Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
news

MLB News

Yankees Magazine: Master Craftsman

With nearly 200 pitchers in the organization, the Yankees rely on tireless coaches such as Danny Borrell to mold them into big leaguers
Yankees Magazine

Watching a baseball game every night can, with all apologies to steelworkers and third-grade teachers, be a lot of work. Trying to keep a close watch on nine? That takes a unique skill set. But Jonathan Loaisiga is pitching for the Yankees in Philadelphia. And Luis Medina is on the bump for Pulaski's game in Bristol, Virginia. And then there's the game unfolding in Staten Island, where Juan De Paula is doing battle with the Tri-City ValleyCats.

Up and down the Yankees' organization, pitchers have been working since about 7:30 a.m., when the first Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League hurlers began their side sessions. The day won't end until the last pitcher for the last affiliate throws the last pitch, and even then, there will be more to do, some amalgamation of math problems, jigsaw puzzles and air traffic control.

Watching a baseball game every night can, with all apologies to steelworkers and third-grade teachers, be a lot of work. Trying to keep a close watch on nine? That takes a unique skill set. But Jonathan Loaisiga is pitching for the Yankees in Philadelphia. And Luis Medina is on the bump for Pulaski's game in Bristol, Virginia. And then there's the game unfolding in Staten Island, where Juan De Paula is doing battle with the Tri-City ValleyCats.

Up and down the Yankees' organization, pitchers have been working since about 7:30 a.m., when the first Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League hurlers began their side sessions. The day won't end until the last pitcher for the last affiliate throws the last pitch, and even then, there will be more to do, some amalgamation of math problems, jigsaw puzzles and air traffic control.

In the moment, though, there is the young Loaisiga, barely minutes removed from Double-A. There is Medina, a 19-year-old supernova. And there is the 20-year-old De Paula, who is working on a scoreless, five-inning, three-hit effort that is somehow as frustrating as it is encouraging. Young, stud arms may eventually break your heart. But man if you can't dream on them. Especially when it's your job to fall in love.

The names in the pages that follow … you probably won't know most of them. Loaisiga's about as big as it's going to get, short of a cameo from Luis Severino and some bit parts by other members of the big league pitching staff. We're going deep into the weeds, behind the curtain, into the meat grinder -- choose your own cliche. But this is where it's happening, and it's all relevant, even though you won't know why for a few years. Brian Cashman runs the organization's chessboard from an office in Yankee Stadium. But his eyes and ears are pointed here, and in other far-flung Minor League towns.

"Ultimately, my job is to develop championship-caliber pitchers for the Major Leagues," says Danny Borrell. The Yankees' second-round draft pick in 2000, Borrell's career died high on the Minor League vine. Now -- along with Scott Aldred -- Borrell serves as one of the organization's two pitching coordinators, responsible for the youngest, rawest arms that the franchise assigns to short-season affiliates. When a Severino or a Loaisiga shows up in the Majors, he becomes big league pitching coach Larry Rothschild's responsibility; up until that point, often for years, it's Borrell and Aldred doing the tailoring.

In late June, Borrell opened a window to the pitching factory, inviting Yankees Magazine along for a week in his life. It's was an ordinary few days with an extraordinary goal: to make extraordinary athletic feats feel perfectly ordinary. This is a story not of harnessing the power of an arm to make it a weapon; it's about turning 185 arms into a veritable arsenal -- in some cases, out of thin air.

***

We're talking about pitching, so naturally, we should begin with a 20-year-old Dominican infielder for the Yankees' low-A affiliate in Charleston.

Dermis Garcia was the top international signing in 2014 according to MLB.com, a $3.2 million investment by the Yankees. From the earliest scouting reports, Garcia was said to have a strong, projectable bat and an absolute cannon of an arm.

It's a running joke within the organization: Any time a player demonstrates unusually impressive arm strength, Borrell starts salivating about the prospect of putting him on the mound. "The first time I saw him throw a baseball from third base," Borrell says, "it was just, 'Oh wow, that is a really good arm.'"

