Accountability instilled in Reds' pitching staff
Coaches Price, Jenkins have high expectations from 'No. 1 to mop-up guy'
CINCINNATI -- Late last month, someone sent Reds pitcher Mat Latos an article from The Wall Street Journal, and it had zero to do with a stock tip. The article was a statistical breakdown that quantified how Latos' slider had become the toughest pitch in the Majors to hit a home run against this season.
The first thing Latos did when he got to the Reds' clubhouse that day was find pitching coach Bryan Price and assistant pitching coach Mack Jenkins, and show them the article.
"I'm the one that's out there and the one given the talent, but before I came to Cincinnati, my slider was above average but not where it is now. My slider is a lot harder than it was, and I'm able to command it more than when I was in San Diego," Latos said. "I told them, 'A lot of the credit has to go to you guys.' There were countless times we spent out there -- countless pitches, we were out there working on the slider -- adjusting the grip, adjusting the mechanics and throwing it."
Having any added weapon that makes hitting a home run tougher is no small feat when you consider that Latos and the Reds' pitching staff work half of their games at Great American Ball Park -- one of the most homer-friendly parks in the Majors.
Reds pitchers have done a good job the past couple of seasons in turning the negatives of their home into a positive in other areas. The group ranks fourth in the National League this season in ERA at 3.36, with the rotation second at 3.34. The staff has notched 17 shutouts, the club's most since 1973. Their 1,258 strikeouts leads the NL and broke the club record set last season. Latos, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake gave the rotation three 14-game winners for the first time since 1975.
In 2012, Cincinnati's rotation had four starters reach 200 innings, five make at least 30 starts and the club only needed a sixth starter once all year (because of a doubleheader). The staff ranked third in ERA, with the bullpen having the NL's lowest ERA.
Reds starter Homer Bailey also credits Price and Jenkins for their part in the staff's success.
"One thing I can say about them that's helped not just the starting rotation but the bullpen is the fact that we are held accountable," Bailey said. "We demand certain things out of everyone here, whether you're the No. 1 starter on the team or the mop-up guy -- it doesn't matter. Our expectations are held so high. Some things are just unacceptable. Our starters are expected to go seven innings. We are expected to keep our team in the game. We are expected to put up quality starts."
Price, 51, replaced Dick Pole as pitching coach after a 2009 season in which the Reds finished 74-88. For the previous 10 seasons, Price was the pitching coach for the Mariners, first under Lou Piniella and then under Bob Melvin. He also was on Melvin's staff for the D-backs from 2006-09, but he resigned in May 2009 to remain loyal to his manager after Melvin was dismissed.
With Cincinnati, Price oversaw the transformation of Johnny Cueto from raw young pitcher to an ace. He helped another raw pitcher, Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, develop quickly into one of baseball's best relievers.
Price -- who bears some resemblance to pro golfer Phil Mickelson, and like Mickelson is left-handed and very personable -- doesn't believe he does things much different from other pitching coaches. But he seemingly changed the culture of a Reds staff that had lacked consistent success since the late 1990s.
"This team hadn't been in the playoffs for 15 years," Price said. "There was room for improvement and room for change. I think for a guy like me, with 16 years of player-development experience as a player and coach, one thing you get when you're in the Minor Leagues is the importance of fundamentals and accountability. I don't have any idea what it was like here before, and I don't imagine it was that much different. I do know that if somebody does something they shouldn't do, we'll call them out on it. Don't cover first base or don't hold runners close, don't back up bases -- when they come back into the dugout, they're going to hear about it."
Price works with a vast array of types of pitchers -- power guys like Bailey and Latos to finesse-type pitchers like Arroyo and Leake. There are pitchers who speak little English, such as Chapman, and much of the rotation skews younger, like rookie lefty Tony Cingrani, who came up to replace an injured Cueto. But Price finds ways to tailor his approach with each pitcher in a way that works for them, not him.
"You stay with the strength of the pitcher, not the strength of the hitter," Price said. "We've got to stay with what these guys do well. The other thing is we have to coax them into believing there is never a bad matchup. You're going to come into every series and there are going to be hitters you've faced that have had some success against some of our pitchers. We have to find a way to create an environment where none of these guys feel like there is a bad matchup with our opponent."
That's where Jenkins comes in. Besides being a second set of eyes for Price and the pitchers, he is often complementing the work of advance scouts in the days leading up series. That requires digesting large volumes of videos and breakdowns about every opposing hitter and giving the pitchers a blueprint to combat them in matchups, especially ones that previously have had success.
"Having two allows them to have a little more time," reliever Manny Parra said. "I think Mack is really able to look at video and nail it down. Bryan is just a great communicator. They both are."
Added to the big league staff before the 2012 season to assist Price, the 49-year-old Jenkins has 24 seasons in the organization, including six from 2006-11 as its Minor League pitching coordinator. Many of the younger pitchers who came up through the system already knew and worked with Jenkins by the time they reached Cincinnati.
"I think that's part of the biggest thing. The guys that did pitch when I was down there trust me," Jenkins said. "It's really a coach's pleasure seeing someone making the most of the abilities that they're given."
