.
As for who it will be, who the hell knows? After moving on from Girardi, I would never have guessed in a million years that Aaron Boone would get the job, but here we are. I could see it being someone high-profile like Cone, an experienced external candidate, someone from within the organization, or even someone we’ve all never heard of. I have absolutely no idea. For an official guess, I’ll go with Cone for the reasons I outlined above.
One thing I do know, though: whoever it is, Yankee fans will hate him after six months. You can bet the farm on that.