After hiring Tony La Russa last week, naturally (some) attention has shifted to the next logical question: who will be Don Cooper’s replacement on the South Side?
If this was supposed to be a straightforward question after Rick Hahn’s end of the year press conference, Tony La Russa’s hiring changed that rather quickly. While it’s been confirmed that La Russa’s longtime partner Dave Duncan will not be the next White Sox pitching coach, there really haven’t been too many indications about who it will be or who the leading candidates are.
Because of that, the point of this article isn’t necessarily to predict the next pitching coach – people have already written about the familiar names from within the organization. The point is to introduce you to some names from around the league that I have found incredibly interesting and appealing when considering who I would want to be the next pitching coach of the White Sox.
With that, let’s begin.
The “Ideal” Pitching Coach
Before even thinking about who should be the next pitching coach, I think it’s worth asking: what makes a good pitching coach? To be honest, I don’t know the full answer – I’ve never been in a major league clubhouse or talked with any major league pitchers. However, given the state of the game today, as well as based on recent success stories from around the league, I think we can point out some of the important characteristics.
For me, the resume for this hiring needs to start with this: he needs to be someone who can serve as a “bridge” of sorts between the analytics department, the coaching staff, and the players. Say what you will about La Russa’s openness to analytics, but he’s not as analytically-inclined as those who make their profession off of analytics and data. That’s fine, but it’s important to understand this when evaluating the ideal pitching coach rather than pretend La Russa is something he is not.
Because of this, being able to understand analytics while effectively relaying the importance of these numbers to both the pitchers and the rest of the coaching staff is how a pitching coach most effectively serves as a “bridge” on a major league coaching staff. Getting players to buy into data-driven changes to make themselves better should be one of the primary goals of any pitching coach. So, an understanding of analytics, an inclination towards data-driven decision making, and some sort of coaching experience would be at the top of my list.
However, I don’t need the next pitching coach to have vast previous experience as a pitching coach. Perhaps he’s worked as a Pitching Coordinator or as an Assistant Pitching Coach, but previous experience as a pitching coach is not a requirement for me. This is where La Russa’s resume can come in handy – lending his experience to the young and more inexperienced pitching coach as he learns more about his role. I think that since the White Sox have hired La Russa, it’s more important to figure out how he can benefit the organization long-term now than it is to get upset over his hiring. The days for that have passed in my opinion. But I digress.
So, ideally, a pitching coach has a combination of coaching/playing experience and analytical knowledge that results in a data-driven mindset and the ability to connect with players. If you remember nothing else, remember the importance of a “bridge” – in any industry, their role is often underappreciated.
Now that we’ve established what I consider most important when looking for the next White Sox pitching coach, let’s walk through some of the names that I’ve put on my radar.
It appears most likely that the White Sox will remain in-house for their pitching coach, promoting from within from people who are comfortable with the organization and its pitching philosophy. There are plenty of worthy names for this position, but here is who I would consider the leading candidates. We will go through this quickly so we can get to the fun names outside of the organization.
Perhaps the leading option right now to replace Don Cooper is Curt Hasler. Early on in his tenure, one thing that White Sox fans have noticed about La Russa is the lack of direct names he uses. In his most recent interview with MLB Network, he referred to Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez, and Luis Robert’s position on the field, rather than their names, when describing what made this team so exciting.
The point? La Russa knows very few names right now. One he does know, however, is Curt Hasler’s – he mentioned him directly by name in his introductory press conference:
“Dave Duncan is not coming back… I don’t have anyone specific. We are going to be very open-minded about who the choice is… I know there is a lot of confidence in Curt (Hasler) in the bullpen.”– Tony La Russa on filling out his Coaching Staff
Hasler, 55, has been in the White Sox organization since 1992. Most recently, he served as the Assistant Pitching Coach and Bullpen Coach for the Sox. Before this, he was the roving minor league pitching coordinator from 2011-2016.
Being a longtime member of this organization, many would assume Hasler to be a less analytically-inclined hire. However, according to Lucas Giolito, this is quite the opposite. In a James Fegan piece, Giolito spoke highly of both Cooper and Hasler when it came to their understanding of analytics and new-age technology:
“A lot of credit to Coop and Has (bullpen coach Curt Hasler) with having the old-school background, old-school pitching mentality, and learning all this stuff from our analytics department. Really, really educating themselves so they can in turn help all the pitchers. We look at that stuff on an almost daily basis in our bullpens and stuff like that and that’s been super beneficial to me this year.“Giolito in September 2019 on Cooper and Hasler’s role in his breakout campaign
Because of his direct work with Cooper over the years, as well as La Russa’s emphasis on the importance of continuity for the staff, it almost seems as if Hasler is the heir-apparent to Cooper. However, remember that Cooper was fired for a reason, so perhaps the White Sox would like to see a little something different from the pitching coach role moving forward.
