Call me a bit biased. Maybe that’s the kind of effect having a stellar Toronto Blue Jay career and being part of three consecutive Blue Jay Cy Young awards (Hentgen 1996, Roger Clemens 1997 & 1998) will have on a person. Maybe it’s the 107-85 in a Blue Jays uniform. Maybe it’s the 264+ IPs two consecutive years, including 19 complete games during that stretch. Maybe it’s the “Ace” title that he once held.
Current Blue Jays Bullpen coach Pat Hentgen has a list of great stats and achievements during his time as a Blue Jay. Certainly, they are greater than that of Pitching coach Pete Walker. Walker, also a former Blue Jay, cannot hold Hentgen’s jock when it comes to Hentgen’s list. And if winning breeds like-ability for fans, well, Walker isn’t going to win that battle either. As a Blue Jays’ starter, Walker is 10-8 for his career while Hentgen is 126-110 (and when you like somebody more than somebody else, you come up with excuses like, “but most of Hentgen’s 110 losses came when his arm was about to fall off later in his career”). Honestly though, the individual “d*ck measuring” stats are not the point.
The point is Walker oversaw a pitching staff that was 25th in ERA (4.25, 4.67 for SPs), 28th in Quality Starts (67 OR only 41% QS%), and 25th in WHIP (1.34). Even with 4 CG and 11 ShO, Toronto starting pitching only lasted, on average, 5.6 innings. Not really surprising with that QS stat. This Joshua Menezes article from way back in April pretty much summed up the season. baseball-reference.com has a funny little number called Cheap Wins. It’s when a team gets the win despite a team’s starter not going 6+ innings. Toronto is in the middle of the pack with 14 cheapies. The more telling stat, however, is Tough Losses. That’s when a team’s pitcher produces a QS and the team loses the game. Not surprisingly, Toronto was in dead last with only 7.
So how come former Blue Jays Hitting coach Chad Mottola was given such a short leash after one season, but not Walker? Mottola had Jays hitters in the middle of the pack or better in all hitting categories. Walker isn’t even close. Both coaches had to deal with slumps and injuries, so that method of reasoning is null.
Just looking at Walker’s own stats again, as well as his scouting report from his playing days, there’s nothing that stands out. He didn’t have the stuff to strike batters out (5.2 Career K/9). Some would say with a career BB/9 of 3.5, he might lack the understanding to teach control. His average velocity on his fastball was 88 MPH, so it’s unlikely he’ll be able to show somebody how to get more cheese out of their arm. It’s not like Hentgen’s stuff was all that better at making hitters miss, but the man knew how to pitch. In David Lauria’s excellent Q & A session with Hentgen, it shows you the preparation of the former Cy Young pitcher.
Hentgen wasn’t a “phenom” with can’t miss stuff like Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Stephen Strasberg, or Josh Beckett. For a short time, he was a pitcher comparable to a poor man’s Greg Maddux, relying on location and changes in velocity. He IS a guy that CAN teach you how to pitch and get batters out. Esmil Rogers, while not consistent, experienced his best season yet, not just as a starter (4-7, 4.89 ERA, 1.43 WHIP), but as a major leaguer. He credits his success to Hentgen refining his 2 seam fastball, giving it more bite. When Rogers was on, he looked like a potential #2 starter. When he was off, he looked like a borderline AAA guy. What bit Rogers in the ass was location, often leaving his screaming 96 MPH fastball over the plate or his slider up in the zone where it would break in a hitter’s sweet spot. Hentgen made a living off fastball location. During his best years (’96-’98), his BB/9 were at or below 3, and his H/9 were below 9. That’s something Walker could never say he did as a starter. Rogers can’t brag about that either, but the possibility for it happening is there, especially with Hentgen around. As a starter, Rogers’ 10.1 H/9 and 2.9 BB/9 were his best numbers to date. His 1.44 HR/9 is also a sign of improvement when compared to his 2011 season (1.64), the only other time Rogers was actually considered to be a starting pitcher. A lot of these improvements are credited to Hentgen.
Not only did Rogers find better results this season, but so did the Blue Jays bullpen. Not 1 single, full-time Blue Jays bullpen pitcher with over 25 IP have an ERA over 4 (Brad Lincoln closest, at 3.98). Since I’m not a believer in using ERA as a way of judging relievers, only Brad Lincoln had a WHIP (1.58) over 1.37, which is remarkable. The Jays bullpen, with the aforementioned qualifying criteria, also had an 8.9 K/9. That’s also a pretty impressive stat. So if the Jays bullpen was awful, Hentgen would take the fall. Since it’s the opposite of awful, Hentgen deserves a lot of the credit.
Perhaps the only major reason that Walker is still pitching coach and Hentgen is not comes down to this: Walker and Hentgen are former teammates and friends. Both coaches played under current Blue Jays manager John Gibbons during Gibbons first go with Toronto. Gregor Chisholm’s MLB.com article showcases this relationship. According to the article, Walker asked Gibbons to bring Hentgen back on as bullpen coach, after Hentgen left the Jays after one season in same role in 2011 to spend more time with his family. That’s significant because had the organization gotten rid of Walker, it’s very possible Hentgen would have walked as well. There is a belief in the Jays organization that with the similar work ethic, intangibles, and common practices of these two coaches, they can right the pitching woes of Toronto. To answer the earlier question between Walker and Mottola, that same belief in Mottola and 1st Base/Former Hitting coach Dwayne Murphy just wasn’t there regarding the Blue Jays bats. That belief in Walker and Hentgen may have taken a hit however after this season and both coaches may find themselves on a short leash. The obvious answer to fix this problem is to see better results from their starters in 2014. Fingers crossed.