"If you take the time to really study and learn the sport of baseball, it’s the greatest sport there is."
The division between new and old isn’t something unique to this era of baseball. It’s not even something unique to sports. In just about any aspect of life, the push and pull between change and tradition is palpable and often quite divisive.
As in life, those who are able to navigate both ends of the spectrum often find success.
Doug Bochtler, a solid reliever for the Padres who is now a successful AAA pitching coach for the Toledo Mud Hens, has been able to do that and he’s here to share his tales in this week’s Spitballin’.
The first lesson anyone can take from Bochtler is that there are different paths to success in life. Bochtler went from being a lightly recruited high school senior to being a ninth-round pick in just one year. It wasn’t long after that that he was teammates with Tony Gwynn, Trevor Hoffman and Rickey Henderson in San Diego.
In his current role, Bochtler combines his own experience as a Major Leaguer with today’s players, who often come to him with an amalgam of data from the different gurus they see. Marrying the two is a necessity for coaches on the highest levels of today’s game.
You can have an understanding of all the data you want, but if you’ve never been on the mound trying to get a hitter like Mike Piazza out with a division title on the line, it’s hard to put yourself in a Major League pitcher’s shoes.
Bocthler has the combination of knowledge and experience, and his players are better off for it.
This week is unique as we’re combining a little of the old with a little of the new as we go Spitballin’ with Doug Bochtler.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Bochtler. Definitely looking forward to hearing about your playing days in the Majors and your ongoing coaching career. Let’s start at the beginning though. How did you get your start playing baseball as a kid and did you have any favorite teams or players growing up?
I started playing and watching baseball at a very young age. Growing up in Florida, the Braves were always on and you had the Cubs on WGN and the Mets on WOR. Besides that, we only got the Game of the Week. I lived in West Palm Beach and the Braves had Spring Training there. The Marlins or Rays weren’t around yet, so by default I ended up a Braves fan. I remember Dale Murphy coming up as a catcher and Bob Horner and those guys. I was a fan through a lot of those lean years. As a player, all I did was pitch, so my favorite player when I was young was Nolan Ryan.
As you were growing up and getting a little older, was there a time when you thought you had a shot at a career in pro baseball?
No shot. I didn’t throw hard enough and was small. I was not a prospect by any means. I was about 5’3” and 125 pounds as a freshman and went undrafted out of high school. After my senior year I only had scholarship offers from two JUCOs and wanted to get away from my hometown, so I went to Indian River College. I pitched just one season for Indian River and got drafted in the ninth round.
That was a real quick turnaround from barely being recruited to being drafted in one year. I had to decide whether to sign or go back to school. I decided to give the pros a shot. When I walked in, everyone was bigger than me. All the pitchers threw harder. It wasn’t like I could turn around and leave though. So, I figured if everyone here is physically better than me, I would have to work harder and be smarter than everyone.
“Once Spider Tack went away, guys were out there on the mound naked. In recent years, there had been so much of an emphasis on ‘stuff’ as opposed to pitching.”
What was it like making your Major League debut?
The Padres needed someone to piggyback on Fernando Valenzuela’s start, so they called me up to fill that role in middle relief. When I made my debut, Fernando got hit around a little and I had to warm up in the first, third and fifth innings, then came in and made my debut.
There’s a story behind that about a mission to accomplish. I had a buddy of mine who passed away. I still remember the date, December 10. He was killed by a drunk driver. His mom and dad had just bought him a baseball glove and after the accident, they brought it over to me and asked me to use it in the Major Leagues one day. At the time, I was not a prospect at all. So, I walked out to the mound, looked out in right field and Tony Gwynn is out there. I’m holding my buddy’s glove and it was all pretty surreal. I got the first out, then switched the glove out for my own. I ended up having the glove bronzed and gave it back to his parents.
Wow, that’s absolutely incredible! What was it like being teammates with Tony Gwynn and watching him work every day?
Well, I never beat him to the field and I tried to come in early every day. He was just such a special talent. I remember sitting on the bench by him one game. We were going against Donovan Osborne, a tough lefty with a real nasty slider. He threw Tony one of those great sliders and he just waved at it. He didn’t see it out of the hand, didn’t pick up the spin and looked bad. Next time up he’s working the count and he taps his bat on the ground. Then he walks over to the dugout to grab a new bat.
