The 75-Year-Old Pitching Guru Behind the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Success

From a Wall Street Journal story by Lindsey Adler headlined “The 75-Year-Old Pitching Guru Behind the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Success”:

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Merrill Kelly was surprised to receive an email from his retirement-age pitching coach Brent Strom at about 4:30 p.m. last Christmas Eve. Subject line: “Some thoughts…”

Kelly expected holiday greetings. He was wrong.

“I was thinking it would say, like, ‘Merry Christmas! Hope you’re enjoying it with your family,’” Kelly said. “It was the exact opposite of that. It was numbers and stats from the last year showing how I could improve going into the next season.”

On Saturday night, Kelly shut down the powerful Texas Rangers offense in Game 2 of the World Series. He allowed just one run over seven innings in Arlington, becoming the first pitcher to complete seven innings in a World Series game since 2019. It was a career night for the 35-year-old starter, who had his best season in 2023 to even the Series heading back to Arizona.

Kelly laughed as he re-read the email from Strom, the 75-year-old coach who had joined the Diamondbacks’ staff in 2022. Strom had seemed set to retire when he resigned from the Astros’ coaching staff after the 2021 season, but an opportunity to raise a new generation of pitchers with the Diamondbacks—“down the road” from his home in Tucson—brought him back to the dugout.

Out in Tucson, Strom was paying no mind to the timing of his correspondence with his starting pitcher.

“If something comes to my mind, I want to get it off my mind so I can go on to something else,” Strom said. “It’s like all of us in elementary school. We have two choices. You can go play and do your homework, or you do your homework first and go play. I will do my homework first and then go play so that I don’t have to think about it.”

The metaphor is apt as Strom’s greatest strength as a pitching coach is his insatiable interest in learning about the craft that has defined his life. He was briefly a major-league pitcher in the 1970s, appearing in a tidy total of 100 games.

“I’ve never forgotten how difficult it can be,” Strom said. “I tell people that I was a 20-game winner and everyone gets excited. Then, I tell them that it took me three years to get those 22 wins.”

Strom nearly found himself as the most uttered name in modern pitching when he became the second person to undergo surgery on a torn ulnar collateral ligament—his elbow. Tommy John underwent the surgery first, but if circumstances had been slightly different, the most popular orthopedic surgery in baseball could have been named “Brent Strom surgery” instead.

Instead, Strom changed the game in another way. A fastball and breaking ball pitcher himself, he helped the Houston Astros utilize a dawning era of data and technology and changed the way an entire generation of pitchers thought about facing batters. Strom became the Astros’ pitching coach ahead of the 2014 season; at that time, the organization was one of the first to understand how to quantify a pitcher’s spin rate and how that might translate to the way the ball crosses the plate.

Under Strom, the Astros targeted pitchers who could zip a high-spin fastball at the top of the strike zone and a breaking ball to tumble to the bottom of it. The more a fastball spins, the more it resists gravity, giving the impression of a “rising” fastball, tricking a hitter and generating swing and miss.

The Astros were ahead of the curve on identifying spin rate as a skill that could be exploited. They went from a rebuilding team early in Strom’s tenure to a pitching powerhouse that inspired the high-heater that would catch on around the league. Eventually, Strom ran out of challenges in Houston.

“I was planning on retiring,” Strom said. “The weight of trying to stay on top with Houston was weighing on me a little bit because you were expected to win all the time.”

His decision to join the Diamondbacks raised eyebrows. Why would one of the most beloved coaches—one who was up there in age—leave a perennial contender for a team that had lost 102 games the year before?

As it turns out, that was the point.

“The wins are fun, but I love to see little things,” Strom said. “Moving a pitcher on the rubber, talking about pitch sequencing, and then seeing him put it into play.”

Strom, who is friends with Sandy Koufax and teared up while wishing a happy retirement to his friend and former manager Dusty Baker, is one of the rare “old-timers” who fits in seamlessly with the pitchers rising through the ranks today.

Diamondbacks reliever Andrew Saalfrank, born in 1997, said Strom refers to him simply as “Lefty.”

“He’s pretty adamant about how he and I used to pitch somewhat similarly,” said Saalfrank, who was drafted in 2019. The rookie rose through the ranks with technology and data at his side, learning to value and amplify the high-heater and breaking ball approach that Strom had seeded throughout professional baseball during his time in Houston.

Strom is described as more of a “teacher” than a “storyteller” by the pitchers he coaches today, though few people in baseball have seen a wider range of baseball history than him. He still lives and dies by each pitch, claiming to say a prayer after every mound visit despite the entire purpose of his trip being to harden his pitcher’s confidence and resolve.

Truthfully, after an entire lifetime in the game, Strom still hasn’t developed the stomach for the game’s most pivotal moments.

“Sometimes I don’t sit up on the top rail,” Strom said. “I really don’t want to see what’s going on.”

Strom’s holiday-afternoon thoughts seemed to have had an effect on Kelly, who joins a long list of pitchers whose careers have been transformed by the nervous man sitting in the back of the dugout. He could be remembered for the elbow surgery, but his legacy will ultimately lie on the immense value he brought to the high-heater.

“He was very excited to have somebody who gets people out that way,” said closer Paul Sewald, who the Diamondbacks acquired at the 2023 trade deadline. “He’s really enjoyed that I have a rising fastball and that I’m not afraid to throw inside and sweep it right off the bat. He made a lot of people a lot of money in Houston by doing that, and it’s working pretty well for me, too.”

Speak Your Mind