At 69, This Coach Lives on the Front Line of Baseball’s Revolution

Coach Brent Strom with pitcher Buddy Boshers, in spring training. Strom is more than five years older than any other pitching coach in the majors.
Credit...Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

A hazard of baseball’s data revolution is the risk of minimizing experience. Former players with a lifetime in the game are often shut out of modern coaching staffs. You might have been teammates with Willie Mays, but unless you know your way around an iPad, good luck getting hired.

“Part of the challenge we face as an industry is there are so many wonderfully experienced coaches, but many of them, because they’ve been in the game so long, have a certain way of doing things and they’re resistant to change,” said Jeff Luhnow, the general manager of the Houston Astros, adding later: “A lot of people are stubborn. They feel invested in what they’ve been preaching, and they won’t change. A lot of gurus are like that.”

Brent Strom of the Astros is not. Strom, 69, is the senior pitching coach in the majors, more than five years older than anyone else in the job. Yet he is a force within baseball’s most progressive, data-driven organization, and his pitchers had the majors’ lowest earned run average, 2.68, before this weekend’s series with the Boston Red Sox.

“He’s one of the few people who’s really been able to keep that old-school mentality and take the best things he learned from that era and bring it to the analytical age,” Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. said. “When you have a guy that can kind of blend both, you can really rely on his opinions and his advice to make you a better pitcher.”

Strom pitched five seasons for the Mets, the Cleveland Indians and the San Diego Padres; Mays was a teammate for his major league debut at Shea Stadium in 1972. Strom became the second pitcher to undergo Tommy John surgery, in 1978, though, unlike John, he never made it back to the majors.

As a minor league instructor for the Dodgers in the 1980s, Strom worked with his idol, Sandy Koufax. He still has a napkin covered with Koufax’s stick-figure drawings that crystallize the proper pitching mechanics, something of a hieroglyphics of the craft. Like Koufax, Strom is polite but reluctant to give interviews, wary of making himself the story.

“This is really about the players,” Strom said at Yankee Stadium on Monday. “When they’re on a good roll like they are right now, the best thing I can do is just stay out of their way.”

For two years, Strom had no pitchers to bother. After working for the Dodgers, Astros, Royals, Padres and Expos/Nationals organizations, he spent the 2006 and 2007 seasons at home in Tucson, Ariz., helping his wife, Carrie, run her dog-grooming business. An unlikely connection brought him back to baseball.

When Strom coached for the Royals, their general manager, Herk Robinson, introduced him to an old friend named Mike Witte, a cartoonist from New York who spent his spare time poring over videos to learn the secrets of pitching mechanics and injury prevention. Witte was also friends with owners of the St. Louis Cardinals, who hired Luhnow from the business world in 2003 to bring a fresh, analytical perspective to the team’s scouting operations.

One of Luhnow’s first side projects in St. Louis was to study Witte’s findings. He asked Witte if he knew any coaches with a similarly keen understanding of athleticism and movement. Witte recommended Strom, who joined the Cardinals in 2008 as an instructor in the low minors, keeping his distance from the upper-level prospects and major leaguers who had been encouraged to throw sinkers.

“Strommy would say stuff about throwing your high fastball, and that wouldn’t go over too well,” Luhnow said. “Today, that stuff makes a lot more sense because we have the data to back it up.”

The Astros hired Luhnow as general manager before the 2012 season, and two years later hired Strom as pitching coach. The left-hander Dallas Keuchel said Strom brought an “out of the norm” approach to pitch sequencing and used facts to back up his theories.

“Once you show somebody how a certain pitch works and that guys are hitting .150 off of it, that really opens a guy’s eyes,” Keuchel said. “He brought that to us.”

Last year, Strom helped transform Charlie Morton’s approach from sinker-heavy to one that emphasizes fastballs up and curveballs down. Morton had the best season of his career, and then won Game 7 in both the American League Championship Series and the World Series. Now he is 7-0 with a 2.26 E.R.A., enjoying the freedom Strom gives pitchers to explore all parts of the strike zone.

“It’s really, really hard to hit a 3-by-3 or 6-by-6-inch area,” Morton said. “You see the highlights, you see where the catcher’s glove was and the guy misses by a foot — that’s not a bad miss. With Strom and the methodology the Astros have here, you create room for error by using the entire zone, elevating above the zone, expanding east and west. It makes it a lot easier to pitch.”

The two most recent additions to the Astros’ rotation, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, have thrived since coming to Houston. Cole is throwing more curveballs and high fastballs than he ever did with Pittsburgh, generating by far the fewest ground balls of his career but getting more strikeouts and weak fly balls.

Verlander — the last major leaguer to throw 250 innings in a season, for Detroit in 2011 — is more of a kindred spirit with Strom, who pitched in an era when most pitchers had Verlander’s mentality.

“By the time I got here I had kind of figured out what I wanted to do,” Verlander said. “But we talk a lot about some of the other guys, or pitching in general, or mechanics. He bounces stuff off me, and that’s what I think great teachers do, is know what they don’t know. I don’t know it all, he doesn’t know it all, but we’ll have a conversation.”

The quest to learn more keeps Strom engaged and relevant to pitchers who were not even born when he threw his last pitch in the majors.

“There are very few coaches like him,” Luhnow said. “He’s always reading a book, always researching a new theory. They’re not always right — there’s some dead ends he chases — but he’s a very curious person, and he cares more than anybody I know. He’s just constantly trying to make himself better.”

In doing so, Strom has helped make his pitching staff baseball’s best, whether he wants to take credit or not.

