No questioning Apodaca's success
Rox pitching coach finds phrasing as important as message
DENVER -- Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca gripped his wife, Deborah, while watching the National League championship celebration from the Coors Field infield. He fought back tears, his smile his only weapon.
"September was just a death march, where any wrong step, any wrong decision that we made in the dugout, any wrong decision we made as far as matchups -- the season would've potentially turned out completely different," Apodaca said. "I would always listen to coaches and players say the hardest part is getting to the World Series. The fight wasn't over, but the hardest part was. I recognize and completely agree.
"I made a conscious decision that if we made the World Series, I'm going to take a step back and look at the surroundings."
Eyes now dry, Apocaca, 58, is back on the championship road.
And with Apodaca's distinctive style of coaching pitchers, that road will be paved with pointed questions.
Apodaca has every right to claim he has all the answers. The Rockies, with a home ballpark -- Coors Field -- that can produce high-scoring games, have a long history of pitching problems. When Rockies manager Clint Hurdle, who took over during the 2002 season, called his longtime friend the following winter, he recalls with a laugh that Apodaca "swore at me."
But by this season, Apodaca had turned Colorado into a team that beats teams from the mound.
The Rockies' staff has posted the lowest ERA in club history each of the past two years. This season, from the All-Star break to the end of the regular season, it led the NL with a 3.86 ERA. Walks had been an epidemic throughout the history of the franchise. The Rockies yielded the most free passes in the NL in 2004 and the second-most in 2005, and never did better than eighth-most under Apodaca until this year, when they gave up the third-fewest.
His 26 years as a pitching coach in the Minors and Majors suggest Apodaca has plenty of answers. But he's drawn positive responses from the Rockies through an approach based on asking the right questions.
One of the best examples came during the fifth inning in Game 2 of the Rockies' 3-2, 11-inning victory over the Diamondbacks in the NLCS. Ubaldo Jimenez, 23, a late-season callup, walked Chris Young with one out. Showing too much concern about the speedy Young, Jimenez walked Stephen Drew to the delight of a loud crowd.
Apodaca needed Jimenez to slow down, not worry about the runner. But going to the mound and saying, "Slow down," was the last thing Apodaca had on his mind.
"The first thing I did was ask him a question, so he would have to answer it," Apodaca said. "I wanted his attention, because this could've been the ballgame, a critical time in the ballgame. I think it's important that you have the pitcher, especially a young pitcher, verbalize to make sure he understands."
Jimenez escaped the inning without a run scoring.
It's not just rookies whom Apodaca counsels with questions.
"My major battle is rushing, and I battle that every time I'm out there, but there are times when I kind of forget," said veteran reliever Matt Herges, 37. "I come in the dugout and 'Dac' will ask you that question: 'Hey, on that 1-2 pitch, you were trying to hump up out there, what were you trying to do?' Then immediately I'm like, 'You're right. I was trying to throw it through a brick wall.'
|"When you're able to talk to your coach and be open, then you have a trust factor."|
|-- Aaron Cook, on his relationship with pitching coach Bob Apodaca|
An inquisitive mind and a thirst to learn led Apodaca to his method.
Before the 2004 season, the Rockies reassessed their communication with one another on the staff and with the players. They expanded the role of mental-skills coach Ronn Svetich to the point that a presentation from him was treated as a Spring Training drill, same as traditional fundamental work.
The team also underwent training sessions with management expert Doug Krug, who had worked in military and industry and had provided services to Bill Cowher when he coached the Pittsburgh Steelers. Krug would visit periodically, and Apodaca was one of his most attentive students.
"I've always, my entire career, talked to pitching coaches I greatly admire, maybe even some hitting coaches I greatly admire," Apodaca said. "And then, when we brought in Doug Krug as one of the consultants, I learned to pose questions better, asking pertinent questions to get a response -- instead of me being a teacher in front of the classroom just dictating, telling them the answers. I want them to give me the answers."
One pitcher who grew to understand Apodaca better was right-hander Aaron Cook, who entered the season as the Rockies' No. 1 starter and could return from an oblique strain for the World Series. Cook entered the Majors with tremendous talent, but in 2003 he shuttled back and forth between Triple-A Colorado Springs and the Rockies. He went 4-6 with a 6.02 ERA and often seemed to be unsure of his approach.
"At the start with Aaron, I would say some things, he would say some things, but I don't think there was that acceptance," Apodaca said. "But we had a nice talk out in the outfield, and I said "that the only reason for my existence here is for you.'"
Apodaca learned that timing was a key for Cook, and there were times not to approach him. Cook understood that Apodaca's exacting assessments were not personal.
"When you're able to talk to your coach and be open, then you have a trust factor," Cook said.
The pitchers also have learned that Apodaca has a deep knowledge of opposing hitters, in addition to his knowledge of pitching mechanics.
"A lot of pitching coaches do it, but I think 'Dac' has a passion for it," said reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who became an immediate Apodaca devotee upon signing with the club last winter when the coach devoted early conversations to listening to the pitcher's goals. "He's very in depth in his observations of the other hitters, what they're trying to do and what they're capable of doing."
Apodaca's story illustrates how differently the Rockies are run from many clubs.
He had been dismissed as pitching coach by the Mets -- when then-manager Bobby Valentine was forced to do so by upper management -- and by the Brewers. He had returned to the Minor Leagues with the Mets and was happy at that, until Hurdle called.
But during the 2004 season and toward the end of 2005, some questioned whether Apodaca would remain. With Hurdle and general manager Dan O'Dowd secure in their contracts, there was outside sentiment to offer up Apodaca sacrificially after less-than-stellar campaigns.
But the Rockies knew Apodaca had helped Cook and left-hander Jeff Francis, who will start Game 1 of the Fall Classic, and that he had a touch with young pitchers. They also remembered he had extracted strong seasons from veterans such as Shawn Estes and Darren Oliver.
"I guess the people that sign my checks thought that they saw the progress, they were happy with it," Apocaca said. "They could see that we were heading in the right direction. Then, as the talent level increased immeasurably, our record increased and improved."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.