By Rob Rains
One of the biggest reasons why Dusty Blake is now the pitching coach for the Cardinals is that he never considered getting that job as a goal for his career.
“I wouldn’t say I was looking toward a certain end point or end game for my career,” Blake said. “I’ve always been the guy who just felt if you do the best you can with the opportunities you have, the rest will take care of itself, wherever that leads.”
That was true when Blake was a Division II college pitching coach. It was true when he became a head coach at the collegiate level. It was true during the three years he spent as the pitching coach at Duke before joining the Cardinals’ staff in 2021 with the title of “pitching strategist.”
“That’s how talented people are wired,” said Chris Pollard, the Duke head coach. “If you are really wired that way, you don’t worry about what the next job is. You just try to be as good as you can be at the job you have. That’s what the great ones are really good at.”
The relationship between Pollard and Blake goes back to 2004, when Blake finished up his college eligibility pitching for Pollard at Pfeiffer University while pursuing his master’s degree after graduating from Appalachian State.
Over the years as Blake’s coaching career progressed through various schools, he and Pollard often discussed working together, but it wasn’t until after Pollard twice failed to hire Blake that he finally brought him to Duke.
“I don’t mind saying this – I made a mistake in 2012 when I got the job at Duke, I considered him for the pitching coach position and again in 2015 when the job opened back up I considered him again,” Pollard said. “I should have hired him both of those times.
“The job opened back up in 2018 when Pete Maki went to the Twins (where he is now their pitching coach) and I knew after two times of passing on hiring Dusty it was a no-brainer.”
Their relationship over the years and frequent conversations had convinced Pollard that Blake was a talented coach – but it didn’t take long after he joined the Duke staff for Pollard to realize he had probably underestimated Blake’s abilities.
“I didn’t honestly know how talented he was until we started working together on a day in, day out basis and I realized he is without a doubt the most talented individual I’ve ever had the privilege of working with,” Pollard said. “I started saying after just one year of him being on our staff that this guy is going to be a major-league pitching coach within five years and sure enough he is.”
Blake came to the Cardinals with a reputation of being able to understand and disseminate the multitude of analytical data which is now available in the game. That was his primary role the last two years, when he worked behind the scenes to try to identify which pieces of the reams of data would be the most beneficial to each individual pitcher in trying to help them improve their performance.
“It’s really figuring out what makes this guy great; he is good because of these reasons,” Blake said. “My main goal is to help these guys become their own pitching coach. At the end of the day their name is on the line and they are the ones being held most accountable to their performances and they are the ones who deserve a ton of credit for that.
“I just want to be a conduit and a resource for them to help give them guidance or feedback in certain areas.”
Pollard has no doubt Blake can be successful doing that with the Cardinals because he has watched him do it before – knowing the reasons for that success go far beyond being able to analyze data points.
“There’s dozens of people in every organization who can break down a Trackman file,” Pollard said. “But you still have to have the relational piece and he’s as good on that side as anybody I’ve ever been around in any profession. He can connect with people and really understands how to push them to achieve.
“That ability to connect with each individual and find out what makes them tick and what is going to be the best approach to helping them along their journey – that’s the essence of coaching and that’s what he’s really, really special with.
“He’s one of the most talented baseball people and one of the most talented people in terms of emotional intelligence and people skills that I’ve ever been around.”
Pollard remembers watching how Blake worked with one young Duke pitcher in particular.
“A lot of times pitchers come to the college level with physical readiness but they don’t have the mental or the emotional readiness,” Pollard said. “We had a former pitcher, who is now in pro ball, who when he got to us had one of the most talented arms in the country but was struggling with readiness in some of the other areas. He was an uber talented guy that candidly we couldn’t even get in a game when he first got here because you didn’t know what you were going to get.”
As that pitcher worked with Blake, however, he developed into the team’s starter in an NCAA regional championship game.
“That speaks to what he’s able to do to help guys achieve their full potential,” Pollard said.
Bryce Jarvis was an incoming freshman at Duke when he first met Blake. The son of Kevin Jarvis, who spent 12 years pitching in the major leagues, the younger Jarvis thought he arrived on campus with a pretty advanced idea of what pitching was all about.
After meeting Blake, Jarvis found out he still had a lot to learn – and who was going to be able to teach it to him.
“His ability to take in all of the different theories about pitching that are out there right now, from new age stuff to the old school mental game of pitching, his ability to take that in and then send it back out to players on an individual basis is unlike any coach I’ve ever been around,” Jarvis said.
Jarvis pitched for Blake for three years before becoming the first-round pick of the Diamondbacks in the 2020 draft. He spent this past season in Double A and still relies on the lessons he learned from Blake, and continues to seek out his advice.