Borrell spends more time with the organization's pitchers than seems possible, but he still made a point to joke with the young infielder whenever their paths crossed. Maybe it was wishful thinking. Maybe it was planting a seed. Or maybe it was the same competitive brio that pushed Borrell during his playing days. "I had the highest ERA in the draft my draft year," he says of his 6.00-plus figure, adding that he was always very coachable, "because I wasn't that good, at least in my head." But he was still a second-round pick out of Wake Forest, solid on the mound and with the bat. He recalls that if the Yankees hadn't selected him as a pitcher, the Diamondbacks were primed to take him with the very next pick -- as an outfielder. "I didn't have that sense of entitlement when I was drafted because I was not a good pitcher, so it was, 'Give it, bring me all the information you can, and I'm going to try it.'"

So he tried it, and it worked, and he almost certainly would have been a big league pitcher, even despite the self-deprecating manner with which he speaks of his skills. But multiple setbacks, including Tommy John surgery in 2006, ended his time in the Yankees' system. After trying for two seasons to reach the bigs with Oakland, he felt his elbow give out again. He had a wife and a 10-month-old son and a face-to-face encounter with reality. "It was so easy for me to just say, 'All right, that's it,'" he recalls. "I remember calling my wife and -- you know, obviously the emotion takes over -- just crying."

But before shelving his baseball dream for good, Borrell recalled a conversation with the Yankees' longtime senior vice president of baseball operations, Mark Newman, who had told Borrell that there was a job waiting for him whenever he was ready. And so the now-former pitcher climbed aboard, first working as the organization's rehab coordinator before spending four years as pitching coach at different affiliates. In 2015, he rose to his current position. And he's still -- in ways totally unrecognizable for a once-almost-big league pitcher -- willing to try anything new to find an edge.

***

His days as a pitcher were felled by your garden variety pitching woes. These days, though? Borrell's still not safe.

It's about five hours until game time in Staten Island, and the 39-year-old coordinator -- still in outstanding athletic shape, owing at least in part to the 3- to 4-mile run he tries to get in every day -- is smarting from another shot to the midsection. Borrell is based in Tampa, Florida, but he spends ample time on the road, embedding himself with the short-season affiliates' pitching staffs for a week or so at a time. And rather than just observe and report from a comfortable perch behind the bullpen mound, the pitching coordinator insists on getting down in the trenches, slipping on the tools of ignorance and catching his pitchers' sessions. Alex Mauricio, a 27th-round pick a year ago, just fired a fastball into the dirt and Borrell -- who wears shin guards and a mask but, for reasons defying understanding, refuses to use a chest protector -- nearly broke his second bone in a week. "That could have been the other rib if I'd turned the other way!" he jokes. "Bilateral broken ribs!" Staten Island's pitching coach, Travis Phelps, holds in a snicker. "I would not have laughed," he says, unconvincingly.

"You know, these guys are still trying to find consistency," Phelps says later, more seriously. "And he takes some shots. They skip some balls, and they square him up in the ribs and he takes some shots, but he never backs down."

There's a method to what is most certainly madness. It's the same reason that the naturally playful and cheery Borrell goes out of his way to exaggerate those qualities, to make absolutely certain that the young players see that side of him. He never wants to seem like the exec coming in from corporate to observe the workers. As a coach, his effectiveness shares a direct correlation with how much the kids trust him. He had that experience in the Minors, when Neil Allen was his pitching coach. "I had trouble pitching up and in to lefties," Borrell says. "And he would stand in, with a helmet, and say, 'If you hit me, you hit me.' And he would just stand there. And I would wear him out in the shoulder, I hit him in the ribs. And he's like, 'No, you're good. Don't worry about it. Do it again.'

"I want them to know that it's not just me telling you what to do. I'm seeing it, and I'm feeling it."

