James Baldwin was watching BP at the Reds' rehab facility in Arizona on April 19 when his phone rang. On the other end of the line was Tony Fossas, the team's Minor League pitching coordinator, who informed Baldwin that he had some good news and bad news. Baldwin, a former Major League All-Star who joined the organization in 2016 as a rehab coach, simply replied, "Hit me with the bad news."
Fossas told Baldwin that he would no longer be working in Arizona. Aware of a recent coaching shuffle within the organization, Baldwin assumed he would be joining the Rookie-level Billings club in some capacity. He was wrong -- he'd be taking the reins as pitching coach at Double-A Pensacola.
"The only thing I could say was wow," Baldwin recalled. "I had never been with a team before in this capacity. I knew some of the pitchers, but I didn't really see them in Spring Training -- I never really saw them pitch in their roles before. When guys are rehabbing, it's different."
The Reds had relieved manager Bryan Price and pitching coach Mack Jenkins of their duties, setting off a slew of changes throughout the organization. Danny Darwin, who spent parts of the previous three seasons as pitching coach for the Blue Wahoos, was promoted to the big club while Triple-A Louisville manager Pat Kelly took over as Reds bench coach for Jim Riggleman, who received an interim manager title.
Drafted by the White Sox in the fourth round in 1995, Baldwin enjoyed 11 seasons in the Majors with seven different teams. He spent six years with Chicago, where he made his MLB debut in 1995, and was named an American League All-Star in 2000. He made his only postseason appearance that season, starting Game 3 of the ALDS against the Mariners and allowing one run over six frames in a 2-1 loss.
Baldwin arrived in Pensacola and was greeted by a couple of familiar faces. Bench coach Lenny Harris worked with Baldwin in Arizona the previous season, and hitting coach Mike Devereaux was teammates with Baldwin in Chicago in '95. That familiarity helped ease the unusual circumstances of joining a club almost a full month into a season, but Baldwin knew there were still challenges ahead.
"Here at the Double-A, this is all about setting the tone for guys and getting them comfortable in the roles they'll fill as they get closer to the bigs," he said. So the big thing was getting together with Tony and [manager Jody Davis] and putting together a plan on how to use guys. And so far so good."
James Baldwin joined Pensacola on April 20 after working as a Reds rehab coach. (Blue Wahoos)
Baldwin was taking over a pitching staff that possessed a pair of top Reds prospects -- Vladimir Gutierrez and Keury Mella -- and sported a 4.08 team ERA through the first 14 games, a mark that ranked seventh in the 10-team Southern League.
After a brief transition period, Baldwin made his impact felt. A 4.71 team ERA in May shrunk to 2.90 over 25 games in June, and through the first four games of July, the staff has posted a 2.25 mark. Baldwin's presence also resonated beyond the bullpen as he created an environment that trickled into the clubhouse and to everyone involved with the team on a daily basis.
"He's been a big plus since he got here," said Davis, in his first year at the helm. "He's really good with the kids. The kids really like him, and he knows what he's doing. When I got here, I thought I was going to be leaning on Danny [Darwin] and then all of a sudden he's in the big leagues and we're all in this unusual circumstance. But I thought he handled the transition tremendously and built great relationships with the guys right away, and I consider myself lucky that we just kind of fell together."
Baldwin has two core values to his method of coaching that he's bestowed since his arrival, values he implemented during his own career: Keep it simple and have fun.
"I really try not to put too much on their plate," he said. "This game is tough as it is, so if you're thinking about too much stuff, you end up not having the day you want to have on the mound. I remember that from my own experience -- sometimes I'd be out there just overthinking my mechanics and I would make too many mistakes. And that's the thing with this level -- these guys can hit here, so if you make a mistake they're going to hit it. So I try to keep things as simple as possible. And when we speak, the guys listen, so for me I just try to be loose.
"I just let them go out there and have fun and play a game they know how to play."
Pensacola reliever Alex Powers has benefited from Baldwin's methods as his ERA has dropped from 4.15 on May 11 to 2.66 on July 4. In 11 appearances over that stretch, the right-hander yielded three runs on six hits with four walks while fanning 11 over 11 1/3 innings. He was also 5-for-5 in save opportunities.
"There was definitely a feeling-out process at first -- we knew each other a little but not too well, and it felt a little more formal when he first got here," said Powers. "But now it's about as good a relationship as you could want with a pitching coach. He brings such a great attitude to everything he does.
"He really helped me with the mental side of the game. At this level, it's about making a plan on how to attack guys and tailoring that plan to what you do personally and being comfortable with it. So he's been great with that, and with all of his big league experience, he's pretty much been through everything you might be trying to work through, so you can talk to him about anything."
Gutierrez, ranked No. 9 among Reds prospects, and Mella (No. 20) have also made strides under Baldwin. Gutierrez has seen his ERA drop from 5.91 on May 5 to 4.67, and Mella was bumped to Triple-A on July 5 after posting a 7-3 record with a 3.07 ERA in 16 Southern League starts.
"Guti is showing what we expect out of him over his last last seven, eight starts," Baldwin said. "Once we addressed a few things, he became a better pitcher and he was more aggressive with his pitches, and I think that's the big difference. We don't want guys out there just going through the motions. We want guys being aggressive and expecting to get every hitter out, and I think everyone is starting to buy into that.
"Mella was great when I got here. He had a few setbacks, but the whole thing with that was how do you bounce back? And he did really good with that and we'll miss him but he's well on his way to accomplishing what he wants in life and that's to play in the big leagues."
Harris believes Baldwin may not be that far behind a similar fate.
"JB shouldn't be here that long -- he'll be a Major League pitching coach very soon," he said. "He's so popular with everyone and he's such a big hit with the young kids here in Pensacola, it's really just a matter of time, and I think sooner rather than later. He's going to get the opportunity.
"He's a special person. He's got great energy. When we were at the rehab facility together, he took the job very seriously. He would show up at 5:30 a.m. and stay late and you just never see that. He was always spending extra time with everyone there. He's just that kind of person, and I know the kids admire that a lot."