Peterson working on formula for success
New Brewers pitching coach is a proponent of biomechanics
MILWAUKEE -- Rick Peterson laughs out loud when asked whether he believes in fate."Oh, my God, are you kidding me?" he asks. "That's all I believe in." So, chalk it up to fate that Peterson battled injuries throughout his collegiate career and a four-year stint in the Pirates' Minor League chain. Fate led him to delay pursuing a job in either of his undergraduate degrees -- psychology and art -- in favor of coaching. It led him in 1989 to Birmingham, Ala. -- home of the Double-A club of the White Sox but also of Dr. James Andrews, who opened the American Sports Medicine Institute and began studying the root causes of pitching injuries. Peterson was among the first baseball men to walk through ASMI's doors and over the ensuing two decades he studied biomechanics as something of a religion, becoming an expert at using Andrews' readings to develop a program to help pitchers reduce the likelihood of injury and improve velocity and command of their pitches. Fate then took Peterson to the A's and the Mets and made him one of the game's most famous pitching coaches. Now, at 55, fate has led him to Milwaukee, home of the National League's worst starting rotation in 2009 and two of his former managers. Brewers skipper Ken Macha was with Peterson in Oakland and bench coach Willie Randolph was his boss in New York. Most important, the Brewers are at the front of the biomechanics movement and are the only Major League club, as far as Peterson is aware, with an in-house lab. In a sense, the Brewers needed Peterson as much as he needed a job. As Peterson settled this week into Maryvale Baseball Park, where Brewers pitchers and catchers will have their first official workout on Monday, he considered how fate had done it again. "What a perfect match," Peterson said. "That's why I'm so excited." Fresh start
Brewers fans are excited, too, and some consider the new pitching coach the team's most important free-agent acquisition. Peterson had been out of organized baseball since June 2008, when the Mets abruptly dismissed him and Randolph, and focused on 3P Sports, a private venture that offers biomechanical analyses and individualized pitching programs for amateurs.Teams came calling before the end of the 2009 season and the Brewers were at the front of the pack. They couldn't recover from injuries to starters Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan, or from Manny Parra's continued inconsistency, and finished with a 5.37 ERA, tied with Baltimore for the worst starters' ERA in the Majors. General manager Doug Melvin got to work. He let go Braden Looper -- who led the staff with 14 wins despite a 5.22 ERA -- and hired Peterson in October; picked up starter Randy Wolf at the Winter Meetings in December; and then added another lefty starter, Doug Davis, in late January. Wolf posted 24 quality starts for the Dodgers in 2009 and Davis had 22 for the D-backs, five more than any of the Brewers' starting pitchers. It's up to Peterson to get more from the returnees, including 27-year-old Parra, who is out of Minor League options; Bush, whose contract isn't guaranteed until Opening Day; and Suppan, who will cost the Brewers $12.5 million this season in the final year of his contract. "Rick is pretty demanding, but I think the guys are going to figure out that he can really help them out," Macha said. "So it shouldn't be much of an adjustment. We were last in the league in [starting] pitching, so we definitely need to get better." Is there pressure to get instant results? "I have a total passion for this, so there is no pressure," Peterson said. "This is my life's work. It's an unbelievable opportunity and I'm so honored that the Brewers have given it to me. That's how I look at it. "Plus," he added, "this isn't about me. This is about the program." The program
Peterson's program is why he might be the game's only pitching coach who can spend nearly an hour on the telephone with a reporter and not really talk much about pitching, at least in terms of the traditional X's and O's.He's more interested in talking about the program and its "peak performance triangle." On one side of the triangle are the technical components of a clean, repeatable delivery. The next side is physical behavior such as conditioning. And the final side of the triangle is performance-based behavior: confidence, focus. At the center of the triangle is biomechanical analysis, the key, according to Peterson, of optimizing all three elements. Anyone who has seen behind-the-scenes footage of a video game being created or a "making of" film of the recent hit "Avatar" will get the idea. Specialists paste sensors on various parts of a pitcher's body and take more than 40 precise measurements during a 25-pitch, high-intensity throwing session. They measure everything from stride length to arm angle at foot contact to hip, elbow and shoulder rotation with precision that is impossible to replicate with the naked eye. The findings are compared to the normative range for Major League pitchers compiled by ASMI over the past 12 years. What Peterson brought to the table during the early years of Andrews' study was an ability to translate the hard data into real-world solutions. Over the years, he has developed drills to help pitchers get back into normative ranges, thus reducing the risk of injury and setting them up for success. "It's like taking your car to a mechanic and he says, 'Your front end is out of alignment, your brakes are bad and you need a new muffler,' and then he hands the keys back to you without fixing the problems," Peterson said. "I've spent the last 20 years figuring out how to fix the problems." Peterson has taken more than 80 pitchers to Birmingham for analysis, but the Brewers have their own equipment in a Milwaukee lab created by William Raasch, the team's head physician. The lab is portable, and the Brewers plan to conduct organization-wide testing in Phoenix beginning later this month. The biomechanical analysis is only one piece of the puzzle, Peterson stressed. But it's an important piece, considering that over the past decade teams have spent $1.4 billion on injured pitchers. Peterson is asked often how he gets pitchers to buy into the program. "But I'm not selling anything," he said, laughing again. "I'm excited about the depth and the talent we have here. You look at the young talent like Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra, the great moments that Jeff Suppan has had in his career, the games that Dave Bush and Doug Davis and Randy Wolf have pitched in their careers. "What I want to know from the guys when I have my first chance to speak with them is, are you committed to 'best'? Because there is a big, huge canyon between 'good' and 'best.' If they are committed to being the best, we have a long history of best practices that we can follow to get there. It's all about the program."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.