St. Louis Cardinals: The ideal pitching coach nobody saw coming

The St. Louis Cardinals need to make a splash with their next pitching coach.  There is one sleeper candidate who would improve all aspects of the pitching staff, and the St. Louis Cardinals should make every effort to hire him.

The St. Louis Cardinals fired pitching coach Derek Lilliquist.  In firing Lilliquist, the team advertised a desire to improve the pitching coach position.  The Cardinals want a new approach that is more supportive of growth and development (and, certainly, a more pronounced emphasis on analytics).  Evidently, John Mozeliak wanted to shake things up rather than see if Lilliquist could rise to the stated challenge.

Since firing Lilliquist, several prominent pitching coaches and former pitchers frequented the rumor mill as purported replacements.  Some of the more popular names are Chris Carpenter, Jason Isringhausen, Brian Eversgerd, Cal Eldred, Chris Bosio, John Farrell, and, perhaps the most popular, Jim Hickey.  To date, the position remains vacant.

The position remains vacant because the above-listed candidates do not provide the best fit for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Yes, you read that correctly.  No, Jim Hickey is not the best fit for this team, even if his signing would keep him from the Chicago Cubs.  No, Chris Carpenter is not coming out of retirement to save the pitching staff.  No, Cal Eldred is not departing from his general manager career path to be a pitching coach.

Why, you might ask, are these respected coaches and former players not a good “fit” for the St. Louis Cardinals?  The better question is, “who is the best pitching coach for this St. Louis Cardinals team?”  The best fit for the job provides the answer to both questions.

Let me assume that most readers hear crickets attempting to divine another qualified name from those enumerated above.  The remaining readers are cursing me for my unpopular view that Jim Hickey is not the answer.  But, a creative few may think that a former St. Louis Cardinals arm, who is in the hall of fame, and who was both a staff ace and shut-down closer provides a better fit – a better answer if you will.

No, that pitcher is not Bob Gibson (for those of you googling whether Gibson was ever a closer, you can stop and just keep reading).  The pitcher is currently announcing World Series games.  Yes, the best pitching coach the St. Louis Cardinals could possibly hire is John Smoltz.

John Smoltz pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009

John Smoltz pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009

UPI/Bill Greenblatt

John Smoltz pitching dominance and pitching coach fit

Have you ever listened to John Smoltz break down an at-bat or discuss the mechanics of a starter or reliever?  Have you listened to Smoltz disarmingly explain pitch selection and strategy to seasoned baseball analysts and former pros?

The guy has world class coach written all over him.  Moreover, Smoltz really cares about a pitcher’s health.  After all, he is the only pitcher to be inducted into the Hall of Fame after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

To understand the potential marriage between John Smoltz and the St. Louis Cardinals, one must simply take a closer look at the proposal.

John Smoltz dominated all aspects of baseball.  He was a long-shot prospect that became an ace/workhorse.  He worked relentlessly on his craft and he performed even better in the postseason.  Finally, he transformed an injury-riddled career into being a dominant closer for several years.

There is no other pitcher with ties to the St. Louis Cardinals who dominated every aspect of the game on the level of John Smoltz.

As a reminder of his dominance, Smoltz, the 8-time all-star, had over 200 wins and over 150 saves in his career.  Smoltz also had over 3,000 strikeouts, a Cy Young award, a career 3.33 ERA and a career 125 ERA+.    Smoltz also won the relief pitcher of the year award with 55 saves in 2002, and he won a silver slugger award in 1997.

Smoltz was even more dominant in the postseason.  He pitched over 200 innings in the playoffs which resulted in a 15-4 win/loss record and a 2.67 ERA and nearly 200 strikeouts in those innings.  Many consider him one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all time.

While being a hall of fame pitcher does not an effective pitching coach make, Smoltz seems to be a coach the pitchers, young and old, can relate to and learn from.  He can help young starters who are asked to come out of the bullpen deal with that change in mindset and approach.  He can help the pitchers maximize their abilities through pitch selection and proper mechanics.  He is also smart enough to adapt and apply advanced analytics to improve the pitching staff.

Additionally, Smoltz understands the importance of analytics combined with intangibles, as he once discussed the issue of analytics in baseball with Jason Tabrys of uproxx.com:

“I think it’s [about] balance. . . . when a computer spits something out and here’s the documented answers, that’s what they understand. . . . And that’s where words like clutch, camaraderie, clubhouse, atmosphere, and chemistry—they don’t understand those words. They don’t make sense because there’s nothing that comes out of a computer that even deals with that.”

Furthermore, Smoltz understands the difference in approach necessitated by the change from starter to reliever.  As Smoltz himself described this mental adjustment, “As a starter, you know when you’re going to pitch. You prepare to pitch a certain day. As a closer, you wait to see if your team’s going to put you in that position. That’s probably been the hardest transition.”

John Smoltz intangibles

Did I mention that he is a great guy?  Smoltz won the Roberto Clemente Award, the Lou Gehrig Award, and the Branch Rickey Award all of which highlight a player’s involvement in the community.

Are there intangibles that we can look at to read the tea leaves and understand the type of mindset and approach Smoltz would have as a coach?  Yes, there are.  One need only glance at the Hall of Fame page for Smoltz.  Smoltz says, on the Cooperstown page, “I literally gave everything I had every single time I went out there.”

Smoltz also said, about his involvement in announcing, “I’m a type of person, that if I get involved in something, I want to go to the best and highest level and be the best I can be. I don’t want to check in and just do something. I don’t like checking a box.”

That is the guy I want leading my young pitching staff.  I want that fire and passion that everyone on the team can feed off of.  I want that blend of competitive spirit and passion for the game that only guys like Smoltz can provide.

Would Smoltz coach?

But, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Smoltz recently said, in Tabrys’ interview, that

“[t]o, coach, as much as I love the Rubik’s Cube of trying to put together 12 pitchers and trying to find a way to maximize their talents—which, I love coaching, I coached basketball for four years, I love it—that was never going to be in my DNA. I couldn’t do that to my family, and I just couldn’t do that to myself.”

To address whether Smoltz would actually coach, this is where money talks.  The St. Louis Cardinals would need to make Smoltz an offer he could not refuse.  If the pitch (pun intended) to Smoltz focuses on his love of coaching and the carte blanch he could have with the young, and talented pitching staff, he might be persuaded to give coaching a try.

One thing is certain, if the St. Louis Cardinals get Smoltz in the door, he will be relentless and do everything to be the best pitching coach in the league.  I’ll take that ten times out of ten.

So, Mr. Smoltz, you are on notice that I am submitting your application for the pitching coach vacancy on the St. Louis Cardinals.  We will let you know when you will be interviewing for the position.

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John Smoltz is the type of splash the St. Louis Cardinals need to make.  He is direct and sincere, and if we can lure him away from the broadcast booth, then he will give everything he has to be the best pitching coach in the league.  Hell, he might even help this team on the bases.  After all, he is the only pitcher in major league history with more than one postseason steal (he has three).

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