Osborne threw that slider again and I swear it was like Charlie Brown. Tony just ripped a liner right through the box, Osborne’s hat and glove went flying and he ended up on the ground. That’s how it happened in my mind anyway. Ken Caminiti hit into a fielder’s choice and when Tony came back in the dugout, I asked him if he really broke his bat. He said he didn’t, he just wanted a lighter bat in case of a slider. I asked him why he wanted a lighter bat for a breaking pitch. He said it was so he could stay back longer and still get the fastball. I asked him how much lighter the new bat was and he said it was a half an ounce. That was when I was like, “OK, this guy is on a whole different level.”
Closeup portrait of San Diego Padres Doug Bochtler performing magic trick, San Diego, CA 5/10/1997 (Photo by V.J. Lovero/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
That’s really unbelievable and not surprising at all. It must have been amazing to see him go about his business every day.
It was. One other story I always tell about Tony was that one game we were at Riverfront Stadium playing against the Reds. They didn’t have a bullpen; they just had like a separate area for pitchers down at the end of the dugout. They had those rotating advertisements at the park and the guy who rotated the signs sat right there too. Tony got his 2,500th hit that game. It was this seeing-eye single through the middle, just one of those ground balls with eyes. All of a sudden, the scoreboard guy says, “I swear he’s the luckiest guy I ever saw!” I just looked at him and said, “Man, you don’t get lucky 2,500 times.”
Yeah, I don’t think luck had too much to do with Gwynn’s career. I wanted to ask you about another Hall of Fame teammate too. As a relief pitcher, what was your relationship like with Trevor Hoffman?
We were catch partners and I actually caught the first changeup he threw. At least I tried to catch it. He threw me one playing catch and it went through my legs. I told him to throw it again and this time I think I might have got some leather on it, but same result. Trevor is awesome and is actually still a big part of what I do. He had an incredible mound presence and a real strong mind. He’s a great friend and I recommend some of my pitchers reach out and talk to him. He’s a great resource that way. Trevor was always so consistent and disciplined in what he did. He would never stray from his routine, and it wasn’t superstition or anything, just preparation. He had that big leg kick, but a pretty simple delivery. I think his days as a shortstop helped him too.
You and the Padres had a great season in 1996. Going into the final series of the year against the Dodgers, you were down two games in the standings and swept them to win the West. You pitched in the first two wins. Could you describe that series?
It was incredible. We knew we had a good shot at the playoffs with the Wild Card. We just had to win once, but we wanted the division. In San Diego, Los Angeles is like our big brother. They had more money, more fans, all that tradition, so we wanted to beat them. That series and that season was just so special. My favorite photo from my entire playing career came from that series. It’s a photo of the pitching staff and it was taken looking out into the outfield. The series was in Los Angeles, so you see the Dodgers logo in the picture. And I love it because it’s the pitching staff out on the mound and we just owned that mound the entire series.
After your playing days, you made that transition into coaching. I know you were a coach with the Padres and this past season you were the pitching coach for the Toledo Mud Hens. How did you make that transition?
Towards the end of my career, I was with the Royals and went back to Spring Training. I was going to be a back-and-forth piece in the bullpen. I got called into the office and they asked me to go down to AA because they had some young pitchers down there they wanted me to mentor. I was like, “What?! Double A?” I went home and thought about it and prayed about it and went back the next day and said I’d do it. I was about 31 years old and they wanted me to work with Jeremy Affeldt and Kiko Colero.
How was that experience of serving as a mentor to younger guys on the way up?
I found that I got more satisfaction watching those guys succeed than from my own success. Eventually the Royals needed a roster spot though and they traded me to the Twins. Rick Anderson was the pitching coach there and he knew I had that Major League experience. He treated me awesome and asked me to play that role again there. I was a guy who pulled the rope for the coaches with the younger guys in getting messages across. They had me attend some of the coaching meetings and be a veteran presence around the team. We had such an awesome team in 2002. We won the Pacific Coast League and had guys like Michael Cuddyer, Johan Santana, Javier Valentin and many others. I remember Grant Balfour used to get so mad. He’d be out there throwing 95 and getting his pitches turned around and I was throwing mid-80s getting guys out. I’d tell him it was all about location. But that was just a super talented team and it made me lean towards coaching.
