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American Needle St. Louis Cardinals 1942 Cooperstown Fitted Cap
American Needle St. Louis Cardinals 1942 Cooperstown Fitted Cap

The Role of the Bench Coach
Interview with Joe Pettini

By Brian Walton

Those of us with a few miles on our frames remember the days before the invention of the bench coach.  For others, when one hears the term, the image of Popeye (a.k.a. The Gerbil), Don Zimmer, immediately comes to mind.  Think of the respected former manager, in his twilight years, sitting at the manager’s side, ready to whisper sage words of advice into his ear.

Well, the St. Louis Cardinals have one of these new/old-age coaches, too.  But, while Joe Pettini’s role is very different from Zimmer’s was with the Yankees, it is no less important.  In fact, I assure you that after reading this interview, you will be as surprised as I was about the depth of Pettini’s involvement in preparation of the team each day.  It’s a lot more than the guy perched on the top step of the dugout with a stop watch or the rubber-armed batting practice hurler with the whip-like throwing motion.

Joe Pettini is a relative Johnny-come-lately on a coaching staff known for continuity.  While he is starting just his third season as Tony La Russa’s bench coach, Pettini has been with the organization for a long time.  He managed eight years in the Cardinal minor league system and served as minor league field coordinator from 1997-2001.

I caught up with Joe last weekend in Montreal.

BW:  The bench coach is kind of a new position in baseball.  What are your responsibilities?

JP:  Mainly my responsibility when first getting here is to help set up the day’s routine, as far as the BPs, get the stretch times, set up the groups.  Once the game begins, I’ve said that the bench coach’s role changes depending on the manager.  When you have somebody who is relatively a newer type of manager here in the big leagues, they might rely on a bench coach more so than someone who has been around as long as Tony.  But, you know, he still has a lot of questions during the game as far as pitcher’s time to the plate – our guys, their guys - whether you can take advantage of the running game or keeping the other team from using the running game against us. 

The main job I do during the course of the game is help set up the infield positioning.  I get together with Dave Duncan prior to every series to go over how we’re exactly going play each hitter in the infield, depending on whether he’s against a right hander or a left hander.  What I do is I set it up in order and I go over it with each infielder before the series starts and during the games if they have any questions about where they are or where they should be.  You can move them here or there or wherever Duncan wants them to play.  Basically, that’s about it except for one thing – that’s taking care of the lineup card.  That’s the easy part. (laughs)

BW:  When you need to make a defensive adjustment during the game, how is that given to the player?

JP:  Well, you know, basically, all these guys are pretty good.  They want to be sure to be in the right spot.  What I did the first year in all the ballparks, I brought a digital camera and took a picture from the dugout.  I had Jose Oquendo go out and I mark on the picture that I keep in the computer in a folder for each team.  So, I know exactly from where I am sitting on the bench if the second baseman is playing a right hander straight away because of the mark on the wall of the stadium behind him.  So, I’ll know if he is out of position and there’s signs to where these guys know, depending on the pitcher, depending on the count, and how a hitter is going, they might make a slight adjustment themselves, too, which is ok.  Just because we tell them to play straightaway, doesn’t mean that if they bring in somebody and they get behind in the count, that they can’t go ahead and maybe shade him a step or two the other way thinking that he is not going to be as aggressive of a hitter. 

BW:  That’s surprising.  So, you actually use geometry for defensive positioning?

JP:  Yeah, it makes it look simpler.  I took pictures of all the fields from the second base side and through the shortstop side.  That way, we don’t have to do it every time we come in and have Jose go out there and have me mark down the spots.  We have it on the computer, so that way when we go to a city, I can bring it up, print out the picture and I put it in my folder that I keep on the bench.  That way, I know exactly where these guys should be. 

BW:  So, that also affects where you stand during the game, then?

JP:  Yes, I have to take the same position.  Otherwise, it’s going to change on you.  I make notations on the pictures themselves where the lines are going to go from straightaway up to some point, whether it is on the wall, the stadium steps or scoreboard.  And then, I make a notation on the bottom where I’ll be sitting.  Usually, you can remember where you sit, but just in case…

BW:  A lot of times at home I see you’re pretty much perched with one foot on the top step.  Is that your spot?

