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Lines Of Communication

July 25, 2012
In the movie "Bull Durham", mid-game conferences on the mound covered a wide range of topics. One pitcher was nervous because his father was in the stands, another player was trying to explain how to end a slump with voodoo, and no one knew what gift to get for a teammate's upcoming wedding.

The pitching coach came to the rescue, trotting out to the mound and saying, "Candlesticks always make a nice gift, and uh, maybe you could find out where she's registered and maybe a place-setting or maybe a silverware pattern. Okay, let's get two! Go get 'em."

The Durham Bulls' real-life pitching coach, Neil Allen, says that there's only one part of that scene that's realistic.

"I one of those guys that always jogs out to the mound," Allen explains. "The reason is: I know what I'm going to say. I'm going to go out there, say it, and come back."

As for the wild variety of topics the team may want to ask about during the visit, the players don't really get a chance to bring up items that aren't on Allen's agenda. In fact, they usually don't get to talk. "I'm going out there, because I have something to say," he says again. "I go out there. I say it. I get off. There ain't no conversation. It's what I see, what I know, and what we better do to fix it."

That doesn't mean that the conversation is always one-sided. Whether it's in the dugout between innings, in the clubhouse after games, or during pregame throwing sessions, Allen is in constant communication with his pitchers.

"You've got to talk to them," he says. "That's one of the most important things I do. THE most important thing. I talk to every pitcher, every day, even if it's just, "Hey, how you doing? How's it feeling?"

The starting pitchers get the bulk of Allen's attention during an average week. They pitch once every five days, providing plenty of down time for coaching, including pregame throwing sessions a couple days before their next start. Allen watches every pitch and lets the starter know what he sees.

Relievers have a less predictable schedule, both for their appearances in games and their time with Allen.

"You spend more time teaching starters than you do with a reliever. With a reliever, you probably spend five, 10 minutes here and there--maybe 15 minutes a week, doing mechanical talk," Allen says. "Starters you spend a good 30 minutes a week, because you're with them on their side days."

But mechanics of their delivery is only part of Allen's communication with his pitchers. "Every day you go around and make sure that everybody feels good. You talk to everybody that was in the game last night. 'What did you think of this? What did you think of that?' You see what the ones that didn't pitch last night are thinking. You make it a point to communicate with each and every pitcher."

Pitchers have been working on their craft for a long time. So, while Allen has plenty of advice to give on adjustments in their delivery, much of his work is devoted to the pitcher's mental approach to the long season.

"Shoot, I'd say 75% of it is psychology," Allen says. "If they had a good night or bad night the night before... I probably lean more towards talk to the ones who have had a bad night. You've got to let them know that you're not down on them. The sun's come up again. It's a new day."

"I can't have you worried about the last outing," Allen continues. "It's important I get to that guy who's had a tough outing the night before. I try to make communication with that guy during batting practice, before batting practice, way before that game starts, so that we know we've erased thoughts of that night before."

On the flip side, if the pitcher had a strong outing, Allen will focus more on technique. "What adjustments did we make to make that happen, because that looked really good," he said.

Allen's mid-inning trips to the mound are the same mix of science and psychology. "It depends on the guy," he says. "Some guys need a pat on the bottom and some guys need a chewing out. Everybody's different. You've got to know your pitchers."

"That's part of what comes with being a pitching coach," Allen continues. "It takes usually three or four weeks at the beginning of the year, but by the time the end of April rolls around, you should know the personalities you have on your staff. So you know which guys need a foot, which guys need a pat, and which guys need a stern talking to. You take that attitude out to the mound: whatever that guy responds to."

When the pitcher comes off the mound after getting three outs, it's a different story. Allen gives his guy a chance to catch his breath and collect his thoughts before approaching them in the dugout to plan the next inning.

"They get that time to themselves," he says. "I always give him at least two outs. Reason being: they need time. Doesn't matter whether it was a good inning or bad, they need time to reflect and five minutes on their own. Maybe 10-it depends on the individual."

"There's a time to approach a pitcher between innings," Allen continues. "If a kid has a bad inning, he's not going to register what you're saying to him because he's furious. He's wild. He's mad. You've got to let him calm down a little bit. You watch him go over to the water cooler and get a drink. He'll still be mad, cursing, carrying on. Then you'll see him sit down. He'll start to calm down. The lips will kind of seal a little bit, you can see him kind of reflect a little bit. Then go approach him. Timing your approach is everything between innings."

And if that doesn't work? Well, candlesticks always make a nice gift.