Jenkins doesn't just look at other teams on video, but also pores over pitchers on the Reds' staff, looking for mechanical flaws when things are going wrong or the parts of a delivery that are going right and should be repeated.
"The biggest thing that helps all of us is Mack is kind of a guy who does the scouting reports, watches us mechanically and kind of does the same thing Bryan does," Bailey said. "But it's kind of behind the scenes. That behind the scenes is a very big thing."
Signed by the Reds shortly before Spring Training, Parra struggled but made the team out of camp. During video reviews, Jenkins noticed that Parra's curveball lagged behind his other pitches in effectiveness. Near the end of camp, Price told Parra to ditch the curveball and develop a slider.
"Everything was hard, and then I'd try and throw a curveball -- I was going too fast for it," Parra said.
Parra's struggles continued at the start of the regular season. But after a one-month stint on the DL with a pectoral strain, he returned to be a successful primary lefty setup man in place on an injured Sean Marshall. From June 11-July 30, Parra had 19 straight appearances without a run scoring.
"The biggest thing for Manny was going from the curveball to a slider," Jenkins said. "You always think of a left-on-left pitcher, their breaking ball being their main pitch. Maybe that led to Bryan saying, 'Hey, let's try a new breaking ball in Spring Training.' It kind of took off from May, when he came back from a rehab stint."
By the time Price joined the Reds, Bailey had already been up and down between the Majors and Triple-A multiple times since his 2007 debut as a much-heralded prospect. Admittedly standoffish toward his new coach, Bailey also knew he could benefit from a new voice and a new direction.
"He asked me, 'What do you need to improve on?'" Bailey said. "I said, 'I need to learn how to pitch. I know I have great stuff. There's no question. But how do I take my stuff and become really good?' He said, 'I'll get back to you on that.'"
Under Price, Bailey better diversified his repertoire and improved his curveball to go with his mid-90s fastball. The fruits of the relationship didn't come immediately, because Bailey spent time on the disabled list in both 2010 and '11. In 2012, Bailey had career highs with 13 wins, 208 innings and 206 strikeouts.
The crowning moment came near the end of last season, when Bailey threw a no-hitter at Pittsburgh on Sept. 28, a feat he duplicated this season on July 2 vs. the Giants in Cincinnati.
"He knew what I had," Bailey said. "Even going through injury and struggles, we always kept our eye on the prize. That was the last two years of putting up 200 innings, sub 4.00 ERAs. This year, I will hit 200 strikeouts. We've always had the same common goal. I think he's been such a big part of that, because he's very honest and also very logical. We see the exact same things."
Part of losing a bet last season over whether Bailey could throw a no-hitter, Price had to grow a mustache, a look that did not serve him well. Bailey can be a very intense guy, but also can show a lighter side about his coach, whom he referred to kiddingly as "Vanilla Price."
"After Bryan Price gave up his rapping career, he's done an excellent job in the role of being a very successful big league pitching coach," Bailey joked.
As mild-mannered and pleasant as Price usually seems, he can also effectively show that he's all business and deliver a clear message when it's time to criticize. Bailey learned that in a July 26 game at Los Angeles, when he was late covering first base on a Carl Crawford infield single.
"I come back in the dugout, and [he said], 'You were late to first base. That's unacceptable.' I said, 'You're absolutely right. It's my fault; it won't happen again,'" Bailey said. "And it didn't. It's about the little things we all must do right. … We are all held very accountable on certain things, as far as pitching goes. If you can't do that when you come up, you'll be sent out."
During the 2012 NL Division Series vs. the Giants, Latos lost his composure in the fifth inning of Game 5. He was unable to deal with the calls of the home-plate umpire or his own mistakes, and his displeasure was visible to all. San Francisco rallied for all six of its runs, capped by Buster Posey's grand slam, to win the game and advance in the playoffs. Price did not hold back with Latos before everyone departed for the winter.
"We had a talk," Latos said. "He told me, 'I will tell you flat out, you are the only thing that's holding you back from being a No. 1 guy or a plus, plus No. 2 guy.' I thought about it all offseason, especially after that Game 5 against San Francisco.
"It was a rough day, a rough next few days in the offseason. I still thought about it a month or so afterward, and I thought about what Price had said, what Dusty [Baker] said and looked at the film and you could just see it. … I'm making huge strides. I'm 100 percent better, but I still have a long way to go."
This season, Latos has been more composed on the mound. He's also been a huge part of the Reds' success. With Cueto on the DL much of the season, Latos became the No. 1 guy Price told him he could be, going 14-6 with a 3.23 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 203 2/3 innings.
"There are times when you have to be more aggressive with guys, but typically, these are relationships that are built on mutual respect," Price said. "These guys, for the most part, they're all completely invested. You have to respect the fact that these guys are preparing hard to compete. They've competed well. If they miss on something or do something they shouldn't, typically by the time they get to me, they already know that and expect I'm going to be there to remind them they have to do it better the next time."
Time after time, Cincinnati's pitchers have heeded the request.
"Our expectations are not to be good. Our expectations are to be one of the best teams," Bailey said. "We all pull for each other."