JP:  Right.  That’s the spot where I know.  At home, you kind of memorize everything.  So you know exactly, through the shortstop, through the second baseman, where they should be playing against a right-handed hitter or a left-handed hitter, because they vary.  A left-handed hitter playing straightaway is just a couple of steps over from where a right-hander should be.  At times, we’ll plan to where we’ll play maybe a step towards the middle or a couple of steps toward the middle when we’ll play a dead pull and sometime as you can tell, against Berkman, such guys that are strong pull hitters, we’ll even have a shift. 

BW:  How often do you determine whether to change the defense for a hitter?

JP:  Dunc keeps a lot of stuff.  I keep a lot of things.  Every year that I’ve been here, I’ve kept a chart on the computer of every playable ball that was hit by each hitter.  I’ll have a diagram for each hitter, whether it was against a right handed or left handed pitcher.  And Dunc does the same thing.  He just gets all his information.  You know, it’s not a science.  It’s not black and white.  But, it gives you really good tendencies on where you should be playing some people.   And, of course, it doesn’t always work out well.  But, over the long haul, I think that when you pay attention to the data that you have on certain hitters, in the long run, you’re going to be better off by watching these things, positioning the infielders as opposed to where the guy is hitting the ball. 

BW:  You have a stopwatch during the game.  Are you timing the pitcher’s move to the plate?

JP:  Basically, with our guys, when I’m timing our pitchers, it’s just to let Tony know if a guy starts to slow up.  Usually, if a pitcher once he leaves the set position can get the ball to the catcher in 1.3 seconds or less, then the catcher has at least some kind of a chance to throw out a base stealer.  If he starts getting above 1.3, then starts creeping up to 1.4 or between 1.4 and 1.5, these are mostly right handed pitchers, then the running game becomes a little easier to go ahead and try.   So, if Tony wants to know if our pitcher starts to slow up; that way, he can have him throw over or he can let the catcher know to have him quicken up a little bit.  Because, basically, when you manage or are coaching, you are trying to keep the other club from taking advantage of you.  And the flip side is that if the other club’s pitcher starts to slow up or have some slow times or their breaking pitch is overly slow, and you get a breaking ball count, you can take a chance on sending a guy and maybe stealing a base on a breaking ball.  

BW:  When you see a pitcher slow down, is that always later in the game, when they are tired?

JP:  It happens a lot late in the game when guys get tired, but pitchers are a different breed and basically for these guys at this level to pitch the way they are capable, to pitch the way they want to, to have that command where they are going to keep the ball out of the middle of the plate, to try to hit the corners and come off the plate, they need a lot of rhythm.  And if guys have to quicken up because the other club is running, trying to steal bases, it takes them out of their game a little bit.  And all of a sudden, your command isn’t there, you get behind a little in the count and then you get some pitches to hit and drive in some runs.  Like you said, later is a big thing.  When they do get tired, some guys will slow up a lot.

BW:  Do you provide input to Duncan at times when he is considering a pitching change?

JP:  Well, not really for pitching changes.  Tony’s the manager and he’s going to take care of that.  He relies a lot on Dunky.  He’ll ask Dunc a lot of questions but when it comes down to the final decision, Tony makes it.  As far as pitching changes, that is handled by Dave and Tony.

BW:  So, you keep track and share the information when you see something or they want it?

JP:  Right.  What we do is I keep track of, for every club and every pitcher, I keep track of the times over the course of a period with fastballs, with runners at first base, how quick they are when they throw a fastball and how quick they are when they throw an off-speed pitch.  I do the same thing when they are at second base.  At second base, you don’t have to be as quick, naturally, because it is a shorter throw to third base when you’re trying to steal.  But, I keep all that and when we go into a town, and every pitcher that is on that roster, I will make sure that they have all that data on the bench and they’ll know who the starters are and what their times are.  And if they bring in a reliever, especially as a lot of left-handed relievers will be awfully slow, even though they are deceptive with runners at first, sometimes they keep that slow time when they are at second, which makes it possible to steal.  So, whenever they bring in a reliever, we will have times already there so we can look them up and say, “Well, he’s anywhere between 1.3 and 1.5 or even slower.  If you want to run, here is the time to take a chance.

BW:  It is surprising to me, even as a person who follows baseball closely, as to the amount of preparation that goes into the game.

JP:  What’s so good about the game of baseball is that it’s pitching, it’s fielding, it’s hitting, but any little thing that you can take advantage of, can help win a game.  And on the flip side again, any thing you can keep another club from taking advantage of, may possibly keep them from scoring a run or two and keeping you in a game or keeping you on top.

BW:  Thank you for your time.

JP:  No problem.