Thoughts after the Yankees Fire Larry Rothschild

Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports (Gregory Fisher)

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.

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10 Comments

  1. RetroRob

    A few things because, well, as you know, I always have a few things to say.

    1) Cone would be a great choice based on his knowledge, embrace of analytics, and his pedigree. That said, I wonder if he really wants the grind of being a pitching coach? I know a few years back he didn’t, but he’s also expressed an interest in managing the last couple years, which is even more of a grind, although one that pays better and carries way more prestige. The pay part may be the biggest obstacle. He made about $70M in his career and has a nice pension. I doubt he’s getting rich on his YES salary, but it’s just the opposite of a grind.

    2) Regarding Rothschild, your comparison to the Girardi situation is apt. Cashman hired both. He liked both. They both addressed his needs at the time, he re-upped them numerous times, but when things changed, he made a change. Frankly, this is a very good thing. It means Cashman himself is not settling, but constantly pushing ahead.

    3) Rothschild was known for increasing the swing-and-miss rate of his pitchers going back to the Cubs, and that continued on the Yankees. It’s one of the reasons Cashman hired him. His pitching staff almost always outperformed their expected metrics at the start of the season. This may have been the first year that wasn’t the case, although losing Severino and Betances early on didn’t help.

    4) was Rothschild perfect? Hardly. No one is. Someone who is a pitching coach for nine years will have his failures, but hard to say the failure was his. Is Sonny Gray really Rothschild’s fault, or is it Sonny Gray’s? Pretty sure it’s Sonny’s. Yes, I’ve done a 180. I do believe there are pitchers who just can’t perform in NY.

    5) I heard some on MLBN say that if your pitching development plan is five years old then it’s way out of date. I think that’s what happened here. Rothschild was excellent, but now there are better candidates to better implement the data available. New blood is a good thing. Doesn’t mean Larry didn’t do his job. (BTW Never judge Yankee fandom by the crazies on Twitter!)

  2. Robinson Tilapia

    Eddard lives. Amazing.

    I am certainly not anti-Rothschild. His record speaks for itself. However, I’m never against change after a long run from someone. You need a fresh set of eyes after a while, and it’s also clear the Yankees are looking at a larger shift pitchingwise as an org.

    Therefore, I am also nominating Pedro Martinez to be the next Yankee pitching coach. Every time this dude even breathes on a Yankee pitcher, that guy goes on to win ten CYAs.

    • Bobby

      Agreed with this but wanted to chime in and say that I’m extraordinarily proud of our site so far but am most proud that Eddard lives here again. Every comment makes me laugh.

    • RetroRob

      Hmmm, Eddard shows up last week, and then you drop in to post. Coincidence…?

  3. Ed Harley

    I’d put money on Cashman hiring two pitching coaches to man the pitching staff like he did when he hired two hitting instructors, Thames & Pilittere, to coach the hitters.

  4. Shaun P.

    Cone is an interesting thought, Bobby, but young he is not. He’s 56. I expect it will be someone completely off the radar, and potentially, someone from a college coaching position.

  5. A lot of Yankee fans will hate him as soon as he’s announced.

  6. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    1. A pitching coach is one who coaches pitching, Bobby, and Larry was doing that. Not one pitcher got better under Larry’s tutelage and many, as you so astutely pointed out, got worse. Eovaldi left and flourished. Nova left and flourished. Lance Lynn turned into an ace down in Texas. Paxton, Tanaka, Severino and Happ all got worse this season and it was usually others like Pedro and Carlos that stepped in to correct what Larry couldn’t see.

    2. I’ll fall for whatever history I want, Bobby, and sometimes create my own. The most important historical number in regards to Larry – 0 WS titles. Eiland at least got one and the late great Mel Stottlemyre got 4. Your numbers conveniently left out the postseason where Larry’s pitchers struggled mightily. Now was it his fault CC was drunk half the time and Cashman wouldn’t go out and get another ace? Yes.

    3. It was time for Larry to go. He’s old and had clearly lost a step. He often looked confused in the dugout and didn’t want the pitchers throwing fastballs. Girardi has already started wooing him and if the Phillies do hire him they’ll be getting one hell of a pitching coach, much better than the one we have.

    4. It needs to change. Lynn went down to Texas and became an ace throwing fastballs. Happ got better in September when he stopped listening to Larry and throwing his fastball more. Ottavino gave up the biggest HR of the year on his slider, which Larry told him to throw. Look at the best aces like Verlander, Cole, Max Scherzer, Strasburg, these are guys who throw fastballs all the time.

    5. I’d go to Coney today and tell him he can have whatever he wants to join the club. Though we’ll hate to lose his voice in the YES booth they can offset that loss with more Buck Showalter, who is a joy to listen to. Coney can basically run the analytics dept and better relate to these pitchers. No coaching experience doesn’t matter because they hired Boone. Only problem is Boone may see him as a big threat to his job, which he is. Ray Searage is out there and would be my backup plan since he fixed so many guys that Larry broke.

    • Cleanuphtr

      I can’t deal with all the nuttiness…

      but two easy debunks.

      1. Take a look at what Lance Lynn actually did statistically in NY last year. Its not that off from what he was in Texas. He sucked in Minnesota. His ERA improved, K and BB rates improved, WHIP improved when he got here.

      2. Larry “told” Ottavino to throw his slider? Ottavino’s slider has always been his go-to pitch. Come on, dude.

      • RetroRob

        If you don’t know Eddard, that means you are either Eddard, or you are new to the RAB/314 universe. It’s performance art.

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