He's also getting valuable information from it. A key aspect of the organization's pitching philosophy, Borrell repeats many times over, is that everything begins at the plate. What he means is that if a pitch is effective, they don't want to do too much to change that. A pitcher might have a wonky delivery or a strange hitch, which would be easy to diagnose just by watching him. But it also might contribute to a natural break or some deceptive late action, which is best seen by following the ball into his hard-on-the-eyes left-handed catcher's mitt. Rather than fix the wind-up, the team wants to embrace anything that can heighten a pitcher's skills. It's results over process -- within reason.

"You start at the plate, then you work back," Borrell says. "If it's working, then why am I changing it? And if I did change it -- which we have -- it would be because there is some analytical data that backs it up. 'Hey, you know what, because you're this far across your body with your stride, you're clearly affecting the movement on your fastball. So while it's successful now, in the big leagues it may not be successful.'"

Borrell has the welts, bruises and imprinted baseball seams all over his body to demonstrate his commitment, and he clearly relishes his on-field duties (later, after a bullpen session runs a bit long, he'll excitedly run toward the field to join the rest of the group in pitchers' fielding drills. Asked why he's in such a hurry to participate in what seems like a slog on a brutally hot day, he says, as though it's obvious, "I hate missing PFPs! It's the best part! Get to run around with the kids a little bit!"). He also just seems to enjoy the banter, the playfulness of life among baseball players. Garrett Mundell starts talking up his velocity, and Borrell suggests that he'll give him $100 on the spot each time he throws 98. "You know, I've got a wedding to afford," Mundell says. "Well," Borrell responds, "hopefully I pay for most of it." He remembers similar competitive games he would play with a young Luis Severino. They would wager the pitcher's conditioning based on whether he could reach a certain pitch count during a game. If Sevy hit the mark, Borrell would do his running; if he didn't, Sevy's load would double. "He never had to run," Borrell says. "He was so good."

Even still, the job is much bigger than bullpen sessions and clubhouse humor. "The on-field portion of being a pitching coordinator is a very small part of what it truly is," says Eric Schmitt, the Yankees' director of player development. Every day, Borrell and Aldred chart each pitch thrown from the Dominican Summer League to the Majors. Mention one of the 185 names to Borrell, and he can recall from memory what he did the previous night and when he's next scheduled to throw. With a cell phone that doubles as an essential organ (and an external battery pack as valuable to Borrell as Aaron Judge is to the Yankees' lineup), Borrell is in constant contact with the organization's many pitching coaches and player development officials, diagramming routines for the following day, ensuring that each affiliate has enough pitchers for the next game and shutting down any problems before they arise. He has daily availability charts for each affiliate, as well as a sheet of pitch counts and rest days broken out by month.

When Medina gets knocked out in the first inning of his game, Borrell is already game-planning the moves that he will need to set in motion to account for the workload that Pulaski's bullpen will face in response. Every single transaction has domino effects, requiring pitching moves at each affiliate below. The days don't truly end for the Yankees until Aldred and Borrell have signed off for the night, texting Cashman and his lieutenants any moves the organization will need to make to patch over any holes. Until that message arrives, no one can go to sleep. And once it does? "Last night it took me about 20 seconds," Borrell says, acknowledging that it's even worse when the big league team is playing on the West Coast.

"There are those nights when you're dragging a little from the early mornings," Schmitt says, "but until you get the 'All Clear,' we're all up."

***

After about 10 days in Staten Island, Borrell is decamping tomorrow, heading off to his next stop. Before the game, he assembles the pitchers and catchers in the weight room for a full debriefing, rolling through a list of his observations. Sitting on one leg of an elliptical machine, with catcher Chucky Vazquez translating for the Spanish-speaking players, Borrell aims to leave a positive message.

The truth is, though, the pitchers are killing it. "Everything we value here with the Yankees, you guys are doing a hell of a job with it," Borrell says. He ticks off the statistics, saying that they lead all short- season affiliates throughout the sport in K/9, K/BB and average velocity. It's not a huge surprise; for days, Borrell has been reveling in the quality of the arms throughout the system. The other side of that depth, though, is that there's simply not room to promote pitchers to the levels where they belong. "I can honestly say that 95 percent of you in this room should not be here," he says. "You guys should be at a higher level." Before the meeting, he mentioned in passing that he thinks that among the 185 arms in the system, there are 70 big leaguers, a ridiculously high percentage. Cashman, who has assembled the bounty, agrees. "Right now, at this point in time, we are very deep -- deeper than we've ever been in terms of future big league talent," the GM says. "But there are guys who are held back because there are no spots for them."

