Lakeland, Fla. – It’s probably not at the top of Rich Dubee’s long list of career highlights – the man has a World Series ring and molded Cy Young Award winners in his 34 years of coaching -- but it’s up there.
Imagine pitching batting practice to a young Bo Jackson, on an artificial turf field, with television cameras and reporters encircling the field. It had to be both terrifying and exhilarating.
“That was great; that’s when I was able to throw,” said Dubee, 58, who replaces the retired Jeff Jones as the Tigers’ pitching coach. “It was on turf in Memphis, Tennessee (in July of 1986). We had just signed Bo when I was with Kansas City. We had a day game, and after the game we pulled the cage out.”
And Jackson proceeded to hit screaming liners and majestic 400-foot shots into the seats while Dubee ducked and shook his head in awe.
“It was really like being in the World Series, with that many cameras and that much press all lined up,” he said. “He was just, wow. Bo Jackson was really impressive.”
Dubee’s task with the Tigers may not be quite as harrowing, but he is taking over a pitching staff that ranked near the bottom, starters and bullpen, in nearly every statistical category last season.
And he’s inherited an eclectic mix of talent and personalities – from set-in-their-ways veterans like Justin Verlander and Francisco Rodriguez, to an enigmatic talent like Bruce Rondon to a whole crop of wet-behind-the-ears prospects.
“It’s been great,” he said of the transition. “The guys have been phenomenal. There’s been a lot of quality work done. Knowing some of the people here beforehand (like bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer) and Jonesy being around and being able to pick his brain is a great resource.
“It’s been smooth and there’s still a lot of building to do.”
As far as initial assessments, Dubee said he’s been impressed with the power arms of Joe Jimenez and Michael Fulmer. He called Drew VerHagen an “interesting guy” because of his size (6-foot-6), stuff and demeanor.
And, he’s been pleased with what he’s seen from Rondon thus far.
“Bruce has been going about it fine,” he said. “He worked hard during PFP (pitchers fielding practice). He’s going about it at a much more upbeat tempo. And he had real good focus today throwing.”
Rondon threw his first live bullpen session Saturday and it had everybody from Dubee to general manager Al Avila to the hitters who faced him (Dominic Ficociello, JaCoby Jones, Nate Schierholtz, John Mayberry, Jr.) nodding their heads encouragingly.
But this is all preliminary stuff. Dubee said he will gradually incorporate his ideas and philosophies throughout the spring.
“Everybody has a lot of the same philosophical things – throw strike one, pitch ahead in the count,” he said. “But after you see guys over the course of time, then you can see if they aren’t pitching inside enough or using the proper breaking ball to finish guys off.
“That will be stuff we’ll get into as we see more games.”
One thing he’s already imparted on his pitchers, though, is the importance of not just pitching inside, but establishing ownership of the inside quadrant – on and even a little off the plate.
“It makes most hitters uncomfortable,” he said. “There is a little fear there. There are different ranges of fear for every hitter but there’s also an understanding that it doesn’t feel good if that (ball) hits you. There is pain there, though you see a lot of armor worn now. That’s gone to an extreme.
“But you’ve seen a lot of guys years ago bail. They stepped away from the plate. Today hitters are right out over the plate because pitchers won’t pitch inside.”
Dubee knows there will be some pushback – not from hitters, he couldn’t care less about that; but from his own pitchers. And when the pushback comes, he’s ready with his Jamie Moyer story.
“I don’t know that they won’t do it, but some are reluctant,” he said. “You’ve got to be committed to do it. I was around Jamie Moyer for years in Philadelphia and he threw 82, 83 mph. But he was committed to pitching inside and he was as good as anybody I’ve been around without velocity. But he knew he could get it in there, knew where he had to get it.
“He was committed to it and trusted it and 269 wins later, he had a pretty good career.”
Part of being a successful coach is being able to tailor the details and delivery of your message to different personalities. Certainly Dubee has run the gamut from hot heads like Mitch Williams and Jonathan Papelbon to polar opposites like Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay.
“If Doc Halladay was a student, he’d be the guy who studies a couple of nights before a test,” he said. “Cliff Lee probably didn’t study before a test. And both got A’s.”
Lee, Dubee said, was low-maintenance and anti-information in terms of game preparation. Halladay made his own videos and wanted every piece a data he could get.
“Everybody is different,” Dubee said. “Game preparation for Cliff was easy because he didn’t want any information. He’d have a hard time taking all the analytics in today’s game. He wouldn’t look at it.
“There are guys like that who can really pitch with their eyes. They see how hitters react to certain pitches and they know how to go after them. It was plain and simple as can be for Cliff.”
Halladay, not so much.
“He was nice – but demanding, demanding in a good way,” Dubee said. “Doc was a two-time Cy Young Award winner, but when he threw his bullpens, he wants your input. There was a lot of dialogue back and forth about where he was and how he felt. Just the complete opposite of Cliff.”
Yet, Dubee was able to adapt his process to facilitate success for both.
“Good players make you look real smart,” he said.
He is in the process of learning which buttons he can push with this Tigers staff.
“You like to find out what makes people tick and what makes them comfortable,” he said. “Players have to be relaxed and comfortable to play this game. And everybody is different. That’s why spring training is so important.”