This is the last in a series revisiting the coaching staff of the St. Louis Cardinals Class A Peoria Chiefs.
(BaseballStL) -- Jason Simontacchi speaks reverently about the art of pitching. Simo, as he is called, posted a 20-10 record with the St. Louis Cardinals from 2002-03 and finished ninth in Rookie of the Year balloting.
These days, as Peoria Chiefs pitching coach, Simo has an all-new appreciation for the art of defeating hitters. He has also shown the ability to make young players better.
Two of his pitchers – Corey Baker and Zach Petrick – advanced not only to high Class A Palm Beach, but made another jump to Class AA Springfield in the four months since they were interviewed as part of BaseballStL’s May series, “The Cardinal Way.”
Petrick, who is being groomed as a starter, credits Simontacchi with helping him develop the mental aspect of pitching. “When I came off the mound in spring training,” Petrick recalled, “he asked me why I threw a certain pitch in a certain situation. It wasn’t a criticism, he just wanted to know if I was thinking about what I was throwing.”
Thoughtful and deeply appreciative to the Cardinals for the opportunity to get back into the game, Simontacchi asks his pitchers a simple question; What kind of pitcher are you?
“I ask them to figure out who they are as a pitcher; are they a power pitcher with a 98 mph fastball, a finesse pitcher, do they have a hard breaking ball for an out pitch, can they locate their sinker, etc. Then we look at the mechanics that gives them the best chance to exploit their strengths. What does it feel like (and look like) when you throw a good pitch? And most importantly, we stress repeatable mechanics, things they can do every pitch.”
Simontacchi’s affection for Petrick is obvious. “I think in spring training, he felt like maybe he wasn’t good enough because he wasn’t drafted,” he said of Petrick, who was signed as a free agent out of a small university in Ohio. “But that gave him the hunger, the burning desire to prove himself at every level,” an observation Petrick himself confirmed.
“I told him he did belong here and that he had to trust his stuff. We helped him develop a change and told him to stay true to who he was.”
Simontacchi described Corey Baker, another Chiefs’ pitcher who was promoted to AA Springfield, as more quiet and reserved but very competitive. His command of several pitches pushed him to the AA level, but leaving his change-up too high hurt his results, something the Cardinals will work on with him next year.
The mental part of pitching is what Simontacchi stresses most because it is the part of the game that can carry talented pitchers to the majors. “There will come a point when no matter how talented, how gifted you are, the physical part of the game diminishes and it becomes all mental. It will be your mind that keeps you there, not your arm, because it is harder to stay in the majors than it is to get there,” he said.
“Sometimes your ability will fail you but your mind will keep you from falling apart out there. There will come a time when you are in the 7th inning and you know there is nothing left in the tank but you still need two more outs and you will that ball into the strike zone. When coaches give you that opportunity, you learn a lot about yourself. You realize that a strong mind is more important than a strong arm.”
Simontacchi is not imperious nor demanding that every pitcher do things his way. “I tell them it is their career. I’ll give you advice and suggestions. Take what I tell you or show you and do with it as you please. I’ve been in their shoes. I know how hard this is. It’s such a privilege to coach these young guys. I’m not frustrated at all when they move on. That’s what we’re here for, to make them better players and hopefully, better people.
Like Erik Pappas, another former Cardinal player and first year coach, Simontacchi hopes to be asked back for another year. “I love doing this. The game has given me so much and I want to pass that on in any way I can.”
He pauses, smiles and says, “And I think it’s really cool the Cardinals have me working with their young guys.”