Borrell watches them all with a scout's eye. During De Paula's start in Staten Island, he stands in a well behind home plate to watch the right-hander pitch, then hustles to the clubhouse when the team hits so that he can piece together all the data points. In the video room -- a Minor League NORAD -- seven screens offer camera angles from all over the ballpark, plus the TrackMan system that gives information such as effective velocities, spin rates and other data impossible to gather with the naked eye. He also gets updates from each of the affiliates' outings. Borrell has access to video and data from every pitch thrown in the system dating back to 2013. Watching De Paula live, he can point out details that look great, and others that look concerning. Running into the video room, he can get the confirmation he needs.

The goal isn't to collect the data and then drop it all on the players' heads. Borrell mainly uses it to confirm his own analysis, to be sure that he understands any outliers he might be seeing, or what isn't conforming to what he expects by watching. De Paula's throwing 95 to 96, and he's getting the outs he needs. But his delivery changes depending on whether there are runners on. So does his pacing. So does his release point, which has a habit of dropping too low, to a point from which he simply can't throw strikes. These are all things Borrell expects from young pitchers. But he's able to use the video and the TrackMan data to build a plan to work with the pitcher the next day, when he and Phelps will sit with De Paula and call up video of both good and bad pitches. "Solo uno mechanico," Borrell will tell De Paula -- "Only one delivery."

"Mark Newman always would say, 'Danny, I don't care what you think. What do you know?'" he says a few days later. "And that really has meant a lot to me. Because I can always say whatever I think to a pitcher, but if I don't have data to back it up, or experience to back it up, then he can call BS on me really quick."

Video: TB@NYY: Loaisiga tosses 5 scoreless innings in debut

***

The plan had been for Borrell to go from Staten Island to Pulaski, but the life of a pitching coordinator means never knowing what tomorrow holds. He jokes that he's on a first-name basis with airline customer service reps, as he is constantly reserving and canceling itineraries.

But a new development arose during the organizational meetings in New York the week before, and Borrell is instead heading to Charleston. "There is a BIG change coming," he says in a late-night email, "and I need to be there for it."

So it's off to the Low-A RiverDogs' ballpark, where Borrell will repeat much of what he did in Staten Island, plus prepare for the big meeting he's going to have after Thursday night's game. Schmitt and infield coordinator Miguel Cairo are flying in for the occasion, as well.

As Borrell sits in the stands watching young stud Deivi Garcia pitch, infielder Dermis Garcia (no relation) has himself a heck of an outing: a single in the first, another in the third (followed by a stolen base), an inside-the-park homer in the sixth and a double in the eighth. Three of the four hits had an exit velocity higher than 100 mph. It's been a rough go at the plate so far in 2018 for the hyped prospect, but as his teammates douse him with Gatorade, tonight is a good night. It's about to get weird, though. A meeting in the manager's office after a huge performance. Am I getting promoted? And then, Hey, what's the pitching coordinator doing in here? "I think when he saw me in the room, he kind of assumed something was going to happen," Borrell says the next morning, hours after telling Garcia that they wanted him to split time between first base/designated hitter and the pitcher's mound. "I was actually excited because I knew that was a decision from the Yankees' top brass," Garcia says, assisted by RiverDogs manager Julio Mosquera. "I couldn't embrace it more."

Garcia had never thrown a pitch from a mound in his life. He would take his first turn in the bullpen the next day. "This was a decision that was made with a lot of different people, all in agreement that this is in Dermis's best interest," Schmitt says. The Yankees, like so many teams, spent some time in the offseason studying the merits of letting a player develop as both a hitter and a pitcher, even in the American League. "I think the Shohei Ohtani circumstance shined a light on the capabilities there," Cashman says. "A lot of times, the industry standard is, run the clock out on the one, and then typically another organization will pick up the slack and transition him to a pitcher. I don't want to be in a position to lose that opportunity, so I was like, 'Maybe we can do both. Let's try it.'"

