MO2 exclusive: Talking the state of pitching with Jack McKeon

MO2 exclusive: Talking the state of pitching with Jack McKeon


Baseball icon Jack McKeon in an exclusive interview with Man On Second Baseball reminds that pitchers who threw more decades ago suffered fewer arm injuries than pitchers of today

By Joe Frisaro @ManOn2nd

Pitchers today are bigger, stronger, throw harder and are in better physical condition than ever before.

So why then are so many of them breaking down?

Keeping a rotation intact has been a troubling MLB-wide issue. Right here in South Florida, the Miami Marlins, through their first 63 games, have already used 13 different starters.

To get to the bottom of what’s going on, MO2 reached out to baseball lifer Jack McKeon for some answers.

Jack McKeon

“I go back to Johnny Sain,” McKeon said in an inclusive interview with Man On Second Baseball. “When Johnny Sain was my pitching coach, his philosophy was: ‘You have a greater chance of hurting your arm with inactivity than you do with activity.’ “

In an era of innings limits and pitch counts, Sain’s philosophy of throwing more is considered thinking of the past. It’s as obsolete as bullpen carts.

Still, Sain’s legacy is hard to dispute.

Known in baseball lore for being part of the poem, “Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain.” With the Boston Braves in 1948, Spahn, a Hall of Famer, and Sain, a four-time 20-game winner, anchored a National League pennant-winning rotation.

Sain later became a respected, and somewhat controversial, pitching coach. He coached 20-game winners, Jim Kaat, Whitey Ford, Mudcat Grant, Denny McLain, Jim Bouton, Al Downing, Jim Perry, Wilbur Wood and Stan Bahnsen.

Sain also mentored long-time Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone.

In an interview with the Sporting News several years ago, Mazzone discussed his relationship with Sain, who died in 2006.

“Johnny was a little bit of a rebel,” Mazzone told Sporting News recently from his Anderson, S.C., home. “He believed in throwing a lot and running a little. He believed in hanging with his pitchers only. He believed in making pitchers first-class citizens.”

“Leo, I’ve been looking for somebody to take all of my information,” Sain told Mazzone. “Understand it, use it, do whatever you want with it.”

Sain added something else, though: “There’s a lot of people that don’t want it.”

Mazzone coached Hall of Famers John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux in Atlanta.

Johnny Sain

Today, with advanced analytics, starters rarely go three times through a lineup, unless they are really cruising. Fewer balls are put in play, and strikeouts are on the rise. A byproduct of rising strikeouts are higher pitch counts, and quicker exits for starters.

Obviously, the game has evolved, and McKeon is the first to point out that his philosophy isn’t necessarily the only one. He quickly says, others may do things differently, and that’s perfectly fine.

But McKeon’s institutional knowledge, and seven decades of pro ball experience, certainly qualify him as an expert. And as the sport continues to evolve, organizations are constantly seeking ways to keep their pitchers healthy. Maybe some of the old ways would work?

Sain’s theory was to have pitchers throw pretty much every day.

“Not hard,” McKeon said. “Maybe throwing off the mound for five minutes a day. They didn’t have any arm problems.”

Now 90, McKeon remains a beloved figure in South Florida.

Trader Jack managed the 2003 Florida Marlins to a World Series title, defeating the New York Yankees in six games. With a no-nonsense approach, McKeon pushed his players, especially his then young rotation that included Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis and Brad Penny. McKeon’s decision to go with Beckett on short-rest to close out the World Series was widely criticized at the time. Yet, Beckett blanked the Yankees, 2-0, delivering the Marlins’ franchise their second title.

“How come there was not this many injuries years ago?” McKeon now asks. “First of all, they didn’t throw as hard. And they didn’t build up their arms, weight lifting, and put the strain on the muscles.”

After his managerial career with the Marlins, McKeon remained as special advisor with the organization through 2017. The past few years, he’s been a special assistant with the Washington Nationals. So, McKeon is not out of touch when it comes to observing the training methods and conditioning of pitchers today.

“Why are we getting hamstrings?” McKeon said.

To McKeon, it goes back to the heavy weight training. What he recommends is reducing the amount of upper body lifting, and throwing more regularly.

McKeon also believes, even at the Minor League level, pitchers should learn how to work their ways out of jams.

“I believe in the Minor Leagues, if you get a guy in the sixth or seventh innings, and he’s in a jam, let him figure it out,” McKeon said. “So you lose the game, but you win a pitcher. Today is a different philosophy. They don’t want to hurt the guys.”

No one is advocating burning pitchers out by overworking them, and pushing them to the point of physical risk. That’s not the point of this story.

But for all the protective measures clubs are using now, pitchers still are going down at an alarming rate.

