Phillies Beat with Destiny Lugardo

New Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham is anything but a cookie-cutter hire

Last week, the Phillies announced the hiring of Caleb Cotham as their new pitching coach. Cotham, 33, is the youngest pitching coach in team history and the second-youngest currently in MLB. His age and lack of experience could be seen as a hindrance to many but to Cotham, it’s a strength.

“Being a similar age, I think I am plugged in to certain things,” Cotham told reporters over Zoom. “I do view that as a strength, the ability to connect in that way.

“At the end of the day, I also need to be competent to know all these things to help [the pitchers]. I’m young, right? So, I think just being a source of knowledge and almost like a consultant for these pitchers in a lot of ways. My toolkit needs to be big.”

Toolkit was a word Cotham uttered frequently during his first media availability. He aimed to portray himself as a one-size-fits-all pitching coach. Cotham, who is an alum of the data-driven, player development facility Driveline Baseball, is well versed in the latest pitching technologies and metrics.

That could bode well for a player like JoJo Romero, who has embraced analytics. He is a client of Codify Baseball, a start-up that sends individualized heat maps to players.

But what about the players who are less inclined to delve deep into the underlying numbers? Aaron Nola watches film but probably doesn’t have a clue what the average spin rate on his curveball is. He’s a self-proclaimed “feel guy” who believes conviction and command trump everything.

“Myself as a coach, it’s just trying to be prepared for the whole range of what players want,” Cotham said. “For me, it really comes down to serving the player and finding something with how they see it to how to help them get better over me being right or ‘Hey, we have to use this or that.”

Cotham was drafted by the Yankees in the fifth round of the 2009 MLB draft. He made his debut for the Bronx Bombers on July 25, 2015, throwing a scoreless inning and two thirds against the Texas Rangers. He was traded to Cincinnati in the Aroldis Chapman deal in the offseason and made his first appearance out of the bullpen for the Reds against the Phillies on April 6.

Oddly enough, he went head-to-head with Nola in his only two career outings against the Phillies. He retired in 2017 after undergoing season-ending knee surgery in August 2016. Cotham served as the Reds’ assistant pitching coach the past two seasons.

Joe Girardi and Bryan Price, the man Cotham is replacing as pitching coach, were the only two managers he played for during his big league career. Girardi learned a lot about Cotham while watching him from the dugout in his time in New York.

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“I knew how Caleb competed,” Girardi said. “When you have a chance to watch people on the mound, you can learn a lot about a person. I had a chance to watch Caleb and knew that he was very bright. He competed his rear-end off.

“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 and understands all the new stuff and understands all 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.”

The Phillies have had a new pitching coach at the helm each of the past four years. The pitching staff achieved success under Rick Kranitz in 2018 but the Phillies opted to release him in favor of promoting assistant pitching coach Chris Young. He was fired after a disastrous 2019 campaign and replaced by Price, who unexpectedly retired at the end of 2020.

At the very least, Girardi made this hire knowing that Cotham was extremely likely to last more than one year on the job. He emphasized good communication skills and an understanding of analytics and mechanical consistency as key traits to look for in the team’s next pitching coach. Girardi also probably wasn’t going to hire him if Cotham’s intentions were to encourage pitchers to pitch according to modern trends as opposed to their unique skillset.

That’s the problem the Phillies ran into when they went new school and promoted Young. In 2019, some players openly rebelled against Young and his coaching techniques. Some, including Zach Eflin, found more success when he didn’t listen to Young.

Girardi and Cotham would like to avoid the type of situation Gabe Kapler’s Phillies and their pitching staff found themselves in during the 2019 season. Cotham’s first priority is to get to know his pitchers.

“There’s going to be a lot of listening, there’s going to be a lot of service,” Cotham said. “Outside of that, that’s just where I have to start to do it right. I have to know what’s what before you can start developing this plan. I have no interest in coming here and saying ‘Hey here’s how we’re going to do it. Here’s how we are going to do this and that’ before knowing the players, the staff and the guys in [player development]. It’s a lot of investigation. It’s a lot of homework but I am interested the most in getting to know them and what we are going to do this year to accomplish our goals.”

“He’s not going to take anything away from anyone,” Girardi said. “He’s going to look for every effort to make every pitcher better through his knowledge, which I think there’s a ton of. But he’s not trying to make cookie-cutter pitchers. Zach Eflin is going to pitch different from Zack Wheeler. Zack Wheeler is going to pitch different from Aaron Nola and he understands that.”


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