Major league pitching coaches have a tendency to gather a sort of cult around them.
Whether the St. Louis Cardinals’ Dave Duncan or the Atlanta Braves’ Leo Mazzone or whoever tried to make people believe the Minnesota Twins’ “pitch to contact” mandate was a good idea, these men make people believe they are wizards that make pitchers great. Over time, if you’re good enough, or just last long enough, you suddenly become famous. Talent helps, but sometimes it’s warranted. The Chicago White Sox have one of those guys in Don Cooper.
The curmudgeonly coach has overseen several career renaissances and the blooming of insane talent under his watch, which the Cleveland Indians have had to deal with first-hand for upwards of a decade. It has to be wondered though, what does Don Cooper do?
When I say “do”, I mean, what is his tool for making his pitchers better? What is his focus? Kind of like how Tribe coach Mickey Callaway purportedly acts as a sounding board and simply guides with a soft hand like some sort of psychologist, or how the Tampa Bay Rays have a lineage of changeups. Is there anything to Cooper that's let him bridge between two managers and get something out of non-prospects and retreads?
Cooper was actually asked this very question. The most recent time was in 2014 with Sports on Earth, where he claimed to love the cutter. He likes it in part because it creates a different plane than the typical fastball due to its moving away from the arm side of the pitcher and gets off the sweet spot of the bat. It also lets pitchers work both sides of the plate. We all saw Mariano Rivera make kindling with just this pitch.
There's some proof to this. Cooper’s two longest enrolled students, John Danks and Mark Buehrle, each featured the cutter prominently in their work. Between 2007, when PitchFX data was first available, and 2011 when he left for Toronto, Buehrle threw the cutter between 18 percent and 24 percent of the time. It was typically his second-most used pitch behind the obvious four-seamer, except in 2010 when the sinker overtook it and was tossed 23 percent of the time compared to the 18 percent for the cutter.
Danks was very similar. In 2007, his first year as a major leaguer, he threw exactly one cutter. The next year he threw 721, or 22.8 percent of his pitches. It remained his second most used pitch until 2012 when it was eclipsed by the changeup. That was also the year that Danks started having shoulder problems and losing velocity at an increasing rate. His four-seam dropped from a 93-mph average in 2011 to 91 in 2012 and has flirted with 90 since then. Everything else dropped correspondingly, except for this curveball, which fell a full five miles per hour.
Both are hard cases to judge, though. Danks because of his rotator cuff issues. Arm troubles just happen, it's the reason pitching is rife with attrition. Who knows how his career would have continued had he stayed healthy? But for three years under Cooper when he could still throw, he became a very good starter. He averaged 203 innings a year with a 3.61 ERA. His cutter was vital in that success, and plainly showed up after a year of work with Cooper.
Buehrle is… amazing, simply in a longevity and brevity sense, as odd as that sounds. He made games go quickly and threw 200 innings each season. He was also very good with a career 3.81 ERA. He’s hard to judge this whole cutter business simply because we don’t have numbers to back up pre-Cooper days and his pitch usage, which were also the first two years of his career. Since 2007 he’s just always thrown, and featured, a cutter. It’s circumstantial evidence at best. Better information simply doesn’t exist. So we have to look elsewhere, to three young pitchers who were all molded under Cooper: Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon.
Sale is an easy choice for biggest feather in Cooper’s cap. As the coach himself said, he was blessed to watch seven years of one of the best pitchers in all of baseball from the best seat in the house. You could argue there should have been a Cy Young in there. Sale also happens to be a mutant blend of a willow tree and human being. He’s never thrown a cutter in his life. Instead, as the below chart shows, he’s started to feature off-speed stuff of late.
This makes sense. He throws in the mid-90’s and has a whipcrack slider to back it up. Realistically, there’s no need for a cutter. Instead, a change-of-pace pitch that can be reliably thrown for strikes is key.
Here is a zone map that shows his 2012 location against his 2017:
The introduction of his change has allowed Sale to do something else Cooper has schooled, but which also isn’t all that revolutionary — pitching to both sides of the plate. It’s not an interesting thing, it’s what a lot of coaches preach because it’s common sense. The change allows for that (along with the sinker obviously, which moves opposite the slider and a bit more vertically than the four-seam, though it’s faster than the change), and it made Sale a more complete pitcher. When before he was just a terrorizer, now he can just outthink and outwit you.