My personal opinion? If he’s promoted, then someone on the younger side has to be hired/promoted to fill his old role. The importance of getting the youth in this organization the necessary experience to make a long-term impact cannot be overstated. Too much “old-school” mentality is just as harmful as too much “analytical” thinking – either way, you put yourself at a disadvantage.
Perhaps everyone’s favorite internal option, Zaleski, 38, is currently the pitching coach at AAA Charlotte and has served as a pitching coach in the organization since 2016. Much like the other names on this list to come, Zaleski isn’t too far removed from his pitching days. Zaleski last pitched in the minors in 2014 and spent 11 years in the White Sox’s minor league system.
Zaleski has drawn rave reviews from players and staff throughout the organization. Along with Everett Teaford, his philosophy of the high-spin rate fastball with the sharp breaking ball has been implemented throughout the system. You can see the results of this through some of the young arms coming up (Codi Heuer, Matt Foster, Zack Burdi) and will see it in the future with Jared Kelley, Matthew Thompson, and Garrett Crochet. If nothing else, Zaleski’s data-driven approach would be a welcome change on the South Side if the team were to search for a fresh face that they were still comfortable with.
Zaleski’s promotion to AAA last year as the pitching coach serves as a clear sign that they like what they see in Zaleski. Is the time and fit perfect? No one knows for sure. However, I think the White Sox organization would be at its best if Zaleski was serving the major league team in some capacity in 2021 and beyond. There are talented candidates up and down the organization that can continue to build the pitching philosophy that Zaleski has helped create. It’s time to move that philosophy to the major league level. Zaleski can develop his craft while learning from both La Russa and Hasler.
Other Internal Options
Zaleski and Hasler aren’t the only two internal options for the White Sox; some other popular names include Everett Teaford and Danny Farquhar. For more on some potential internal names that might get more consideration if there weren’t such strong leading candidates, read this August piece of mine!
The one internal name that I haven’t mentioned that I think might be tossed around is Richard Dotson. Promoting Dotson would be a true blast to the past for the White Sox. Dotson, 61, has been in the White Sox organization for quite some time. He spent the 2008-2016 seasons in AAA as the pitching coach before serving as the AA pitching coach in 2020. He’s been in the organization as a coach since 2002. So why is his name on this list? Because he was also a key rotation piece to the 1983 White Sox, managed by – you guessed it – Tony La Russa.
Dotson would be my least-preferred option of all the names on this list. There hasn’t been much talk about him throughout the system, and I think him serving as Justin Jirschele’s pitching coach in 2020 should be taken as a sign as the organization wanted someone to help balance Jirshele’s analytical stance. Again, an analytical stance should be important for this opening. It’s nothing against Dotson personally – I just think there are more intriguing internal options for this job.
Intriguing Outsider Options
Now comes the hard – but fun – part. It’s easy to identify candidates that are within your favorite organization. It’s harder to do it from outside of the organization. The names I have listed here are a combination of popular names I’ve seen in the media and names I’ve sought out when looking at my criteria for my “ideal” pitching coach from above. If nothing else, hopefully, these names inspire conversation.
If I had a leading option for most ideal 2021 White Sox pitching coach, it’s Chris Fetter. Fetter, 34, is currently the pitching coach at the University of Michigan (boo – sorry, I’m an ND guy). His name has been a hot commodity in recent years as he has helped vault the Michigan baseball program to a national powerhouse through the power of data-driven insights. Plenty of articles have been written about his work on the Michigan baseball staff, which I will link below for you to read. He is quite literally at the forefront of pitching development in the NCAA.
Fetter has major league-level experience as well. Before returning to Michigan, Fetter was the minor league pitching coordinator for the Los Angeles Dodgers and spent time in the Angels organization. He has previously turned down pitching coach interviews from multiple organizations, including the New York Yankees.
Basically, what Fetter has done is organize an internal team of Michigan students to help him in collecting and analyzing the data. He brings these insights back to players in an understandable fashion and, more importantly, uses his experience to drive actionable results from the data. I had the opportunity to work in a similar role for the Notre Dame baseball team back in college – trust me, there’s tons of data that can be collected. For Fetter to embrace the importance of these numbers and turn Michigan’s pitching staff into one that can compete at national levels cannot be understated – you don’t get the same level of talent at a Midwest school that you do in the South. What he’s created should be celebrated.
