Pete Walker is experiencing as smooth a transition from Toronto Blue Jays bullpen coach to pitching coach as one could imagine.
Last June, Walker’s good friend Bruce Walton, the Jays’ former pitching coach, watched starting pitchers Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison exit games to serious injury in a four-day span, while Ricky Romero struggled mightily a season after winning 15 games with a 2.92 earned-run average.
This spring, it’s hard to wipe the smile off the face of Walker, who welcomed a who’s who of starters to Dunedin, Fla., in late February. Over the winter, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos traded for Miami’s Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle and a few weeks later R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner.
"I think any pitching coach would be thrilled to work with some of these guys," Walker said in a phone interview on the weekend. "They are routine-oriented, veteran guys who understand what they need to do to get ready [for the season] so it’s been a pleasure so far."
Walker, a former major league pitcher who spent one season overseeing the Jays bullpen, said the new pitchers have exceeded his expectations from a chemistry perspective.
"I don’t see any ego at all between Josh Johnson, probably one of the most humble guys I’ve ever met considering his stature in the game and how well he’s done, and R.A. and Buehrle," said Walker, a married father of three children who pitched the final four seasons of his eight-year major league career with Toronto.
"They’ve taken to each other and gotten along well. They’ve been easy to work with and I’ve been very impressed with their work ethic."
Walker also talked to CBCSports.ca about what the organization learned from a trying 2012 season with its starting pitchers, which of the new starters are more business-like than they are practical jokers, and how the starting pitchers will spend the rest of spring training preparing for the season.
1. What has the Blue Jays organization learned from losing three starting pitchers to injury in one week?
Walker: I think anytime you have injuries like that [occur all at once] you’re a little surprised. Some of them were on the field and just happened. Overall, there were no sure signs that something was going wrong [with their throwing program between starts]. After something like that happens you want to make sure everyone is on the same page.
It’s communication, number one, making sure [the pitchers] are comfortable telling you how they’re feeling. There has to be more honesty from the player’s side and that’s in the game in general. A lot of players feel they’re obligated to pitch, but sometimes by taking a day or two [to rest] it can keep them around a bit longer during the season.
2. How did you plan for spring training knowing you would be working with an experienced group of starting pitchers?
I phoned them a few times and asked their plans and expectations for spring training. I didn’t want to be the overbearing new pitching coach. I’m certainly not going to make these guys come in and change their routines. They have a great track record and I want to work with them on what they like to look for in their [pitching] deliveries and keys for me to look for.
I wanted to start a comfort level for them to reach out and be able to talk to me if they want. I watched video on these guys and got a feel for what they like to do. And I wanted to explain my philosophy. The good thing is they were in full agreement.
Sometimes you can get caught up in looking at numbers when the most important thing as a pitcher is to execute the pitch.
3. Of the Blue Jays’ five projected starting pitchers, R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Ricky Romero, who are the business-first guys at spring training and who are those looking for a practical joke to break the ice?
I think Mark Buehrle is light-hearted. He definitely keeps these guys loose. He’s told me he’s never had the greatest spring trainings but not to worry, that when the bell rings in April [to start the regular season] he’ll be ready to roll.
Josh Johnson is business-like. He has a plan. He’s very humble and quiet, goes about his business a lot like [former Blue Jays ace] Roy Halladay. He has his routine, doesn’t like to deviate too much and I like how he works.
R.A. is a workhorse. He’s taking groundballs early in the morning, wants extra work and does his extra running, over and above what most pitchers do.
Ricky’s kind of a fun guy as well, likes to joke around. Brandon is a little bit more of a straight shooter.
4. Besides their obvious talent, why are Dickey, Johnson and Buehrle wise additions to the Blue Jays at this time with the way the club is set up for the 2013 season and beyond?
It relieves some of the pressure on the bullpen. R.A. Dickey, being a knuckleballer, [the] history will show that the [success of a starter] the next day and the [hard-throwing] relievers coming in [late in the game] is better, so that’s a plus that people might not recognize.
Each of those starters has the ability to throw 200 innings, something we haven’t had [in abundance] in the past. What that does is allow the relievers to throw the innings they’re supposed to pitch and not have them in the game in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. It keeps them fresh and [doesn't] burden them to perform [at their top level] night in and night out.
5. With four weeks left at spring training, what will be the focus of the starting pitchers on a weekly basis leading up to the April 2 season opener against Cleveland?
Early in camp it’s about getting your feet wet, getting the comfort of the ball in your hand again. After that, it’s fastball command. I preach fastball command and that’s our number one priority as pitchers, not only starters but relievers as well. You want to establish the fastball on both sides of the plate. Everything else happens after that at spring training.
If you’re not commanding your fastball I don’t want you working on your secondary [pitches]. It’s about preaching the fastball, attacking the strike zone and getting the command so towards the end of spring training we can start fine-tuning: incorporating the secondary pitches, fine-tuning them so they’re there as out pitches and really getting into game mode.
The last four or five days before opening day you’re treating every inning like it’s a big-league inning and we’re trying to get hitters out. Right now, veteran guys are working on their stuff, getting a feel for what they need to do and they’re trying to command their fastball.