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Interview with White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz

by Jordan Lazowski

Heading into 2021, the White Sox made some wholesale changes to their coaching staff. The most notable one was obviously the hiring of Tony La Russa, but possibly the most important change came with the hiring of Ethan Katz

Katz has a pretty long story in baseball for being just 38-years-old. Drafted as a high schooler, but never signed, Katz would be drafted again by the Rockies out of Sacramento State, pitching four years in the system before eventually beginning his journey at Harvard-Westlake High School, coaching future stars Lucas Giolito, Jack Flaherty, and Max Fried.

You likely first heard Katz’s name once Giolito realized his potential starting in 2019. The right-hander raved about Katz’s offseason help that led to his 2019 breakout season. After spending 2020 at the major league level with the Giants, Katz’s wild journey took him to the South Side, where he presided over breakout campaigns from both Carlos Rodon and Dylan Cease. This doesn’t even mention a player like Reynaldo Lopez, who took massive strides forward in the back half of the year.

Katz brings a new voice to the dugout for the White Sox – one that fans have rallied behind in his first year.

The pitching coach took some time recently to talk with me regarding his playing career, how he got into coaching, his key philosophies, and much more! Tune in for a really cool story on Fernando Tatis Jr., as well as his thoughts on what the 2022 White Sox can learn from last season.

You can watch our interview in the video below – however, the interview is transcribed as well if you prefer. I will say, though – it’s worth the watch.

Jordan Lazowski: So I guess, Ethan, just to start out, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, how you originally got into the game, and then when you decided you wanted to make a career out of baseball?

Ethan Katz: I grew up in Los Angeles. Basketball, baseball, were like my true love as a kid. I kind of fell in love whenever I could start playing those sports. It was a really young age and it just became a hobby. And I kind of realized with baseball, I had to give up basketball if I wanted to play high school varsity baseball as a 9th grader. So I gave up my other love and just focused on the baseball, realizing it was something I was good at.

I took it seriously. I wanted to be really good, but it didn’t really take off for me. I had to go away to College to kind of really find my own zone with it and kind of really develop as a player and challenge myself. And then when I went to Sacramento State, that’s kind of when I really – not to say took off – but that’s when I really developed into everything that I wanted to be as a player. So I kind of realized in high school that I had a chance to be something in baseball.

JL: Were you always a pitcher, or did that kind of just evolve as you decided to make that decision as well?

EK: Yeah. I mean, I played first and third as well, and then I got drafted out of high school as a pitcher. So back then, they had the Draft and Follow Process. So I went and just focused on the pitching at the time. I went to Junior College and didn’t sign a contract then, but I stopped playing first and third to focus on primarily pitching.

JL: You were drafted by both the Mariners and the Rockies and spent a few seasons both in the Rockies organization as well as independent baseball after that. What were those experiences like for you as a player – what were you able to learn from it, and what do you feel prevented you from kind of making that next step (making it to the big leagues) as you’ve seen players now grow up and become big-league ballplayers? Throughout that journey, when did you decide that coaching might be a great next step for you?

EK: Well, getting drafted out of high school, them not offering me a contract was a blessing in disguise. Knowing what I know now, I would have probably not gotten out of rookie ball. So that was good, and gave me a chance to develop. But then getting drafted out of Sacramento State, going and playing for the Rockies for four years really helped mold me into the coach that I am today.

What I mean by that is I was a 26th rounder, and being in that role, I get it – as a coach in the minor leagues you got to make sure your prospects develop, so there wasn’t much attention [to me as a 26th rounder]. But what I took away from that was I would always treat every player the same and everyone would get the same respect and same attention because I didn’t want them to feel the way I did. That’s kind of been my motto for every level that I’ve coached at.

Later, I blew my arm out. I had to have Tommy John Surgery the same day I got called up to High-A. So they told me before the game [that day], “Congratulations, you’re going to High-A, but you haven’t pitched in two to three days. We don’t know when we’re going to get you in your next game. You got to throw an inning today. Your plane flight’s tomorrow at 06:00 a.m. Congrats.” Great. Try to pitch my inning, I get two outs and then my arm gives out on me and I walk off the field and that was it. They rehabbed me, I came back for a short stint and then went to Spring Training the following year and they released me.

