White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper keeps the psych job simple
By DARYL VAN SCHOUWEN firstname.lastname@example.org June 23, 2011 8:26PM
White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, meeting with Mark Buehrle on the mound, has a master’s degree in pitching psychology. | Ron Vesely~Getty Images
Updated: September 29, 2011 12:32AM
Don’t sell White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper’s knowledge of pitching mechanics short. He can analyze and break it down with anybody. But where he sets himself apart is the psychology of pitching.
‘‘I view my job as bartender-slash-psychologist,’’ Cooper said.
Cooper got his psych degree from the school of hard knocks as a pitcher. For the Twins, Blue Jays and Yankees in the early 1980s, he was 1-6 with a 5.27 ERA in 44 games.
‘‘I don’t want guys to have to do what I had to do — look over my shoulder every time I had a bad outing and somebody is telling me to get the hell out of the clubhouse,’’ Cooper said.
Cooper built his reputation as one of baseball’s best pitching coaches by keeping the complicated art of pitching simple and accentuating the positive with his pitchers.
‘‘This is a place where it comes down to basics: throw your fastball to four quadrants, throw the breaking ball to both sides of the plate, get the first guy each inning, hold the other team after we score,’’ Cooper said. ‘‘I will never over-coach because [pitchers] can make it too tough, and you can overthink things. Don’t get me wrong — pitching is a challenge in the American League, but sometimes guys have extra thoughts in their heads that are draining and nonproductive. We’ve got to get them to focus on the task at hand. This is more of a mental game.
‘‘They train their bodies, their legs, backs, arms and necks, but the strongest muscle in their body is their brain. If we can train that and teach them to focus, commit, now you have a chance to execute.’’
Philip Humber’s rise as a No. 3 overall draft pick, subsequent fall to a pitcher who was claimed on waivers this last offseason and emergence with the Sox under Cooper’s watch is the latest example of Cooper’s magic touch. It brings to mind Esteban Loaiza, a non-roster invitee to spring training in 2003 who went 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA and finished second in Cy Young voting.
‘‘I liken it to a puzzle,’’ Cooper said. ‘‘You see what a guy has, what he can do, and play on those positives. Maybe add a pitch, work on their positives. I want a guy to have the best year he’s ever had. Their careers are important to me. I don’t want them to have a career like I did.’’
Cooper got Humber to add a slider to his assortment of pitches. Commanding it along with a plus curveball is one big reason why he pitches deep into games night in and night out, adding to Cooper’s resumé that boasts the Sox leading the major leagues with an average of 88 quality starts a season since 2003.
‘‘More than anything, he has been real positive,’’ Humber said. ‘‘He believed in my stuff and made me believe if I attacked the strike zone consistently, I would have some success. If your coach believes in you, it carries over, and you start believing in yourself a little more.’’
‘‘Coop has kept it really simple: Stay tall, stay back, drive the ball downhill — things you can remember because you don’t want to be thinking about mechanics when you pitch.’’
After battling through shaky starts at the outset of the season, left-handed relievers Matt Thornton and Chris Sale are back on track. Thornton has seven consecutive scoreless appearances.
‘‘When I struggled early in the season, he always looked for the positives in my outings, even if I had a bad game, and reinforced those,’’ Thornton said. “He has seen a lot of pitchers come through here. It’s not so much about changing guys drastically. He finds what they do well and reinforces that.’’
With Sale, Cooper moved him over on the rubber. In his last two appearances, he got Sale to stand taller. It raised his release point and added more of an angle to his pitches, making his stuff better.
‘‘With Coop, it’s not so much mechanics, but he gets my mind right,’’ Sale said. ‘‘Obviously, he’s good with mechanics, but he does a real good job of calming me down and getting me mentally right. He doesn’t overload you.’’
Sox assistant general manager Rick Hahn noted: ‘‘Coop’s two greatest attributes are his ability to communicate and his ability to help pitchers who’ve had issues elsewhere unclog themselves.’’