I think Fetter is a lofty dream, despite some recent rumblings that Fetter is at the top of the Sox’ wish list. Make no mistake, I have no doubt that he’s at the top of their list – I just don’t think he’s ready to leave Michigan just yet. When he is, however, there will be plenty of major league teams knocking on his door. He is the perfect blend of analytics and experience (he pitched in the minor leagues) that leads to informed and impactful decision-making with the use of analytics. He explains and breaks down the data in a way that is digestible for players. In short, he is exactly what I described above when I described my “ideal” pitching coach.
Long story short, this is a pipe dream. But get familiar with Chris Fetter’s name as a baseball fan. Go Irish though.
Now, here’s an interesting name I can almost guarantee you haven’t heard before. Cotham, 32, is the current Assistant Pitching Coach and Director of Pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, after previously training and learning at Driveline Baseball. He was hired into his current role alongside Kyle Boddy back in 2019 after hanging up his cleats in 2016. He helped implement a system-wide pitching philosophy this season for the Reds, and has seen results from players such as Trevor Bauer and Michael Lorenzen, as well as the resurgence of Sonny Gray back to his Athletics days.
The Reds coaching staff in general has received a lot of high praise, and the Reds organization is quite a popular place for pitchers currently. Kyle Boddy is obviously a national name due to his work at Driveline, and the current pitching coach for the Reds – Derek Johnson – was described by Trevor Bauer as “probably the best coach I’ve had in my career across all levels of baseball.” Bauer had similarly high praise for Cotham in an Eno Sarris article, saying:
“Caleb was really helpful with a lot of the technical stuff. I haven’t really had that situation before where I have someone that I respect in the technological standpoint, the really nitty-gritty pitch shaping, understanding mechanics and how the ball was moving and stuff like that. It was good to have someone to bounce those ideas off of and have those conversations.”– Trevor Bauer on Caleb Cotham
So, put a checkmark in the “pros” column for the analytical abilities. Plus, learning from Derek Johnson – who was previously with the Brewers – has likely taught him a thing or two. How about Cotham’s ability to serve as a “bridge,” as we talked about before? I’ll let Bauer explain that one too.
“You can get this huge spreadsheet from TrackMan and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just numbers. Unless you have someone to interpret it and — it’s all bullshit. … Having that interpreter, I think it’s the most important role in baseball right now, because you have the front offices who are using data and analytics to evaluate players more so than ever and you have coaching staffs that are coaching in traditional ways and don’t understand the data. He fulfills that role really well because he played and he also understands the data. There’s not a whole lot of those who exist.”– Trevor Bauer on Cotham’s role in the Reds organization
Again, checkmark in the “pros” column as a bridge. It’s becoming clear that previous and recent experience as a player is important to pitchers, especially when trying to embrace analytics. Cotham strikes the balance perfectly, according to those who have worked with him.
Cotham is likely not going to leave his current situation in Cincinnati. He gets to work with people he’s incredibly familiar with on a daily basis – in addition to Boddy, Johnson is Cotham’s college coach. Perhaps he’s not necessarily “ready” for the role in the typical sense either – that’s where learning from La Russa can come into play. Hey, if La Russa can be a mentor, might as well start in his first days on the job.
That being said, is the promotion to pitching coach enough to sway Cotham to Chicago? Tough to say – but much like Fetter, Cotham is a name to watch as a baseball fan moving forward – baseball is heading in the direction of people like him.
Niebla, 47, has been a popular name among White Sox fans, and for good reasons. As the current Assistant Pitching Coach for the Indians, he has been part of the pitching factory in Cleveland that has produced Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie, Zach Plesac,… the list goes on and on. He previously served as the pitching coordinator in the organization since 2013. Per the above Sarris article, there have been rave reviews for Niebla:
“Ruben possesses the rare ability to recognize when to be the teacher and when to be the student. It’s rare to find someone that can relate to a diversity of players and pitching minds. His humbleness and curiosity drive the desire to continuously learn and apply new knowledge, but this does not take away from his ability to lead. Simply put, coaches want to work for him and players want him to coach them.”– “Someone who has worked with Niebla” on Niebla’s role in Cleveland
The pros of Niebla are pretty clear. He’s experienced, he has a track record of success, and he would be a subtraction from a division rival. Niebla would receive a promotion from one organization to another, but is this promotion enough to entice him to leave the organization he’s been with since 2010? Tough to say. However, he’s at the top of many lists – one front office member called him a “monster addition to any list,” while another said he was their top guy, and it’s easy to see why. He was apparently a finalist for the job in Texas before the 2019 season.
Track record, information-savvy, experienced, and connection with players and coaches? Niebla checks all the boxes. By all accounts, this would be an excellent hire for the White Sox.
