Rich Dubee was genuinely surprised that I wanted to chat with him. "Who would want to hear about what a pitching coach does?" I explained that there's always a vocal minority of fans who blame a team's poor pitching performance on the coach, when in reality, most of us have no idea what a pitching coach's job entails, much less how to evaluate the successes or failures of that coach. Rich is well aware of this: "I was in Philadelphia," he reminded me, "I was probably criticized for the last few years ... people can cast the blame wherever."
In other words, fan approval is not where Dubee looks when evaluating himself.
"The biggest thing is building relationships," he explained, "I try to learn from each and every one of the pitchers, I kind of observe at first -- I don't think anybody's smart enough to come in and start telling guys what they've been doing wrong." This is the first step towards becoming successful as a coach, and it's precisely the approach that Ray Searage adopted for so many years with the Pittsburgh Pirates on his way to developing a reputation as a "pitcher whisperer."
It's one thing to try to leave your mark on a pitching staff and run the risk of accidentally getting in your own way. It's an entirely different thing to recognize the unique strengths of each individual pitcher and use that as a starting point. Dubee knows this well: "I try to stay out of the way of getting involved so much that you take away the pitcher's success. I want to watch and see what guys are comfortable doing, what makes them successful ... I want to know who they are, what they are, what makes them good, what they're doing when they're throwing the best."
While Dubee believes that he has "had good success with teaching changeups," and is "comfortable teaching any pitch, really," he is wary of trying to implement a one-size-fits-all approach with his pitching staff. "I don't believe you can clone pitchers," he asserts. "There are too many pitchers out there that do things differently, and they're very successful, so I try to watch and see what makes them successful. Some guys that throw 88 can throw the ball right by hitters, and then other guys throw 96 and hitters are right on their fastballs. That happens."
If you think you can sense a theme in what he's saying here, you're probably right: he defines his success as a coach by how well he is able to let his pitchers capitalize on their own abilities. He's not here to radically change anything, he's here to fine-tune what's already been working well.
But what about the success of winning ballgames? Isn't that the final measure of a pitching coach's worth? "The players are the guys that are going to win us games," Dubee insists. "I've never thrown a pitch in the major leagues, I'm not going to win any games -- I haven't won any yet. They'll be the ones that will win us the games."
So what does he see as his biggest challenge going into the 2016 season? Without hesitation, he answered: "Health is a big issue -- health is a major issue. You have to have health and you have to have inventory [depth]." One often-quoted statistic is that most major league teams will see at least 50 percent of their starting rotation miss starts due to injury, and Dubee believes it: "If you look at the average last year, as far as major league teams, they probably used 10 or 11 starters each -- every team -- and probably up to 24 or 25 pitchers on each staff."
There's something of a trickle-down effect here. If the starters aren't healthy, the bullpen will also be impacted. "Our starters have to stay healthy, and be as economical as possible -- get us as deep into games as possible, consistently. When you tax a bullpen and have a two-and-a-half, two-and-a-third innings starts, that taxes your bullpen and it's hard to keep your bullpen in line. Our starting pitchers are going to have to give us consistent innings to keep us in ballgames."
Ah yes, and what about that infamous bullpen? Dubee is optimistic: "With what Al [Avila] and his staff have done as far as the improvement of the back end of our bullpen, we're very comfortable if we can get a solid six or seven innings out of our starters -- we have the pieces on the back end to get things done."
Earning trust. Building relationships. Letting each individual pitcher improve on his own strengths, and balancing instruction with knowing how to stay out of the way. This is how Rich Dubee sees his job as the Tigers pitching coach.
It sounds like a winning formula.