It can take a little while for fans to figure out what a new coach is all about on their favorite team. For instance, it took a while into last season for Twins to hear about James Rowson’s hitting theories, both with Byron Buxton’s struggles and rebound as well as Eddie Rosario’s development as a hitter.
Now imagine how long it takes for a coach to learn about all their pupils. That’s even more true of new Twins pitching coach Garvin Alston, whose team is coming off using 36 pitchers last season — if you count Chris Gimenez, anyhow — and is already headed toward using its 19th — if you count Ryan LaMarre, anyhow — of the year with John Curtiss being added to the roster on Monday.
Not only did Alston have to prepare for the expected Opening Day roster — which even still saw additions all offseason and into spring training with Jake Odorizzi and Lance Lynn — but he also had non-roster invitees and other key players in the minor leagues to prepare for.
Alston, who got a cup of coffee in the big leagues with the Colorado Rockies in 1996 and spent eight years in pro ball altogether, figured he better get to work quickly.
“You’re absolutely correct,” Alston said of the process being a little daunting at first when the Twins brought him on last November. “Once I got the job, and I got all the information and the new computer came in, I was able to get into our system here. I started going about an hour, or an hour-and-a-half per day of picking a person and watching film on them. I did that with everyone on the roster and some of our non-roster invitees who came in.”
Now that’s just the prep during the winter. Once spring starts, he can put his eyeballs to work in real-time, watching guys go through their workouts and in-game action once Grapefruit League games begin.
“Through spring training, you kind of watch and see the same things you saw on film, and you kind of get an idea from there what they can and cannot do well,” Alston said. “You kind of let them go from there. It’s been more about learning the person and the personality right now. That’s been my biggest challenge. So we go to dinner to dinner together and talk quite a bit in the clubhouse.”
Everyone has beliefs about pitching foundationally, and obviously, Alston is no exception. Pitching coaches range from the nameless and faceless to the legends like Dave Duncan, Leo Mazzone, Mel Stottlemyre, Rick Peterson, Don Cooper and Ray Searage to name some of the more well-known recent guys.
But pretty much all of them start in the beginning as a relative unknown, trying to forge their way down a career path that can be unforgiving when a team isn’t performing.
For Alston, his foundation is really basic.
“I will say first and foremost confidence,” Alston said about where he wants it to all start for his hurlers. “Being a confident pitcher when you go out there. First-pitch strikes. Knowing who you are. That’s been the process so far from spring training until now. One, learning who they are and two, letting them tell me who they are. Then I let them go out there and pitch so I can see if the two correspond. From there, I direct and say ‘Hey, I see this as a better route’ or ‘You’re right on.’”
So what about strikeouts? They’re a part of the game like never before, as this year’s K/9 rate across MLB is 8.74 strikeouts per nine innings. That rate has increased every year since 2005, when the rate was a meager 6.38, down from 6.6 the year before.
Alston is all about strikeouts, but says so with a diplomatic approach.
“My whole thing is outs,” Alston said. “How fast can you get outs? Teams that win a lot get outs early in the count. Strikeouts are needed in this game without a doubt. But you have to understand how you can get those strikeouts. If you’re pounding the zone early and you’re getting foul balls and ahead of guys, it makes strikeouts a little bit easier.”
Oh, and about those influential pitching coaches…Alston worked with a pretty darn good one in Arizona last year.
“I had [Duncan] over with the Diamondbacks, and I learned from him a little bit and some of the things that he’s taught,” Alston said. “I’ve been trying to bring some of those things over here and understanding them. Dunc was a big two-seamer guy and a slider guy. The numbers still kind of illustrate it today; sliders are the best strikeout pitches. So that’s one of the things that we’re kind of working on here with guys, on how to better their sliders. But the thing about the slider is you have to get to that position. So how do you get there? That’s one of the things that we’re working on, especially in the bullpen with the guys who have really good stuff.”
So it’s clear Alston is on board with strikeouts. How about the modern vs. old school battle of film and analytics? While it’s clear both have their place in today’s game, it’s worth asking which way a coach leans in their approach, right?
“I do both,” he said. “We have a really good crew here with (advance video scout) Jeremy Hefner and (major-league coach Jeff) Pickler. They send out great information. So once I receive it, I always watch the film. When I was with Oakland (last year), I was the one doing the advance stuff along with Scott Emerson. Because of that, I kind of know what to look for in certain things as far as the numbers. So I kind of compare the two. So the numbers come in, and I go to the video. I chase it, and if I like what I see, we kind of go with it. If I don’t, we kind of flip-flop it all.”
OK, so he had Hefner’s role with Oakland last year. But has he been a numbers guy from the beginning, or did he need a stats evangelist to convince him?
It turns out Oakland is in his blood, even if he doesn’t entirely lean that way.
“If I have to pick whether I’m from the old or new-school era, I lean more old school,” he said. “But because I understand the numbers and came up in an organization (Oakland) where numbers ran everything, I think that was probably the biggest plus for me when I received this job. That is, being able to understand the numbers, but also translate it to what old-school people used to do and what these guys do.”
Ultimately, it’s Alston’s job to disseminate this information, because guys don’t have time to be thinking about it on the mound. He needs to be the intercessor in that respect.
“Sometimes the information overloads these guys,” he concluded. “So that’s been kind of my biggest thing. If you see something you don’t understand, come talk to me so we can go ahead and do something.”