As pitching coach jobs have opened up around the league in the past couple of years, Karsay’s name is one that has generated a lot of interviews. Karsay, 48, has been the Brewers bullpen coach since 2019, though the organization might be more inclined to say that he and Chris Hook are co-pitching coaches for the Brewers. He was previously a pitching coach in the Indians’ minor league system for 8 years, most recently from 2016-2018 in AAA. He also reportedly played a large role in Drew Pomeranz’s turnaround and success in Milwaukee (Pomeranz would sign a 4 year, $34M contract with the Padres before 2021) and interviewed for the Mets pitching coach opening before the 2020 season.
One of the most appealing things about Karsay is his reported “lack of an ego.” From the same Sarris article from above, we read the following from someone “familar with Karsay’s work”:
“He has a good feel and balance when it comes to making people feel comfortable and digesting info. No ego, good reputation with players. Does a good job trying to be open.”– Description of Steve Karsay from an Eno Sarris article
Karsay is an interesting name because of his connection to previous jobs, as well as a track record of success. His work in the Indians organization means he played some sort of role in the Cleveland pitching factory that we have become accustomed to. Perhaps the time isn’t yet right for Karsay, but he would be an excellent addition to any coaching staff in some capacity.
Accardo is the current Assistant Pitching Coach for the New York Mets. He served as the minor league pitching coordinator and pitching strategist prior to being promoted, following stints as a AAA bullpen coach and the rookie-level pitching coach the year before. He is also the most successful major league pitcher on this list, as he once saved 30 games in a season for the Blue Jays.
Accardo previously spoke of his role as a pitching strategist in this way:
“My goal, personally, is to be the bridge between the players and all these smart guys we have. We have some brilliant people working for us as an organization. and they have a lot of really good ideas and good concepts. It’s my job to be that bridge and conduit to the players, and also get that feedback to some of those guys as well as myself. I dive into the numbers as well. When the players understand that, they buy in.”– Jeremy Accardo as to how he saw his role as a Pitching Strategist
Well, he used the exact word of “bridge” there and described the position exactly as I did, so he sounds like a great potential hire. As for his openness to analytics, he had this to say in the same Yahoo Sports article as above:
“I wish I did this when I was a player. I wish I paid more information to it. I would have had a longer career, a better career and made more money. Even though I liked watching video, I was watching video for the wrong reasons. I was watching video on what I did well, and that’s not what it’s meant for. I learned from my mistakes and I can bring back some of those when I talk to the guys.”– Accardo on his openness to analytics
As previously mentioned, Accardo was a pitcher in the majors for eight years, and this experience is what will be beneficial for him in a successful role as a pitching coach. In addition, his understanding of and openness to analytics makes him the perfect pairing of experience and success at the major league level. His adeptness with analytics makes him an intriguing choice for pitching coach jobs both now and in the future. Again, inexperience as a pitching coach doesn’t bother me as much – if he needs mentors, the White Sox organization currently has plenty of those.
No Matter What, Embrace Today’s Game
As I said before, plenty of people have written about the more straightforward names that are likely to be the next pitching coach for the White Sox. You all have become relatively familiar with most of the names, and if you weren’t, I hope you are now.
That being said, that wasn’t my goal here – I wanted to bring up some names that are a little outside-the-box, but still present the full resume of what a pitching coach in baseball today should be: a “bridge” between analytics and the players. You need to be able to understand both sides of the game in order to be most effective as a coach. All of the above certainly prove they have the ability to do so.
In the end, I think it’s most likely that Hasler is the guy who gets the promotion. Perhaps Zaleski takes Hasler’s spot at the major league level, which would be a positive step forward for him. However, I hope you’re as intrigued by all of the names I mentioned from around the league; they certainly aren’t the only ones who would make great pitching coaches.
More than anything else, I hope reading through some of these names further informed you of the direction baseball is heading. These aren’t names I just pulled out of thin air; these names have been called for interviews, praised highly in the media, and have a track record of success. Baseball teams are at their best when they embrace analytics – to avoid doing so willingly puts your organization at a disadvantage. Organizations need to understand how adept a person is with analytics – there is no point in trying to fit a round peg in a square hole (as many have tried to do with La Russa, for example). There will always be a place for “old-school” minds in baseball – let them specialize in what they’re good at while allowing those skilled in analytics to fill in the gaps.
Time is important for the White Sox. Teams will continue to go out and find analytically-minded people to add to their organizations. Heck, the Reds have hired many of the original Driveline staff members. Organizations are recognizing the importance of analytics and are hiring people now to groom them for the future.
So, to conclude, there are some long-term positives that can come from a Tony La Russa hire. The rest of the staff will play the most important role in that. Hopefully, Rick Hahn has a huge part in that, because the time is now to strike and set the White Sox up for long-term success.
Thoughts? Interesting names I didn’t mention? Let me know below or on Twitter! @jlazowski14
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