This season, according to Baseball Reference, the average National League innings pitched per game started is 5.1, which is where the Marlins are. The Los Angeles Dodgers have the highest NL average at 5.6.

In 2017, the Washington Nationals topped the NL at 6 innings per game started. They were the only team to reach six.

By comparison, let’s go back to 2004, the year after the Marlins won the World Series. I picked ’04 because that was McKeon’s first full season managing the organization after he replaced Jeff Torborg the previous May.

Even after the young Marlins staff pitched into late October, McKeon’s Spring Training plan was to push his starters. In Grapefruit League games, McKeon went with a four-man rotation early, and eventually added in the fifth starter. He also raised eyebrows and concerns because the starters went at least three or four innings their first time out. Now, two is pretty much it, or 25-30 pitches.

The strategy worked.

The Marlins opened the season, 8-1, including three straight shutouts.

That year, Carl Pavano logged 222 1/3 innings, Willis threw 197 innings, Beckett 156 2/3 innings, Penny 131 and A.J. Burnett (returning from Tommy John surgery), 120. Ismail Valdez made 11 starts and threw 56 innings.

The ’04 Marlins finished shy of reaching the playoffs, but that had more to do with a lack of offense and bullpen than the rotation.

In ’04, Marlins’ starters averaged 6 innings per game started, fourth best in the NL. The St. Louis Cardinals were first at 6.2 innings.

Why did McKeon push his main starters in Spring?

McKeon had noticed in those days many of the top starters in the league eased into the season, and really started to kick it in gear in May. So, he wanted his pitchers ready for the first month, and that’s one reason they got off to a fast start.

Jack McKeon (right)

“The good pitchers don’t get really ready until about May,” McKeon said. “I wanted to get my pitchers ready early.”

Talk pitching with McKeon long enough, and the name Jim Kaat gets brought up immediately.

McKeon managed Kaat in the late 1950s in the Pioneer League in Missoula, Montana. Kaat was an 18-year-old at the time, and McKeon, formerly a player/manager, immediately saw a future big leaguer.

“I had Kaat as an 18-year-old kid, and he pitched 251 innings,” McKeon said. “And a year later, he’s in the big leagues. Twenty-five years later, his arm gives out.”

Kaat was a 283-game winner, compiled 180 complete games, and in the eyes of many, should be in the Hall of Fame.

As a prospect, on the days he wasn’t starting, McKeon had Kaat and outfielder Sandy Valdespino do early work at the field. Back then, there were 17-man rosters, and usually no more than seven pitchers, so the manager was more hands on.

I had Kaat as an 18-year-old kid, and he pitched 251 innings. And a year later, he’s in the big leagues. Twenty-five years later, his arm gives out.” — Jack McKeon

McKeon would catch Kaat, and also hit him ground balls to help his fielding. Not that he needed much help, as Kaat was a 16-time Gold Glove winner.

With Valdespino, he’d hit, and work on base running, and other drills.

“One time I wanted to take a break,” McKeon recalled. “We did this every day, unless it was the day Kaat pitched. So I didn’t say, ‘Tomorrow, we’re going to work out at 10 o’clock.’ So what happens, they come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Skip, tomorrow at 10 o’clock?’ That’s the kinds of guys those guys were, those two.”

It didn’t take long for McKeon to be sold on Kaat’s ability.

Missoula was an affiliate of the Washington Senators in those days, and later the organization became the Minnesota Twins. One day, Calvin Griffith, the team president, and Joe Haynes, the vice president who previously pitched in the big leagues, came to Missoula and saw Kaat throw a two-hit shutout.

At dinner that night, McKeon asked what they thought about the young lefty.

“I said, what do you think of Kaat?” McKeon said. “They said, ‘Not enough stuff to pitch in the big leagues.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll bet you a steak dinner that Kaat pitches in the big leagues within two years.’ Six months later, he’s pitching in the big leagues.”

Kaat made his MLB debut on Aug. 2, 1959, at age 20, and he pitched in parts of four decades, retiring in 1983.

As a manager or general manager (with San Diego), McKeon researched the amount of innings young pitchers threw in their first seasons.

Tom Seaver logged 251 innings with the New York Mets in 1967, and Don Sutton posted 225 2/3 innings with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966.

“I looked all those guys up, and I said to my people, ‘We’re not pitching these guys enough,’ ” McKeon said. “We’re letting these guys lie around, and then they try to go back full-bore.”

McKeon was the general manager of the Padres from 1980-90. San Diego went to the World Series in 1984.

In his remarkable career as a manager and general manager, McKeon has certainly done things his way. He remains the only manager to win at least 1,000 games at the Minor League and MLB levels, and still has a wealth of baseball wisdom.

“But everybody has different ideas,” McKeon said. “Someone else might have a different philosophy about how they want to go about it.”


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