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New Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham vows to blend cutting-edge methods with traditional instruction

The former reliever is well-schooled in high-tech advances in pitching over the last few years. Cotham, just 33, played for Phillies manager Joe Girardi when he managed the Yankees.

Five years after he pitched for manager Joe Girardi with the New York Yankees, Caleb Cotham has been hired as Girardi's pitching coach with the Phillies.
Five years after he pitched for manager Joe Girardi with the New York Yankees, Caleb Cotham has been hired as Girardi's pitching coach with the Phillies.Read moreTony Gutierrez, Associated Press

Caleb Cotham will be the Phillies’ fifth pitching coach in five years.

He just won’t be anything like his predecessors.

For one thing, Cotham turned 33 this month, one year older than Cliff Lee and Jake Arrieta were when the Phillies signed them to big free-agent contracts. Even in a role that is being filled by increasingly younger candidates – 10 major-league pitching coaches are not yet 40 – Cotham is the second- youngest, after Seattle’s Pete Woodworth (32).

Cotham, hired Friday by the Phillies, also comes to the job after two seasons as the Cincinnati Reds’ assistant pitching coach with a distinctly data-driven bent. A former reliever whose career was short-circuited by injuries when he was 28, he has a pitching philosophy that is shaped largely by Driveline Baseball, the Seattle-area think tank that stresses cutting-edge technologies such as Rapsodo, Edgertronic, and other science that measures velocity, spin rate, release point, horizontal and vertical movement, and dozens of other data points.

“I think I learned as much from him as possibly what he learned from me,” Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson said by phone. “Frankly, [as] someone who’s been coaching for a long time, a lot has changed from where we started to where we’re at right now. He introduced me to a lot. He taught me a lot about the importance of it, and then also what we could use.”

Three of the Phillies’ last four pitching coaches – Bob McClure (2014-17), Rick Kranitz (2018), and Bryan Price (2020), who stepped down last month, citing personal reasons – took mostly traditional approaches. Chris Young, who replaced Kranitz in 2019, had a scouting background and stressed analytics. But several pitchers rebelled against advice they didn’t find helpful.

Asked last month what he wanted in a pitching coach, manager Joe Girardi said “someone who combines analytics with pitching skill.” Seven candidates, including assistant pitching coach Dave Lundquist, minor-league coordinator Rafael Chaves, and World Series-winning former pitching coach Rick Dubee, went through a series of three Zoom interviews in the first round before the Phillies whittled the field to three finalists.

Cotham emerged last week as the “heavy favorite,” according to one source, the Phillies believing that he not only checks each box outlined by Girardi but also will bring sorely needed continuity to the job.

“I would say I was a pretty big voice in choosing Caleb,” said Girardi, who managed Cotham with the New York Yankees in 2015. “I’m very excited about Caleb because we have a young pitching coach that has a ton of knowledge, that understands what it’s like to be on that rubber all by yourself, and to go through good times and bad times, understands all the new stuff and understands the old stuff, and has a chance to be here for a very, very long time because of his age. And that’s what we’re looking for – stability.”

It helped Cotham, too, that he had the endorsement of newly crowned Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, a longtime Driveline Baseball devotee. Bauer credited Cotham for tapping into Statcast data and using high-tech tools to contribute to his dominance (1.73 ERA, 36% strikeout rate in 73 innings) this season.

“I haven’t really had that situation before, where I have someone that I respect in the technological standpoint, the really nitty-gritty pitch-shaping and understanding the mechanics and how the ball was moving,” Bauer told reporters last month. “It was good to have someone to bounce those ideas off of and have those conversations.”

But few pitchers appreciate a science-based approach as much as Bauer. Many, as Johnson said, “don’t really want to know a lot,” and Cotham insisted that he doesn’t default to filling pitchers’ heads with numbers.

“It really comes down to serving the player and finding out how they see it to help them get better [rather than] me saying, ‘Hey, we have to use this or that,’” Cotham said in a conference call. “It doesn’t mean that it is a Rapsodo or an Edgertronic. I understand that a lot of guys, that’s not what makes them the best. The funnest part for me is answering that riddle and getting to know those players and what they want.”

Cotham pitched for Johnson in college at Vanderbilt, where he teamed with future major-leaguers David Price, Mike Minor, and Sonny Gray. He made his major-league debut for the Yankees in 2015, then got dealt to Cincinnati in the Aroldis Chapman trade.

But Cotham’s playing career ended before he could take full advantage of modern pitching technology. He put his knowledge to use as a coach, and under Johnson and Cotham, the Reds had the league’s fourth-best team ERA (4.18) in 2019 and second-best (3.84) this year.

“Here’s a guy that has played and has had to feel the things that players feel now, but then with all of the new stuff that’s out there, he’s embraced it, he’s learned it,” Johnson said. “I think one of his best traits is his ability to connect the two together, simplify it, and then put it in action for the player.

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“In the end, you want as well-rounded of a person as you can get that has a good understanding of all the facets of the game, whether it’s coaching, technology, or the information that’s out there. When you have that, you have a pretty good guy. I think that’s where Caleb’s really going to shine. Because I do feel he’s complete. I do feel like he’s that guy that has sort of seen both sides and understands that there is the scientific portion of it, but there’s an artful side to it as well.”

Extra bases

The Phillies added six players to the 40-man roster: right-handed pitcher Francisco Morales; lefties Damon Jones, Kyle Dohy, and Bailey Falter; infielder Nick Maton; and outfielder Simon Muzziotti. They will be protected in next month’s Rule 5 draft. The roster stands at 37 players.