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October 23, 2019

Paul Hagen: Curt Schilling a perfect fit to coach Phillies pitchers.... hear me out

The news first surfaced as a blind item, as news so often does these days. Sources close to Curt Schilling, according to the story, said the former All-Star righthander was interested in being the next manager or pitching coach of the Phillies.

It quickly became apparent that the manager thing was a non-starter, that after firing inexperienced Gabe Kapler after two years on the top step of the dugout, his successor was going to be someone who had been around the big league block a few times. But pitching coach? Hmmmm. Certainly worth having a conversation with a guy who was the fulcrum of the Phillies rotation for most of his 8 ½ years in red pinstripes and went on the win a total of three championship rings with the Diamondbacks and Red Sox.

Not surprisingly, he laid out of a compelling case for his candidacy. As a bonus, he also offered an upbeat assessment of the arms the Phillies currently have on the roster, said the managerial search should start and end with Buck Showalter and revealed that he and Kapler communicated frequently during the season.

“I know pitching. I’ve always known pitching. I know pitching as well as anybody alive,” he said by phone. “I think I was and could be and am an incredibly good teacher.”

Now, it would be easy to dismiss that as empty braggadocio. But think about it. Yeah, he was blessed with a great arm. But he didn’t go 216-146 in his career and strike out 3,116 hitters and post a 3.87 earned run average when he was 40 by simply throwing fastballs down and away to righthanded hitters.

(Yeah, but. . .)

He worked at his craft. Before a start, he’d bury his nose in a computer. He was, to paraphrase the country song, analytics before analytics was cool.

“In 1995 I was breaking down swing percentages in different counts. Because that was far more important than home runs, batting average and RBI,” he pointed out. “So I guess in a way, for almost 25 years, analytics has been a part of everything I’ve ever done.”

(But. . .)

His insight is so keen that, before four different drafts, the team he was working four asked him to break down videos of pitchers they were considering selecting.

(But. . .)

Knowing what to do to succeed is the easy part, though. Imparting that knowledge to others in a way they can grasp and utilize it is the trick. To that end, he doesn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I think the key, not just to being a pitching coach, but being a coach in baseball, is that there’s no one way to do anything,” he said. “There are very few blacks and whites other than that strikes are better than balls. And when you’re a pitching coach, in my opinion, you have to be 12 to 18 different coaches.

“In my mind, I can make a page full of analytics sound like pitching as opposed to numbers. And that’s a big thing for me in this day and age. Some guys, you couldn’t tell them boo about analytics because it would be like asking a one-legged person to walk and chew gum and the same time. It just wouldn’t work. And that gets back to knowing your players, right? Knowing your pitchers and understanding their mental approach.”

(But. . .)

Schilling picked the brains of every great pitcher he ran across, guys like Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens. He was also known as one of the best big game pitchers of his generation. The higher the stakes, the better he generally performed. His 11-2 (.846) postseason record is the best in history among pitchers with 10 or more decisions. He says he’d bring the same competitiveness to coaching.

“I just think it’s something I’d be exceptionally good at,” he said. “I have no desire to go in and just coach. If I coach, I’m going to be the best in the game. That’s the goal.”

(But. . .)

Based on a career that’s earned Hall of Fame consideration, pitchers would listen to him. As a bonus, he has deep Phillies roots that include being integral to the magic carpet ride of 1993. For what it’s worth, last year was the first season there wasn’t a former Phillie on the team’s coaching staff since 1972.

Waiting for the disclaimer? Here it is: Schilling has become a polarizing figure. He can be outspoken and hardheaded. He feuded with some reporters, which is fine. He approvingly tweeted a picture of a man wearing a T-shirt with the message “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” printed on it, which absolutely is not.

In fact, his social media activity got him fired from ESPN. He’s turned off many with his hard right political views. His video game company venture ended in bankruptcy and controversy.

This isn’t a column debating whether or not he should go to heaven, though. Breaking news: There are few angels in Major League Baseball. The topic on the table today is simply whether he’s the right person to help turn around a pitching staff that was such a crushing disappointment last season. And, in that narrow focus, he checks a lot of boxes.

Because of his friendship with Kapler – they were Red Sox teammates – he’s followed the Phillies closely. Ditto the Yankees and Red Sox because of his friendship with managers Aaron Boone and Alex Cora.

He frequently texted them, often asking for insights in why they made certain pitching moves. 

“I talked to Kap all throughout the year,” he said. “And there were a couple times when I texted him and said, ‘If I was on the mound tonight, you and I would have been fighting.’ Because, you know, five innings and 65 pitches and a guy’s coming out of the ballgame? I don’t want to say I don’t care what the metrics say. But you don’t have that many arms available to be that carefree with your innings and your pitchers.”

Along the way, he said he became impressed with the talent of the young Phillies arms.

“It’s a World Series pitching staff. It’s a postseason pitching staff,” he said. “Looking at that division, there’s a lot of good competition. But I love the arms on that staff. I like the minor league system. I think there’s some potential there.

“I’ve always operated like (former Phillies pitching coach Johnny Podres). Just give me an arm and I’ll make the pitcher. That’s a staff full of arms. And I love it. They’ve got a legit ace (in Aaron Nola). And I think there are some guys who can be better than they are and should be better than they are, (Vince) Velasquez probably being the biggest one.”

The Phillies have reportedly narrowed their managerial search to Joe Girardi, Dusty Baker and Showalter. A decision could come as soon as Wednesday. The front office is on record saying that the manager will have a lot of input in filling the hitting and pitching coach vacancies. So I asked Schilling if he had a relationship with any of the candidates.

“If Buck Showalter doesn’t get the job, I’ll be stunned. Stunned. He’s the most prepared manager I’ve ever played for, with second-place far, far behind,” he said. “A guy who I think very much matured and changed over the years. A lot of the early labels were bull spit. I played for him in 2000 (in Arizona).

“I haven’t talked to Buck in an extended period of time. I have no idea if he’d be interested in me being a pitching coach. But I would be absolutely stunned if he’s one they interviewed and he doesn’t get the job. He’s that good.”