I wanted to be a big league player, so I went and played independent ball – that was still my dream, and when you’re in it as a player you’re all in. If not you’re kind of wasting your time. So I always thought I had a chance no matter where I was playing. I went to independent ball, got humbled – there were some older guys, and I didn’t have the best year, but I wanted to play again and I thought that playing one more year – you know – I was getting older, but I put a lot of work in to get to where I was, so I wanted to give it another shot. And I was working out with Randy Wolf (former big league pitcher, lefty) at Harvard-Westlake, and started talking to some of the guys because one of my friends was one of the coaches there, and he’s like, “Hey, why don’t you just kind of help out?”

So I helped out. And then from there, I was still helping out, coaching while preparing to be a player in independent ball. And they asked me, “Hey, would you mind being the varsity pitching coach?” And I was like, “Well, I’m still playing. You guys know that. You see me work out every day.” And then I just had to make a decision. And I just said, you know what? I like what I’m doing coaching. I’m just going to step away from fulfilling my dream as a player and do something else that kind of fell into my lap that I liked and I was enjoying at the time.

So it’s kind of how I got into coaching, kind of by accident, not really planning. I was planning to be a player but fell into coaching.

JL: And as you started out at Harvard-Westlake, you went on to coach for both the Angels and Mariners and then found your way to the big leagues with the Giants and now with the White Sox. As you’ve gone through each of these experiences and gone from a high school varsity pitching coach all the way to a major league pitching coach, how have each of these different experiences prepared you along the way to be ready for the position you were in last year for the first time with the White Sox?

EK: I’ve been fortunate. I’ve done every single coaching job there is from the start of high school except AAA. So I coached in high school, I did College summer leagues, so I coached College kids. I did every level in pro ball, except I didn’t do the Dominican. So I did rookie ball, I did Low-A, I did High-A, I did AA for a couple of years, and then I coordinated both positions, and then I was an assistant in the big leagues. So, I mean, I’ve done every single step of the way, so I really got to see what each level entails, and how players need to develop at all these levels to be able to get to the next step – or if their time might have run out, being able to evaluate that as well.

So it’s kind of helped mold me. Coaching players is coaching players – you have to connect with them. So it doesn’t matter if I’m coaching a little leaguer – I’ve done a bunch of lessons in my coaching career to make ends meet, and if I’m coaching an eight-year-old, I still have to connect with him to be able to do what he needs to do. So whether he’s eight or whether he’s 30, if they need to make adjustments, they need to develop, you got to connect with them, number one. All those steps have helped me with that process – with the connection, with dealing with all walks of life and different personalities, in different countries and different states, how they take information, how they don’t take information, and be that filter for them to get the best out of them.

JL: You said you’ve coached at every single level as you’ve gone on. Very general question: where do you feel is maybe the hardest jump or most important jump to make between levels or does each one just kind of have its own challenges that every one ends up difficult in its own right instead?

EK: Yeah, the highest for me I saw was High-A to AA. That’s when the strike zone appears smaller for the hitters,and the hitters become more a little bit more disciplined.

I remember vividly we played Fernando Tatis and we played them in his first series. He just went from High-A to AA, and everyone knew he was good and everyone was excited to face him, and he was terrible… I don’t want to say terrible, but he wasn’t very good. I think he went that series, he might have had one or two hits. He looked horrible. He was chasing pitches out of his own, and I remember our pitchers thinking that he’s probably overrated, and I was like, “Okay, well, let’s give him a shot.” I said let’s just wait and see because, in the Texas League, you play the South one time in the beginning [of the season] and then you don’t play them again until after the All-Star Break – there’s a big gap. And I was just like, let’s just wait and see how he progresses. And then as time went on, the next time and we saw him: completely different player. Wasn’t chasing pitches completely out of the zone like he was, and he was displaying what everybody talked about.

So it was like our pitchers really got a life lesson of how guys evolve and how developed guys can get. And for me, that was just one example of just watching guys [once they make it to AA] not getting the chases that they normally got from a pitching standpoint, and guys’ stuff kind of just running out. This [AA] is where their careers couldn’t go past – not from the lack of execution, but they couldn’t fool guys, they couldn’t throw stuff by guys anymore… It just kind of slowed down. But if you were able to survive AA, there was a good chance you had a chance to get to the big leagues if you are talented enough. If not, it kind of ran out.

JL: That’s a really cool story on Tatis.

EK: Yeah, it was interesting. I’ve gotten to see him now from there [in AA] and then two years ago in the big leagues and see where he’s at. He’s made tremendous strides as the hitter.

JL: To talk a little bit more about you personally as a coach: do you have a certain philosophy that you follow that you’ve kind of created as you’ve learned more as a coach that informs how you work as a pitching coach? From there, how do you go about building your ideal pitching staff and pitching department as a whole, from the analysts all the way up to the players? And as you kind of build that philosophy and that department, are there drills, tools, data, or routines that are crucial to the work you like to do and you like the department as a whole to work on?

EK: I mean, there’s definitely stuff that, being with a bunch of different organizations, you learn different things and stuff that this organization values, or this organization values. So for me, that kind of molds my process as to stuff that we’ve had to talk about, stuff that I have liked, what I haven’t liked. I won’t get too deep into that, but the pitching philosophy for me depends.

The biggest thing for me is getting guys to know their strengths. What are your strengths and what do you do well – and some guys don’t know that, so helping them identify that, and then let’s continue to do that over and over again. When it comes to the drills, when it comes to fine tuning, it’s also individualized based on what they are doing, what they might need some help with, and then what kind of information are they looking to take in, or what might be too much [ information], and being that filter. So it was really important, when taking this job, to make sure some of the stuff that I have done that I liked, we were able to build and get into place so I can be able to have certain scouting stuff a certain way, the way that my eyes look at things and how I look at players, so we can make sure the players can simplify this and get them to understand the information.

So all that stuff kind of has been over time, kind of molded into what that [philosophy] is. But the general philosophy, I think that’s really important: to survive in the big leagues, you got to have stuff, but you also have to have some sort of secondary pitch. And what we do with that secondary stuff is really important. So that’s a little bit of it. I don’t want to say too much – I don’t want people to know too much.

JL: No, that makes total sense. Along those lines, I’m kind of curious, too. You’ve talked about your experiences throughout the way being so important and learning from different organizations, learning what you like, what you don’t like, I guess kind of along those lines: when did you feel like, “Hey, I’m ready to be a major league pitching coach?”

EK: Well, I mean, I think anything you do is […] anything you do, anything new, there’s always that in line, like, okay, are you ready to do this or not? Like, if I’m a Mailman, am I ready to be a Mailman? Am I ready to get all these addresses right and drop off all the mail? You don’t know until you do it.

I think the best compliment that stuck with me when I was with the Giants, Gabe Kapler said to me, “You’re really calm in the dugout.” Like, after the season, he was blown away. But for me, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, my surroundings. I’ve done it so many times in the minor leagues that it’s like, it’s coaching. It’s coaching. If you’re getting distracted with what’s going on, you’re not prepared for what’s going on in front of you, and there are a lot of things that are thrown your way throughout the game. So it’s definitely something I thought I was always ready for, but until you actually do it and go through it, obviously, you don’t know. You just think you are. And I feel like I was well prepared with all the steps that I’ve had to take to get to that point. And obviously, having that year with San Francisco, being in the dugout, it was a great position for me to also see what it’s like to interact with players during the course of a big league game and their preparation and all that. So that was a big experience for me that helped me for this past year.

JL: And in talking about having that experience with the players and you also mentioned as well, just understanding players and understanding how they like to take in information. Obviously, as the game has evolved, data, new information, and new techniques have increasingly become important and part of the game. How do you personally like to incorporate, for your own knowledge, learning? Is it something where it’s all very hands-on for you, or is it something like personal research, for example? And in that same sense, how have you found success in balancing those players’ personalities in terms of some players, like, are more data driven than others? How have you found that balance sort of working out?

EK: I’m very hungry for all information. That’s one thing that probably has helped me along the way. I’m very open-minded. So if there’s something that I think is important, I definitely will take that in. If there’s something that I haven’t heard of, I want to learn more.

I want to be able to try to keep up with everything that’s going on. And when it comes to that information: because you don’t know, you might have a pitcher that just got called up [for example], and you have no idea what he might be thinking, what he might know. So you got to get to know the person and the player and basically understand, okay, he could handle this information, or he can’t handle this information. [For some], this might be too much. I’m going to save this for the right time, or if he has a question, dumb it down for him if he needs it. So it really depends on how the player can take the information.

For myself, I’m trying to learn as much to stay at where everyone [every coach] should be at this level. And how I take that in is different than another pitching coach. I want to make sure that I understand it, and if I don’t, I’m not afraid to go ask our analytics department, “Hey, what is this? Help me out with this. I’m confused by this,” or, “I need to get this information. Help me find this information for this player. He’s asking about this. Let’s go through this and find it and then take me through it so I can get it and remember it so I can do it on my own next time.” So, I mean, it just depends. But I’m constantly trying to seek out information.

