While the team had known for a while that pitching coach Tim Belcher was considering resigning, but the announcement at the end of the season that he was stepping down after two years was a surprise to many fans.
I was thinking about Belcher and his work with the Indians the other day and I stumbled upon his stats from his own accomplished career. In 14 MLB seasons, he went 146-140 with a 4.16 ERA and 31.4 fWAR while pitching for seven different teams.
But another thing about Belcher’s numbers caught my eye: he was a true contact pitcher. He had a 5.6 career K/9 rate; in each of his last seven seasons his K/9 rate sat at or below 5.0, and in his final nearly full season his K/9 was just 3.5. Obviously he was successful despite his lack of strikeouts, but it still seemed like an interesting résumé for a pitching coach.
Was it a coincidence? A little bit of digging shows that Belcher was just a long line in Tribe pitching coaches who didn’t miss many bats in their own playing days.
Belcher’s predecessor, Carl Willis (now the pitching coach for the Seattle Mariners) wasn’t as successful in his career. A reliever, Willis threw 390 innings in parts of nine seasons with four teams, posting a 4.25 ERA (3.57 FIP) and 5.2 fWAR. His career K/9 rate: just 5.1.
Before Willis came Mike Brown, a former swingman who played six seasons with the Red Sox and Mariners. He had a career K/9 rate of 4.1—identical to that of his predecessor, Dick Pole (who also spent six seasons with Boston and Seattle).
Phil Regan, who pitched 116.2 innings with a 1.62 ERA out of the bullpen for the Dodgers in 1966, served two nonconsecutive stints as the Tribe’s pitching coach after posting a 4.9 K/9 rate in his 13-year career. And Mark Wiley, who kept Regan’s seat warm for four years between his tenures as pitching coach, racked up 18 strikeouts in 49 career MLB innings for a K/9 rate of just 3.3.
Taken as a whole, an interesting pattern starts to emerge here. I’m not saying the Indians deliberately seek out former pitchers who had low strikeout rates, but there’s a clear trend in the kind of coaches they hire.
Also interesting is that recent Cleveland teams have been pretty low on strikeouts themselves. This year’s Indians staff ranked 29th in K/9 rate (6.3), and over the last two seasons (i.e., Belcher’s tenure) they rank dead last (6.2). Their 6.3 K/9 rate over the last 10 years ranks 26th in baseball—though, interestingly, it’s good for third in the AL Central, ahead of Kansas City and Detroit.
To say that the Tribe’s low-strikeout approach is due to the pitching coaches may be confusing correlation and causation—it could be that the front office has an affinity for pitch-to-contact guys, in which case it would make sense to bring in similarly experienced coaches—but either way it seems clear that there is a connection.
The team is still trying to figure out how to replace Belcher, but if history is any indication, my money’s on another pitch-to-contact guy. If instead the Indians go with a different kind of former pitcher or someone without MLB pitching experience—Ruben Niebla, the Clippers’ pitching coach, never made it to the major leagues—it will be interesting to see if and how Cleveland hurlers change their approach in the next couple years.