Passionate Balsley brings out best in Padres' pitchers
Peavy among long line of hurlers to flourish under coach's guidance, influence
SAN DIEGO -- It's difficult to know where Jake Peavy would be today had he not met Darren Balsley, who first was his pitching coach in the low levels of the Minor Leagues before later evolving into something more meaningful than a purveyor of pitch selection and mechanical fixes.
"I owe a lot to Darren Balsley, I promise you that. It's more than many people know or will ever realize," said Peavy, who won the National League Cy Young Award with the Padres in 2007. "I think about what we went through and how much credit he deserves for my career turning out the way it has.
"He was a father influence, a friend, a mentor and a coach."
And, quite possibly, the greatest con man ever.
Peavy, who is now with the Red Sox, likes to tell a story about how Balsley would conveniently stretch the truth, not so much to get the most out of his pitcher, but more to instill hope and optimism on the days where pure stuff took a backseat to guts and guile.
"He's telling you that you have better stuff than you do that day," Peavy said recently. "You're like, 'Darren, you're lying to me!' But he makes you believe to the point where you believe it and you do things that day that you weren't necessarily capable of because of how well he has you prepared."
This, maybe more than anything else, explains the essence of Balsley, who has been the Padres' pitching coach since May 2003, when he replaced Greg Booker.
Look briefly beyond the everyday tenets that comprise Balsley's job -- poring over scouting reports, working on the side with pitchers, the in-game components. All of these rate as important, vital. But if you want to know what makes Balsley tick, what has made him successful, ask those who know him the best.
Think San Diego is a nice landing spot for pitchers solely because of the pitcher-friendly environment of Petco Park and that dense, pea-soup marine layer that blankets the ballpark on nights in April and May? Think again, pal.
"He just has this supreme positivity and guys love it," Padres catcher Nick Hundley said. "He is very well-prepared. The pitchers that come here from somewhere else always say his scouting reports are better than they've ever seen.
"But more than that, those guys will run through a wall for him."
Since 2004, his first full season with the team, Balsley has presided over pitching staffs that rank fifth in baseball in ERA (3.92). He's coached multiple All-Stars, a Cy Young Award winner, a future Hall of Fame closer (Trevor Hoffman) and many others who have established or even re-established their big league credentials under his watch.
"There's a broad base of knowledge that Darren has," said Padres manager Bud Black, a former pitching coach himself with the Angels. "He's very passionate about baseball and loves the game. That shows in his daily work. He has a passion to teach, a passion to work and a passion to compete. He's very loyal to those guys, which I love. Most of all, guys believe in him.
"I remember sitting around late in 2007, taking about pitching, and Doggie [Greg Maddux] says to me that, 'Hey, this guy is really good.'"
Not that Balsley, 49, saw any of this coming.
|"He has a passion to teach, a passion to work and a passion to compete. He's very loyal to those guys, which I love. Most of all, guys believe in him."|
|-- Padres manager Bud Black|
Balsley was a standout pitcher at Mount Carmel High in San Diego and later at Palomar College and, like many others, envisioned himself pitching in the big leagues. While at Mount Carmel, "Bals" was on the mound as his high school team topped Point Loma High School and pitcher David Wells. Balsley is quick to point out that Wells outpitched him that day.
Balsley was eventually drafted by the A's in the third round of the 1984 January Draft before he was later picked up by the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 Draft before the 1987 season. He spent that season in the Florida State League, pitching for Dunedin, where he befriended current Padres bullpen coach Willie Blair.
"We just hit it off," Blair said. "We were throwing partners, running partners. We liked to fish and both of us were baseball junkies. We were roommates and because neither one of us had a car at the time, we would walk to our apartment after each game and order a pizza."
More often than not, dinner from Hungry Howie's Pizza was long gone by the time the two were done talking baseball.
"We'd stay up and talk baseball half the night," Blair said.
Balsley's time in Dunedin led him to the single most influential person in his career -- pitching coach Mel Queen, who played the outfield and pitched parts of seven seasons in the big leagues from 1966-72. Queen gained notoriety in 2001 when he overhauled Roy Halladay's mechanics while with the Blue Jays.
When Balsley's pitching career bottomed out after reaching Double-A in 1989 -- shoulder trouble and also a fractured scapula were the culprits -- Queen asked Balsley if he had interest in becoming a coach.
"I was surprised when he asked me to be a coach," Balsley said. "I was only 25 at the time. That was very flattering."
Soon enough, Balsley and Queen essentially became attached at the hip.
"Mel became my mentor," Balsley said. "The next two springs, he invited me to live with him. He loved to fish, I loved to fish and we would talk pitching the whole time. Not just pitching, but hitting, too. Because Mel was a position player, so he knew both sides of the game.
"It was a cram session for two or three years … it was Pitching 101, how to be a coach, a lot of insight on hitting, which a pitching coach needs to know. I can't give enough credit to him."
It was during this time when Queen passed along a gem that Balsley not only still embraces but one he puts to use every day.
"The main thing that Mel taught me was to treat everyone as an individual," Balsley said of Queen, who passed away in 2011. "The one phrase that he used all the time is that your pitching philosophy should be to not have a pitching philosophy at all. Everyone is different.
"You can't just clone these guys and make them robots. If you do that, you're short-changing yourself as a coach. He taught me to use my eyes and treat each guy as an individual."
Many of those pitchers have flourished under Balsley, no matter if it was a short stint or a long stint like Peavy, who spent the better part of a decade with Balsley. Balsley is reticent to take credit for anything. He is no fan of lavish praise and will always rather talk about the pitcher and not himself.
But Balsley has made a difference.
Just ask Scott Linebrink, Randy Wolf, Jon Garland, Mat Latos, Kevin Correia, Aaron Harang, Peavy, the list rolls on. With some, the fixes are entirely mechanical -- standing upright, moving to the first-base side of the rubber, getting on top of the ball and not pushing it or using your legs more. With pitching, it seems, there's no end to what can -- and will -- go wrong.
With other players, the problem might lie more with confidence or having conviction in a certain pitch.
Most recently, Balsley came to the aid of right-hander Tyson Ross, whom the A's sold low on in the winter of 2012 after three years produced a 6-18 record and a 5.33 ERA, thus taking the shine off his prospect status.
But certainly not diminishing his upside, Balsley thought.
"I had a rough year in 2012 and was kind of searching for things," Ross said. "But coming here, from Day One in camp, he [Balsley] had a way of getting the best out of you and could convey how to do that. He will tell you one adjustment and the next pitch you'll see it or feel it. He could see something in the dugout, and before you even talk to him about it, he'll have a solution brewing in his head.
"I've said it before, but that trade was the best thing to ever happen to me."
Just like landing with the Padres in 2000 was the best thing to happen to Balsley, who worked his way up through the system before he arrived in San Diego in 2003. It's a job he wanted then and one he still enjoys, and he'll quickly eschew questions about his managerial aspirations.
Balsley can, after all, make a difference in this role.
"It's extremely rewarding. And I've been fortunate enough to have a great group of guys who have been receptive," Balsley said. "You hate to see a guy struggle that is talented, guys who still have a lot left in the tank. You know it's in there somewhere. The fun part isn't so much revamping a guy but getting him back to where he was successful."
And when that happens?
"It's kind of like a parent watching his child, not just in sports but anything," Balsley said. "…You can get really emotional watching them. It's the same thing with me and pitchers."