***

Borrell emerges from the dugout wearing a huge grin, even more pronounced than usual. "Big day!" he shouts into the empty stadium. Garcia, used to being a star and a huge prospect, is in an unfamiliar state, nervous and excited. "Hey, do you have a pitcher's glove?" Borrell asks the new pitcher. "You'd better call your agent!"

As Garcia makes about eight throws on flat ground, there are two cameras being set up, each one pointing toward the mound. One of the RiverDogs' coaches, Dan Fiorito, grabs the radar gun. Justin Pope, the pitching coach, walks over with a brand-new baseball wrapped in plastic. "If you're a pitcher," he tells his new student, "you throw pearls."

Borrell's message couldn't be clearer. He wants Garcia to act like he's an infielder, only throwing from a mound instead of third base. They won't even start teaching him new grips until they introduce the change-up in two weeks. A few weeks after that, they'll show him the curveball, which he thinks Garcia will spin incredibly well. The goal, on this June 29 morning, is to have him throw 15 pitches at about 70 percent effort. Eventually, they hope he'll be ready to pitch an inning in a game in mid-August. "I don't want you thinking mechanics," Borrell yells from his crouch as Garcia prepares to take his first baby steps as a pitcher. "It's whatever's natural. You see this target. You just let it loose."

The first pitch comes in high, at 85. Then 89. The rest of the pitching staff is gathered around Fiorito, trying to peek in at the numbers on the gun. He gets as high as 91 and even throws some strikes. Afterward, there's a lot of laughing and smiling. Borrell had wanted this for a while; Garcia never even knew to want it. "There is 95 to 98 in your arm, and I didn't want that today," the coordinator tells his new pitcher before going through the plan for the coming weeks.

Today was just one day, but it was incredibly encouraging. "His stride was almost seven feet long," Borrell says. "A kid his size should have a stride of about six feet." That extra extension is going to create deception down the line. It will mean the batter will have even less time to react. "The way his fastball goes, and the way his body works, it looks like what a raw pitcher should look like. And it's easy to dream big on a guy like that."

***

It could be that Dermis Garcia turns into the next great Yankees pitcher, or maybe it won't work at all. But the experiment is an attempt to improve the player's chances of reaching the Major Leagues. Which, at the end of the day, is what Borrell's and Aldred's day-to-day work is all about, multiplied by 185. "Those guys have a lot of experience, and they're experts in their craft," says Cashman.

Severino, an All-Star in 2017 and 2018, still beams at the mention of his old pitching coach Borrell: "He gets me, you know? He knows me and he gets me and he made me, I think, a better pitcher." The message echoes among so many of the pitchers who have reached the Bronx. And even as his focus stays down in the low Minors, Borrell can't help but revel in his young pitchers' success. Back in Staten Island, between innings of De Paula's outing, the coordinator's eyes keep turning to the TV showing Loaisiga in Philadelphia. "I was never nervous when I pitched," he says as he moves between checking the RPM on De Paula's first few curveballs, getting updates from the early moments of Medina's start for Pulaski and watching Loaisiga warm up in the bottom of the first. "But watching these kids … I have no control! I have to remember that they're 18 to 20 years old. And it takes a while."

Some manage it quicker than others. Loaisiga started the year in High-A Tampa, then moved to Double-A Trenton in May, then to the bigs in June. Borrell, who knows more about the young pitcher than almost anyone, is confident. "His heart rate's about 60 right now," he says. A few innings later, when analyst David Cone is breaking down Loaisiga's smooth delivery, the former pitcher raves. "Nothing's jumpy," Cone says. "Nothing's herky-jerky. Very much under control, very smooth delivery."

"Yes, it is," Borrell says proudly, barely looking up from his iPad.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the August 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees