For a second straight day Wednesday, there was a Yankees starter out early, throwing in the bullpen before most players had arrived at George Steinbrenner Field. On Tuesday, it was A.J. Burnett: on Wednesday, it was Phil Hughes. Both were joined by new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who may ultimately be as scrutinized as any of his new pupils.
Pitching coach, like most coaching positions in professional sports, is often a thankless job. When things are going well and titles are being won, it is the players who are talented, the players who are living up to their hype. Yet when things are going poorly, it is a coaching change that may just fix things. To this day, there are critics who believe Joe Torre had little to do with the Yankees' dynasty: anyone could have won with those players, the theory goes. Torre -- and his coaching staff, including pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre -- were just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with the right team.
I don't buy it. Coaching -- or managing -- absolutely does play a part in the successes and failures of a team, whether it's motivating players to maintain their focus during a grind of a season or tweaking fundamental mechanics that might slip during the game-after-game routine. Coaching does matter, particularly in circumstances like the one that Rothschild faces this season -- where there are clearly talented -- and highly-compensated -- players who have, at least temporarily, lost their way.
Rothschild has a different job than Dave Eiland had two years ago, when the Yankees won the World Series. He has a different job than Stottlemyre had for most of those dynasty years. In many cases, a pitching coach is there to prod, to poke, to ease a pitcher along and offer support as a pitcher navigates the aches and pains and ups and downs of a season. Stottlemyre, it was often said, was good with the well-placed quiet word.
Rothschild has more significant tasks. His two main challenges this year, the two pitchers who will likely be used as the measuring sticks for his success or failure, are Burnett and Joba Chamberlain, and both pitchers -- one veteran, one kid -- are two-pronged projects.
Both have vexing mechanical issues. For Chamberlain, the velocity has ebbed, the fire-throwing reliever who dominated in 2007 having been replaced by a pitcher with inconsistent stuff. It will forever be fair to debate whether or not the Yankees screwed up Chamberlain's long-term potential with their yo-yo approach to his starter-vs.-reliever status, but the more pressing point is whether he can still be a force as a late-inning bullpen piece. Mechanically, there are issues for Rothschild to address, not to mention the overriding emotional concerns that come with a pitcher having seen his stock drop from "top-end starter of the future" to "Wait ... does he have minor league options left?" in the span of three years.
With Burnett, the issues are the same but different. His mechanical concerns have more to do with location and the ability to avoid the "please crush me right now" pitch, which seemed to crop up constantly over the final five months of 2010. Rothschild visited Burnett this winter and the two worked on those mechanics, which is a good thing -- though the larger issue may be helping Burnett rediscover the confidence he had when he signed his $82.5 million contract following a dominant 2008 season in Toronto.
"I tend to look at guys individually," Rothschild said earlier this offseason. "The one thing they have to be able to do is repeat their deliveries. It's something I harp on a lot. If you can repeat your delivery, you should be able to control the ball to a certain extent. But philosophy-wise, I tried to take everybody on an individual basis, because every individual is different."
And so, too, is every coach. Rothschild dealt with wild cards like Carlos Zambrano while spending nine years as pitching coach for the Cubs, so he certainly has experience in handling unusual characters. Burnett and Chamberlain, by comparison, should be relative angels.
Yet the pressure is on. All of the major questions surrounding the Yankees this season revolve around pitching, and Rothschild -- the man behind the mound each of these last two mornings -- must be well-aware that he's standing in the middle of it all.