Honeycutt's wisdom reverberates through organization
Veteran pitching coach's hard work not lost on Dodgers' impressive group of hurlers
LOS ANGELES -- Since 2006, the Dodgers have had seven hitting coaches, but the club has had only one pitching coach. In that time, the pitching coach's staff has the best cumulative team ERA in the Major Leagues.
For those who are not number crunchers, Rick Honeycutt's importance to the Dodgers is captured by catcher A.J. Ellis. He downloads the information Honeycutt prepares for each night's starting pitcher in a pregame meeting, then Ellis implements the resulting game plan in his pitch calling.
For four days last month, when Honeycutt returned to Tennessee after the death of his mother-in-law, Ellis and bullpen coach Chuck Crim tried to do it without Honeycutt.
"That proved to me, hands down, Honey is the most valuable member of the organization," said Ellis. "I didn't realize, until I had his full plate of preparation, all the work he had. I hear pitchers say Rick Honeycutt is the best pitching coach they've ever worked with. That makes me feel I'm working with the best. There's nobody else I'd want to learn from."
During the club's historic turnaround this summer, the pitching has been consistently breathtaking. Since July 26, starters are 20-5 with a 1.93 ERA. Since the All-Star break, the bullpen has a 2.06 ERA. The August ERA of 2.11 is the sixth lowest in Los Angeles history.
Granted, general manager Ned Colletti provided Honeycutt a gifted staff with which to work. The starting rotation includes two former Cy Young Award winners having current Cy Young Award-worthy seasons, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and enough depth to overcome season-ending injuries to Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett.
The bullpen includes three former All-Star closers -- Brian Wilson, Carlos Marmol and Brandon League -- and they aren't even closing, a job now held by the dominant Kenley Jansen.
There's more than one way to coach a pitcher. Some need mechanical overhauls. Others need the moral support of a psychologist. Still others need to be taught how to formulate a game plan to attack a hitter's weakness.
Honeycutt has survived two owners, three club presidents and three field managers. What apparently sets him apart is his versatility, as Greinke alluded to in this scouting report.
"Usually a pitching coach is good at one thing and lacks in another area," Greinke said. "He's probably more balanced in all aspects, without an extra strength or weakness at the same time. He's solid on scouting reports. One thing he always does, if you ask him a question, he wants to be 100 percent sure of the answer. He might hesitate and make sure he's got the most information. He never wants to give bad information."
Greinke -- shy, thoughtful and articulate -- is an example of how Honeycutt's soft-sell approach works. It eventually led to a mechanical tweak Greinke credits in part for his second-half surge.
"One thing I liked, he mentioned it a little bit, but didn't force it completely, then mentioned it again," said Greinke. "He wanted me to ask. He figured out that was the best way to deal with me. Another thing, I've had coaches ask previous pitching coaches what I'm like. Honey said he didn't want to know what others thought, he just wanted to get a fresh view. That's different than other guys."
For Kershaw, who is essentially his own pitching coach, Honeycutt serves mostly as a sounding board.
"The one thing above everything is that he really cares," said Kershaw. "He feels badly when you're not pitching well and he does everything he can to help. He communicates. With 12 personalities, they all handle information differently. He does a very good job balancing what you need to know. I can't imagine having another pitching coach. He's been awesome."
Honeycutt said he's developed his method mostly from what he saw as a pitcher who played for pitching guru Dave Duncan on Tony La Russa's staffs in Oakland and St. Louis, long before computers and SABR connected the dots between statistical tendency and future performance.
"I saw the way Duncan prepared -- and he tracked all this stuff by himself -- and the way he taught about pitching to hitters' weaknesses and developing an attack plan," said Honeycutt. "That's what I try to do. It's a different process for a starter, who faces a hitter three or four times a game, than for a reliever.
"Duncan was a catcher, he wasn't into the mechanics as much as getting into the pitcher's brain, what he's trying to do with each hitter."
Pitchers generally like Honeycutt because he doesn't rely on a heavy hand. He studies tirelessly, but adjusts his input to the preference of each pitcher.
"I learn from the guys, too," Honeycutt said. "I want to hear their plan, not just have them hear mine. I want to see their choices. Younger guys, you keep it simple. Clayton, he studies and he'll do what he feels is right.
"Not everybody gets it. You have to show them you're credible, you have the information and you'll give the pitcher whatever information he wants. And it's not just me. It's our system, down to the Minors and up here with our catchers. A.J., by far, is the best studier I've ever had. Fed [backup Tim Federowicz] does his homework, too."
The successful work of Honeycutt and assistants Ken Howell and Crim on reclamation cases like Vicente Padilla and Ronald Belisario (among others) has led to this year's acquisitions of Marmol, Wilson and now Edinson Volquez. Honeycutt has developed a reputation around the game as a career saver.
"He's one of the reasons I wanted to come here," said Marmol, whose ERA in 12 Dodgers appearances is two runs lower than it was with the Cubs. "Other pitchers told me he's one of the great coaches. He knows what he's talking about, and I trust him and feel comfortable talking to him."
Because of Honeycutt's success with Hiroki Kuroda and Takashi Saito, management isn't dissuaded from signing Asian players like Hyun-Jin Ryu, despite the obvious cultural hurdles.
"I'm grateful that he accepted me for the pitcher I am," said Ryu. "As soon as I got here, he didn't try to change everything, and that made the transition easier."
Honeycutt can relate to starters and relievers alike, having done both while pitching in 21 Major League seasons that literally encompassed separate careers as a starter and reliever -- 268 starts and 529 relief appearances.
"He takes care of me," said Jansen. "Even when I tell him I'm good to go, if he suspects I need a day, he shuts me down. And when he sees something wrong in the mechanics, he's on top of it."
Honeycutt doesn't jump on and off the bandwagon, even for a player like League, whose nasty talent sometimes is undermined by inconsistency.
"He's just really good breaking down mechanics and making simple adjustments without overanalyzing," League said.
Manager Don Mattingly said retaining Honeycutt after taking over for Joe Torre was an easy call.
"I paid attention when he was with Joe and saw that he knows how to get people out," said Mattingly. "I always felt we got more out of our pitchers because of him. The way we pitch -- the starters, relief, down to the Minor Leagues -- it's all him. The way we attack people is 100 percent based on Rick. To me, if I'm the organization, first and foremost, this guy is part of it."