Nobody consulted Don Cooper about the title of his seminar on Sunday. He objected to "Chess Game on the Mound," asserting that pitching is not chess. Rather, it's "Attack, Seek Out and Destroy on the Mound."
It's hard to argue with the man who is the single most important reason the White Sox develop and keep above-average pitching almost every season, whether in his time as the minor league pitching coordinator to the position he's had for more than a decade, major league pitching coach.
Cooper lays out a simple strategy: pitching is a hit-the-glove game. If you "attack the glove with the first three pitches [of a plate appearance], you're going to get ahead" of the hitter. And once you're ahead of the hitter, you're in control.
What are the tactics for executing this strategy? Throw strikes, change speeds and work fast. The first is a must, the second is a near-must (and a must for starters) and the third is strongly, strongly encouraged.
Mark Buehrle, of course, was the master of those tactics and Cooper certainly referenced him multiple times. But he also praised his ace, Chris Sale, saying "he pours strikes into the zone with three pitches" - referring to his two-seamer, slider and changeup. The numbers certainly bear this out. Sale threw a ball less than 31 percent of the time in 2015. His two seamer averaged 94.5 mph, his changeup 85.8 mph and his silder 78.9 mph. The 26-year-old threw a pitch on average every 18.2 seconds, the fifth-quickest in baseball.
Cooper harped on the importance of confidence. And not just the pitcher's confidence in himself but also in his catcher. After all, you can't work fast if you're continually shaking off signs. Further, if you don't believe the pitch you're throwing is the "right" pitch, that lack of conviction will show in the (more than likely bad) result of the pitch.
Nate Jones and Erik Johnson both joined Cooper on the panel and, like good students, their answers matched the teacher's. But it wasn't robotic. They obviously had bought and ingrained the lessons and, yes, were confident in them.
Jones said he trusts the catcher to follow the game plan and rarely shakes off. The righty prefers to spend his study time watching his own highlights on video. Johnson ragged on him for doing this "all the time, before every game," but that's what gives Jones confidence: "I see myself doing the right things, throwing it the right way."
Johnson, too, likes to watch video but he "likes to watch the greats, no matter the style." He specifically mentioned Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens, who certainly were both great but achieved that greatness in different ways.
Asked about what his routine was during the season, Johnson laid it out and stressed the value of his day-to-day routine, and Cooper went out of his way to agree with that, saying "routine is ultra-important." Again, it comes back to confidence. If you follow your program, Johnson said you'll be consistent throughout the season because you'll be strong and you'll be able to repeat your delivery. Cooper said the specifics of everybody's program was "a little different."
For Johnson, as a starter, he has a four-day routine after the day he pitches. Day 1 is about recovery. He "gets the blood going in the weight room" and does his pitching specific drills that "allow me to repeat my delivery" -- most notably, of course, the famous White Sox shoulder program.
On Day 2, he throws his bullpen. They work on any number of specific things during that, sometimes in response to something that happened (or didn't happen) in the prior game and sometimes more long-term goals.
On days 3 and 4, he again does pitcher-specific drills and weights, adding in a game of catch. After that, Johnson feels like he's ready to go for his next start.
Other random notes:
- Asked about the possibility of going with a 13-man pitching staff, like the good pitching coach he is, Cooper said he'd be all for it because it would give his relievers more rest but "the higher-ups are not on board."
- Cooper also made sure to mention one of his favorite topics: attendance. He stressed that his pitchers perform better when there's a loud, involved crowd. Jones echoed this, saying that "when the fans stand up [during big moments when he's on the mound], I like it and feed off of it."