It was never supposed to take so long for Steve Lomasney to come to bat at Fenway Park in the uniform of his hometown team. Lomasney, 40, was a star at Peabody High School in Massachusetts and grew up rooting for the Boston Red Sox, who drafted him in the fifth round in 1995. Five years later, Baseball America ranked him as the top prospect in their farm system.

By then, though, Lomasney’s major league career was over. It consisted of one game: on Oct. 3, 1999, the final day of the regular season, at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Lomasney, a late-season call-up, caught five innings and struck out twice as a hitter.

“But I did throw two guys out,” he said the other day, taking a break from running The Show, his baseball and softball complex in Peabody. “I was 2-for-2 throwing guys out at second base, which is what I was best at. So I might have the best throwing percentage in the history of the game.”

In 2001, while playing for Class AAA Pawtucket, Lomasney was struck in the right eye by a line drive during batting practice. He suffered a choroidal rupture and never saw the ball the same way as a hitter. He could still catch, though, and teams valued him for his wisdom. He hung around the minors through 2006, when the Minnesota Twins sent him to Class AA to catch for two prospects, Matt Garza and Glen Perkins, who went on to enjoy long careers.

Six years later, when the Red Sox staged an elaborate celebration of Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary, Lomasney was surprised to get an invitation. He planned to decline.

“I didn’t feel like I fit in,” he said. “I had a sip of coffee.”

A conversation with a Red Sox beat writer, Gordon Edes — now the team’s official historian — caused Lomasney to reconsider. Many people would love to have played even one game, Edes reminded him, emphasizing that Lomasney should not feel out of place despite such a brief career.

Lomasney accepted, enjoyed the event, and got another invitation this season: to play in the first Red Sox old-timers’ game in 25 years.

A recent partial knee replacement prevented Lomasney from catching in the game last Sunday, and he was first slotted as a designated hitter.

“But Sam Horn asked if I minded playing first base,” Lomasney said. “I said, ‘Absolutely I’ll take first base, not a big deal.’ ”

The game featured brief-but-memorable Red Sox like Horn and Rich Garces, Hall of Famers like Wade Boggs and Pedro Martinez and long-retired stalwarts like Dwight Evans and Luis Tiant, who served as managers.

And Lomasney — who brought his wife, Ryan, his son, Ty, and his daughters, Logan and Emery — finally got his Fenway at-bat with the Red Sox. The only other time he had played there was decades ago, in high school, when he was not facing the man who started Game 7 of the 1975 World Series.

“I hit off Bill Lee,” Lomasney said. “I don’t want to downplay anything; Bill Lee was a great pitcher, but I think Bill’s 71 years old. I yanked one down the line and two-hopped the Green Monster. I only got a single out of it. Jonny Gomes got it in pretty quick. But it was a great experience. Every guy was great.”

And nobody treated him like an outsider. Lomasney’s years of sharing a locker room in spring training — and the validation of that one game in Baltimore — meant everything.

“Seeing those guys, being able to shake their hands, they all remembered me,” Lomasney said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ I was around for a long time. I just wasn’t a big-leaguer with them the whole time.”

Ordinarily, a season-ending home run would be a rousing way to start the winter. But the San Francisco Giants will soon feel the consequences of the home run Pablo Sandoval hit to beat San Diego in the bottom of the ninth inning at AT&T Park on Oct. 1.

That victory lifted the Giants into a tie with the Detroit Tigers for the worst record in the majors, at 64-98. But because the Tigers had a worse record the previous year, they were given the top overall pick in the 2018 draft, which begins Monday at MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J. Pitcher Casey Mize of Auburn University is expected to go first.

The Tigers have had the first overall pick just once before, in 1997, when they chose the wrong player from the right school. The best career from the first round of that draft came from Lance Berkman, a first baseman from Rice University who went 16th over all to Houston and made six All-Star teams. The Tigers took Berkman’s Rice teammate, reliever Matt Anderson, who had a 5.19 E.R.A. in parts of seven seasons in the majors.

Baseball has held the draft since 1965, and the Giants are one of eight franchises that have never picked first over all, with Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Colorado, the Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis and Toronto. This year’s draft choice will match the Giants’ highest ever, though, and they can only hope to choose as wisely as they did the last time.

In 1985, after Milwaukee drafted B.J. Surhoff, the Giants took Mississippi State first baseman Will Clark. Within a year, Clark had announced his presence in the majors by homering off Nolan Ryan in his first at-bat. He went on to make five All-Star teams for the Giants and led them to the World Series in 1989.

In recent weeks in these pages, we have profiled two extraordinary pitchers at the top of their games: the Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer, who leads the majors in strikeouts with 120, and the Astros’ Justin Verlander, who, heading into the weekend, had the majors’ best E.R.A. at 1.11. But let’s not ignore the sustained brilliance of Corey Kluber.

Kluber, the ace of the Cleveland Indians, fired six shutout innings with 10 strikeouts in a victory over the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday, capping a month in which he had 41 strikeouts and one walk. It also marked a full year of absurd regular-season dominance.

From June 1 of last season (when he returned from a back injury) through the end of this May, Kluber went 23-4 with a 1.76 E.R.A. in 35 starts. In 251 innings, he fanned 312 with 33 walks.

Those numbers closely align with one of the best seasons of the Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. In 1999, when Martinez won his second Cy Young Award and nearly captured the Most Valuable Player Award, he went 23-4 with a 2.07 E.R.A. in 31 games (29 starts) for Boston. In 213⅓ innings, Martinez struck out 313 and allowed 37 walks.

Interestingly, both pitchers in this comparison allowed the same number of earned runs, 49. But for Martinez to match Kluber’s E.R.A., he would have needed to add 37⅔ scoreless innings.

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