Doug Bochtler #45 of the Detroit Tigers in action during a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Michigan. The Blue Jays defeated the Tigers 7-2. (Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport)
Was that when you stopped playing and turned to coaching full time?
I had Tommy John surgery and shut it down from there. I became part of a pitching facility working with young kids. Because I had surgery myself, one of the things I really wanted to do was learn to keep them healthy. I started learning about biomechanics and health. Brent Strom gave me all these handwritten notes and I was just blown away. This was when the internet was really taking off, so there was a lot more information out there. I just immersed myself in information and took some classes. Everything I did was geared towards becoming the best coach I possibly could.
One day, a former friend of mine reached out via text because he was struggling a little. I gave him some advice and he righted the ship. I also had done some work with Jason Frasor who was in the Blue Jays organization. He was going to get non-tendered, but I did some work with him. BJ Ryan was the Jays closer and he got hurt. Frasor took over and did well. In an interview, he was asked about his success and he mentioned my name. That led to opportunities in pro ball.
As an outsider, it seems like pitching instruction is way more technical and analytical now compared to when you played. How do you combine new ideas with your experience as a player?
Modern coaching is much different than when I played. The thing is, everyone you work with has some kind of guru. Guys go to the Florida Ranch or the Texas Ranch, or Driveline. Everyone has Rapsodo. This is only my opinion, but I think to be successful as a coach today, you have to be well-versed in what all those camps are teaching. All the different facilities have different buzzwords and focus on different parts of the delivery. You have to know the language the gurus are speaking though because that’s what your players are gonna come to you with. Players today are highly technical. If someone comes to me and asks about induced vertical break, I have to be able to answer that. They’ll test you to make sure you’re knowledgeable. They have data coming out of their ears and you have to balance that.
That can be tough dealing with all those different facilities and theories for sure. Where does your experience as a successful Major League come into play?
Here’s an example. During the season, I had a pitcher who was just spraying the ball all over. He was spiking pitches, throwing 55 foot fastballs then throwing one to the backstop. Just all over the place. He got this technical printout from a facility I won’t name and the conclusion was that his catchers should just put their target in the middle of the plate because his average miss was 14 inches and the league average was 11 inches.
The pitcher asked me to look at the print out and it pretty much took me a half hour just to get through it. He asked what I thought and I just said, “Let’s talk about this tomorrow.” When he came to the park we sat down and I asked him if he really thought the issue was the catchers’ targets or if there was something bigger than we needed to fix. He said he figured the report wasn’t telling the whole story, but he wanted to see what I thought. That’s how I use my experience and build up a trust.
Do you find that most players are open to learning from your experience or are they just so reliant on data?
When I found out I would be in AAA, I heard that it was a tough place to coach because you get guys who are sent down from the Majors and they show up bitter and just want to get back. I have never experienced that. The guys are great and constantly want to learn. Modern players are open to all ideas. I think players this year were more open to learning about the process of pitching because of the Spider Tack situation. Once Spider Tack went away, guys were out there on the mound naked. In recent years, there had been so much of an emphasis on “stuff” as opposed to pitching. They wanted to know how to get better depth on a breaking ball and how to increase spin rate and all that.
Without Spider Tack, you lose that illusion of a pitch jumping and you can’t throw a ball down the middle and get away with it. Now they have to learn to pitch and things are starting to swing back in that direction. Pitching is all about execution. You have to execute each pitch and not just rely on stuff. It’s great we have a strong message and support from AJ Hinch, our Major League manager. If the media asks him about a pitcher who got hit around or gave up a big hit, the message is always that the pitches were not executed. What gets batters out is pitch execution. To put it in simple terms, in the lower levels of the minors, we’re looking to help pitchers fill out their stuff and in the upper levels, we’re looking to help pitchers make pitches with it.
That’s awesome. I think there is a great common ground between modern and traditional coaching. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Last question for you is open-ended. Do you have any final reflections you’d like to leave for our readers?
If you take the time to really study and learn the sport of baseball, it’s the greatest sport there is. There are so many things that effect every single pitch and every game. I once had a superstar pitcher, $100 million dollar guy, tell me that every pitch is the game. You could give up a home run on any given pitch and lose a game 1-0. Or you could give up a home run on the next pitch and lose a game 2-1. Any single pitch could be the game. Think of the gravity of that. Every pitch factors into the next pitch and the next play. It’s just an incredible game and I love the career I have had in it.