Whether you agree with his methods or not, there is no denying that Don Cooper is one of the most respected pitching coaches in today’s game. But at a time in which the strategies employed by many teams are evolving rapidly, Cooper refuses to change his ways.
Cooper is certainly no sabermetrician. When I mentioned to him during our conversation that Carlos Rodon had changed his release point late in the season, he immediately replied “How did you know that? Through sabermetrics? Through the video?”
“I never use the term,” Cooper paused, looking for what term he was even referring to, “Where your arm goes,” he finally settled on. “I never use that term.”
A recent piece on Rodon from The Athletic, a new Chicago sports website, piqued my interest on what may have contributed to the lefty’s late season success. The piece specifically pointed out a change in Rodon’s mechanics around the time of his improved fastball command, as well as a wealth of other things that seemed to lend themselves to a more dominant final two months for Rodon.
“I think we stumbled onto a few things that helped him with his delivery,” Cooper said of Rodon, who finished his first season in the majors with 23 starts and a 3.75 ERA, “And how he can get out front a little bit more, how he can get more extension out front.” he added, cautious of revealing a bit too much information to me.
Cooper may infer that he never uses nuevo terms such as “release point” when broaching the topic of pitching, but it was clear he knew exactly what I was talking about, and confirmed many of the findings the info and data in Sharma’s piece suggested, all without much prompting from me.
Cooper was vague while discussing what exactly brought about this sudden change in Rodon’s fastball command, continually referring to just having “stumbled on a few things”. “We’re certainly hoping that.” Cooper told me when I asked if he thought these changes would continue to prove successful for Rodon in 2016. “He did show significant improvement. Like I said, I think we stumbled onto something, when I think about Carlos, I think about we gotta pick up where we left off.” Cooper said. “He and I are constantly talking about the things that we kinda stumbled on, as reminders to him to be doing these things during the winter so we can hit the ground running, and kind of keep up.”
In the words of Sharma, “While fastball command will always be the stepping stone to success, Rodon’s future will rely heavily on how he utilizes [his secondary] pitches and how they progress.” Rodon has room for improvement on all of his pitches across the board, and Cooper probably knows this just as much as anyone. “His sinker is getting better, but that’s an area that we’re looking to even improve on … Listen, if you’re not getting groundballs, you better get strikeouts.” Cooper said, and it’s no secret that Rodon needs to continue to work on improving his groundball-inducing pitches.
“The big thing that you saw was he limited walks when he was good. So, that’s a must, that we’ve gotta keep them to a minimum, especially in our park because walks and flyballs can leave, you know because it’s a hitters park.” Cooper said of Rodon’s walk rate, which dipped from 13.9% in the first half of the season to 9.7% in the second half. “We’re looking to improve strikes with all of his pitches.”
Cooper doesn’t deny the fact that working with young fresh arms poses a challenge everyday, and not just for the guys themselves, but for him as well. “Everything that I throw at the guys myself is a challenge, and if they take that as a challenge and meet the challenge, they will be good.”
Rodon took a quick route to the majors, much like Sale did, the same route many may be expecting Carson Fulmer to take. “I think that the way it all worked out, it worked out perfect for him,” Cooper said on whether or not Rodon came up too soon, “Because we’ve got another good one that we’re looking to see if we can continue his progress,” he said of 23 year-old. “He came up and you know, I don’t know of anybody, there’s not many guys when you think about it no matter how highly touted they are — to grab the brass ring the first time around the merry-go-round — inevitably it seems like you gotta take a few lumps, maybe give a few, take a few, until you kinda turn out to be the guy that maybe everybody and yourself was intending to be.” Take that Cooperism as you will, but it seems that the man has no doubt that Rodon can be that guy.
“It’s very rare when you see somebody come up and just do fantastic and do that for 10 or 12 years and the rest is history. Nobody really does that,” Cooper told me, “Roger Clemens didn’t do it, Randy Johnson didn’t do it, Nolan Ryan didn’t do it, and I just mentioned two to three hall of famers right there, so if two to three hall of famers ain’t doing it, there’s many others that don’t do it.”
The real bottom line when it comes to Rodon though, is that he’s a still — much like Rick Hahn how referred to this team as a whole— not a finished project. “You know, pitching is a learned craft. You know, he’s just started the process, so we’re looking to make that next step forward with him” Cooper said. ”He has good stuff, stuff is good, I love stuff, but stuff without the ball going to the glove ain’t worth much.” He’s right, and Rodon was certainly hitting that glove just a little bit more before we had to pause for intermission.
After that comment, I left Cooper by telling him that I believed if anyone in this game could get Rodon to the point of that Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan success, it was him. I meant that. Though Rodon spent four months just treading water each night on the mound, if he puts together a successful career — no one will even flinch at those four months when we’re looking back on them.