“It’s awesome that we have all of these data points and metrics out there, especially when it comes to pitching, but you can really get bogged down with paralysis by analysis,” Jarvis said. “I grew up in the game and had a very strong base of baseball knowledge because of my dad but he (Blake) was able to take all that I knew and build upon it and really refine the skills that I came in with.
“He’s going to make a difference (with the Cardinals) in ways that aren’t super loud just by fostering guys, keeping them comfortable and challenging them when they want to be challenged and making sure they stay on track. It takes very careful hands to do that but he’s definitely well equipped to do that.”
Marcus Johnson only pitched for Blake for one season at Duke, but used that experience to launch a career that saw him become the fourth-round pick by the Marlins in last year’s draft. He was traded last month to Tampa Bay.
“He showed up every day and worked at showing that we could trust him and how he could personalize all of that information for each pitcher,” Johnson said. “Getting that information, and being able to ask him questions and bounce things off of him, not everybody can understand the stuff the way that he can and apply it to coaching.”
Blake admits that as he has gained more experience over the years, he has refined his coaching approach – but not his overall philosophy as he has learned what information be considers the most important.
“What Trackman, Hawk-Eye and all of these systems do is they help eliminate the guesswork in areas that you don’t always see with your eyes,” Blake said. “The eye test doesn’t always quite match up.
“There are a lot of data points but once you kind of look line by line and get used to what all of these points mean, it’s really easy a lot of times to zero in on one area that’s changed and taken us out of our system. You can say to a pitcher, ‘This is the thing that you are doing right now 10 to 15 percent of the time. If we can figure out how to reinforce that and do it more frequently, we are going to get better results.’ It really takes away some of the ‘it could be this, it could be that’ as a coach.”
What Blake has come to understand the most about how to use all of that data is that he can’t force all pitchers to follow the same plan.
“There was certainly a time, probably six, seven, eight years ago where I felt a little bit more like, ‘Look, I’ve had some guys who I’ve coached who got drafted and made it to the pros and this is something that worked for them so it should work for you,’” Blake said. “It was kind of an immature and closed-minded approach.
“As I continued to work and connect with guys, getting on the same page seemed to be a much more effective plan. Finding the best ways to help them identify this is who you are, this is what you do when you are great, this is how you recover, this is how you respond to challenges – all of the things involved with performance.”
That will be how Blake approaches what the Cardinals and manager Oli Marmol have identified as an area they want to see improved next season – getting their pitchers to have more swings and misses from the opposing hitters.
This is especially the case once the count reaches two strikes. The Cardinals were last in the major leagues last season in strikeouts, and only six teams allowed a higher batting average with two strikes.
Blake is in favor of a pitcher being able to retire a batter early in the count if he can, but once the count reaches two strikes, getting that third strike becomes really important.
“If we have a guy who can do that (get a swing and miss for strike three) there is a big advantage,” Blake said. “You are one pitch away from getting an out.”
The important point is that the out is recorded without the batter putting the ball in play.
“One third of the balls hit in play are going to lead to a baserunner,” Blake said. “That’s a huge shift in the results of what happens.”
It’s finding out how his pitchers can get that third strike that brings Blake’s study and understanding of the analytics into play.
“It helps them identify what they do that creates that,” Blake said. “For some pitchers it’s takes – what pitches are they throwing that hitters just can’t get the bat off their shoulders. For other guys it obviously will be swing and miss on chase pitches.
“I do think there are some opportunities there for us to evaluate and understand when you are one pitch away, these are the areas when a swing and miss might happen or a chase may happen or a take may happen. We have to become more familiar with those areas to help guys target those locations.”
What Blake ultimately wants, whether It’s a swing and miss strike or a lazy ground ball, is for his pitchers to do what they do best.
“At the end of the day I want them to be great at what they are good at,” he said. “If we can maximize that I think that’s ultimately what’s going to help us make the most of what we have versus trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”
Whether Blake succeeds in reaching his goals ultimately will be determined by the individual success of the Cardinals’ pitchers.
“How else do you judge it?” asked Pollard. “Knowledge is great, understanding analytics and data is important in today’s world, but ultimately you are judged as a pitching coach by how your pitchers perform.
“I have no doubt in his ability to get the absolute most out of whoever he is working with.”
At least one Cardinals pitcher, Adam Wainwright, believes he has already benefitted from working with Blake – and is looking forward to seeing how Blake can help him and the rest of the staff even more next season.
“The first year we just kind of all thought of him as the numbers guy, a guy who understood Trackman and all of the numbers,” Wainwright said. “Last year was a really good awakening for me to realize the quality pitching coach that he is. He helped me with some mechanical issues I had never thought of.
“Given more rope, I think he is going to be so good I can’t even believe it.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports and St. Louis Cardinals