A lot of stuff that you do learn, it comes just from conversation where two minds are together, and it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t think of that,” and it sparks general thoughts. And I did that the other day with one of our analysts. We met and had coffee, and we just were talking, going back and forth, back and forth on a certain player, and we came up with some really good stuff that we hadn’t thought about. But just going through that, it just helps create new avenues of learning for everybody.

JL: So in 2021, you got to coach in the playoffs the first time at the Major League level. And though the team didn’t achieve its ultimate goal, were there things that both you and the team learned from the struggles that you think will benefit everyone moving forward into 2022 and beyond?

EK: Yeah, I think there’s definitely… it was a very humbling experience, but we didn’t achieve the ultimate goal, which was to keep playing and move on from that series. But I think we learned a lot about what we need to do better overall as a staff. I won’t speak for other departments, but what we need to do a little bit better, we are going to continue to strive to do in Spring Training and make that a priority of being able to conquer some of these things and take it. I mean, we had some young players that got a chance to pitch in a big situation that know they can do better and want to do better and want to prove their abilities to everybody. So it’s a good stepping stone. It wasn’t what we wanted, but it also is going to help us down the road for what we need to take care of.

JL: With any team, there’s going to be any combination of veterans who are like, “I came here, I’m here to win now,” and then, younger players who are still very raw talents that are still developing and need that time at the major league level. So as you’ve kind of navigated as a pitching coach, as an assistant coach, and throughout your career, how do you balance those ideals of both winning and player development at the same time?

EK: One of the things that we, when I was with San Francisco, we really prided ourselves was like, “This is going to be development at the major league level.” And I was like, that’s great. That’s always what I believed in, because it’s been development at the Low-A level. It’s been development at the High-A level. It’s development at the AA level. Everywhere I’ve been, it’s been all about development. Development doesn’t stop. Development doesn’t stop for a coach, no matter where you’re coaching. Development doesn’t stop for a player, no matter what they’ve done, because something in this game, they’re going to throw you a curveball and something is going to be humbling and you’re going to have to learn from it, and there’s development that needs to happen. So development doesn’t stop, […] and the minute you stop coaching and say, “Oh, this guy’s got it figured out,” it doesn’t work that way. So you have to continue to develop the players at all levels.

The attention to detail doesn’t stop from the lowest to the highest. It continues on. So development at the big league level is something that it will always be happening for us non-stop.

JL: I don’t know if you would consider yourself incredibly successful in what you’ve done, but you have seen yourself rise, like you said, all the way from a high school varsity pitching coach to a major league pitching coach. As you look through just your path to getting where you are, is there anyone you recall as being super influential in helping you get to that point whether it’s family, friends, coaches, people you feel have played a role in getting you to where you are today?

EK: It’s probably my family. Like I mentioned some of the experiences I had as a 26th rounder and in pro ball helped me today as a coach, but every step of the way my mom was ultra-supportive. I remember when I was a player and I had to go pitch an inning and it was 3 hours away every Saturday just to get seen by Scouts, like, she was there to take me, and when we got in the pro ball and I was a player, she was there to support me when my paychecks were $80 every two weeks. It’s like, you know, you need that support, and she never said like, “Hey, this is crazy, you need to stop, your dream is dying,” she was always supportive like, “What can I do to help you?”

And the same goes for my wife. I’ve been with my wife since high school, so she’s seen my pro career from a player to a coach, and she’s seen every step of the way, what I’ve gone through to kind of get here. And there’s been tons of sacrifices on her end when we’re gone for so long, or I’m in the midst of the season and I’m grinding away trying to focus on preparing, and she knows I’m going to get home late and I might leave early. She’s always been there to pick up the slack behind that I might be leaving behind and making sure that I’m able to focus on my job and do a lot of things, so, without that support staff throughout my life, I don’t know if I could say I would be able to get to where I’ve been able to get, so it’s been a blessing.

On behalf of the entire Sox On 35th team, I want to thank Ethan Katz for taking the time out to talk to me about some really interesting topics. It was awesome to get to hear about his professional journey and some of the cool stories that have come out along the way. He also comes off as an incredibly genuine family man who – whether he considers himself successful or not – has clearly experienced much success, with only more to come. It was truly a pleasure to talk with him for a bit.

We obviously wish Ethan and the team all the best once the 2022 season is finally able to begin.

Make sure to follow us @SoxOn35th for more updates and content!

Featured Photo: Getty Images

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