Next we have Jose Quintana, who more than Sale is an amazing crafting by Cooper. Whereas Sale is just a genetic freak, there’s nothing to Quintana that would make you think he’d turn into one of the best lefties in baseball. He throws a slightly above-average fastball velocity-wise, peaking at 93 mph this past year. He’s also got an invaluable weapon in his sinker, which is basically neck-and-neck with his four-seam. But, whereas earlier Cooper acolytes increased cutter usage, Quintana has nearly dropped it from his repertoire.
He threw literally 17 cutters last year, or one every tw-oish starts. It’s one thing to hold a pitch for when you really need it, but at that point it’s almost as if PitchFX just misclassified a four-seam that caught a little wind, or a slider that didn’t break. Instead, he’s relied on his four-seam/sinker pairing and a hammer curve the last few years, along with, increasingly, a changeup. This tracks with Sale’s introduction of the changeup. The curve is another story, as it’s been making a slow but steady comeback after seemingly dying off a few years ago. There was actually a neat Pat Jordan article about his hunt for the overhand curve a few years back.
Quintana is pitching like an old school pitcher, though — eschewing the cutter and slider for the curve and change. The slider, incidentally, was derisively called a nickel curve when it first showed up since it was easier to throw than a curve and never as good as the bender when both are thrown at their best. The cutter is simply a nickel slider when you think about it. Both are fastball variants, simplified ways of driving a pitch in at an opposite-handed hitter. Like Sale, though, this mix that Quintana uses lets him do one thing that Cooper dogmatically preached in the past: pitch to both sides of the plate.
Here’s what he did in 2013, a year after he’d been able to establish himself, and last year.
This is nothing amazing, but it’s evidence that Quintana listened. It just doesn’t use a cutter to achieve the goal, which is odd based on Cooper’s supposed reputation.
Then there’s Carlos Rodon. Rodon came to the White Sox in 2015, one year after being their first round draftee. Rodon has also never thrown a cutter as a major-leaguer. Based on the repertoire he came out of college with, there’s little that would lead you to believe he threw one in the minors either. That said, as the below chart demonstrates, he’s increased his changeup usage from year one to two, albeit a single percent.
As with Sale, who he’s a poor man’s version of, he needs a pitch that moves armside more than a cutter. He’s already got the tools to get lefties, but he can’t whip his way through righties like his former rotation-mate could.
Back to the original question then — what does Don Cooper do? Like, how does he make young pitchers into good pitchers? Why does he have the reputation he does?
First, with the cutter in particular, he plainly sees things that work and gets his own pitchers to throw them. The cutter post-Rivera was very in vogue, and it worked. The changeup is always in vogue because it works. Based on all this, it seems like Don Cooper is just a very good coach, who gets the best out of his pitchers. Someone like Quintana, who didn’t really need a cutter because he had solid velo, a good sinker and a good curve coming out of the minors, simply needed a change of pace that could be thrown for strikes.
I’ve always thought it hard to really get worked up over any kind of coaching in baseball. It’s such an individual sport, most if not all success and failure is based on the efforts of the athlete, not the coach. The pitching coach does have the opportunity of working with the guy who initiates action, though, whereas the hitting coach is teaching reaction. Hitters are naturally at a disadvantage. They have no way to start on the high ground because they are waiting to see what the pitcher does. Cooper has had the opportunity to work with good young talent, but his ability to get a guy like Quintana in particular to turn into a star is something special. Quintana was never supposed to be much of anything, just an amateur free agent that was released by the New York Mets and New York Yankees before catching on with the White Sox. Cooper got him to do what he does best, and changed himself while doing it. At least a bit, if we’re going to stick with this “ he focuses on the cutter” idea.
So what does Don Cooper do? At this point it looks like he molds to a pitcher’s strengths. Expect more changeups from Rodon, and more of the same from Quintana. Cooper is obviously good at what he does, it’s just that it’s not a simple judgement of what that is. He makes pitchers. In a world of throwers, that’s a tough task in and of itself.