(Baseball StL) -- This is the third in a series about teaching “The Cardinal Way” in the St. Louis Cardinal minor league system.
By all measures, Zach Petrick had a successful career. He was a star pitcher at Morris Community High School (Illinois) and Joliet Junior College, were he won 18 games in 2 years. He was first team all-conference at Northwestern Ohio with a 5-1 record.
But as round after round of the 2012 draft passed without his name called, Petrick felt his chance at a major league career slipping away. After the draft had ended, his college coach told him the St. Louis Cardinals offered him a contract. “I told my coach that I didn’t care where they sent me, I was signing.”
Petrick, 23, is someone Peoria Chiefs manager Dann Bilardello thinks may have a shot at the majors. Like all young players, it’s a long shot. But Bilardello likes what he sees. Petrick went 5-0 last season at the Cardinals’ Rookie League team at Johnson City and averaged better than a strikeout an inning.
He has responded to his promotion to Class A Peoria by stranding all 18 runners who reached scoring position against him and holding righties to less than a .200 average. He credits a lot of his success thus far to Chiefs pitching coach Jason Simontacchi, himself a former Cardinal pitcher.
Petrick learned early that while he might have been an elite pitcher most of his career, he had a lot to learn if he was going to be a professional. And, he says, Simontacchi is the right guy to teach him.
“When I walked off the field after I threw my first inning, (Simontacchi) asked me how I thought I did. No one had ever asked me that before and it made me think of what I threw and where and when (in the count) I threw it.”
Thinking about what you are doing and why is a big part of playing the Cardinal way.
“I let them be themselves,” said Simontacchi, who went 11-5 in the Cardinals’ 1992 division winning ball club. Soft-spoken, studious and engaging, Simontacchi has the perfect demeanor and experience to teach the craft of pitching to young men.
“I try to get to know them as a person, not just a pitcher. I try to gain their trust. The fact that I pitched in the majors can help give me (credibility) but that can only be used to the advantage of teaching. Too often, guys abuse that, use it (arrogantly) and that can really harm a relationship,” he said.
Simontacchi’s smooth, steady style has had a major impact on the Chiefs’ pitching staff, and has resonated with Petrick.
“He tells it like it is, but he gives you confidence. The first couple times out I was really nervous. But he told me to trust my stuff. He said, ‘You belong here.’
Corey Baker, a 49th round pick from the University of Pittsburgh, said the way Simontacchi carried himself and the enormous pride he has in the Cardinals’ organization made an immediate impression on him. Simontacchi, he said, made him realize the Cardinals were about character and pride, not just baseball.
“He told us on day one we should have fun playing baseball, but he (cautioned) this is a game of failure, that we won’t always succeed. We also had to understand that this is our job and our business and to take it seriously and work hard at it.”
“Working at it” is not just the mechanics of pitching, Simontacchi says, but the mental aspect as well.
“Sometimes you have your stuff and sometimes you don’t,” he says. “But you still have to compete. Your team is counting on you.”
Simontacchi says the mission at this level is to be sure pitchers can command a second pitch, namely an off-speed pitch to complement the fastball.
“That’s the first thing I learned,” said Baker. “Even in Division 1, you can beat most of the hitters with a good fastball. But here, they time it up so you have to have a second pitch that you can throw for a strike.”
Petrick agreed and said that you get a chance to learn the hitters a little better at the professional level and you learn when to throw the off-speed pitch and where to locate it. “You get in a groove and it all just comes to you, what to throw next.”
Simontacchi teaches a variation of the circle change made popular by many major league pitchers because the arm motion and delivery is nearly identical to the pitcher’s fastball but often arrives up to 10 miles per hour slower. Disrupting a hitter’s timing and throwing a different pitch in a different location than what he is expecting is the key to being successful.
“Closers don’t really have to have an off-speed pitch, but none of the guys at this level are closers. They really have to command that second pitch and be able to throw it for a strike. Gradually, I see their confidence rising as they learn how to pitch instead of throw.
“I tell them if they fail, if they have a bad outing, tomorrow’s a new day.”
Next: The new Chiefs have an epiphany at spring training camp and discuss their connection to the organization.