Ivan Arteaga on Change ups, Sliders and Curves

There’s much about the game of baseball that never changes. Three strikes and you’re out. Bases are 90 feet apart.

Then again, some aspects of the game are constantly adjusting to the times. Witness the amount of defensive shifting going on in Major League Baseball this season.

You could say that one thing that never changes is that pitchers try to throw fastballs by opposing hitters.

But the arsenal of pitches the pitchers use beyond the fastball seems to differ from one era to another.

Pitchers in the first part of the 20th century could – and did – legally throw a spitball.

Even after the spitter was outlawed, pitchers continued to do whatever they could get away with to gain an advantage over the batter. Roughing up the ball became popular.

Now umpires toss baseballs out of the game the moment there’s the slightest scuff noticed on the surface of the sphere.

Even legal pitches have come in to, and fallen out of, favor among professional pitchers.

Recently, writer Pat Jordan posted an article at SportsOnEarth.com entitled, The Decline of the Curve. Jordan talked to a number of big league pitching coaches about why fewer pitchers are throwing a curveball than was the case in previous eras.

Some of the coaches he talked to indicated that their organizations dissuade pitchers from throwing the traditional curve and others indicated that they don’t teach the pitch to their pitchers.

Since I’ve observed a number of Cedar Rapids Kernels pitchers throwing curveballs, I was curious about whether the Twins organization and, in particular, Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga, have any established policy aimed at dissuading use of the curve or any other pitch.

Over the past weekend, Arteaga graciously agreed to talk to me about the subject.

I started out by asking whether the Twins have any kind of established policy concerning the subject of Jordan’s article, the curveball.

“We actually encourage it,” Arteaga said. “We believe in having a complete mix. I believe, this is my opinion, mix creates value.

“For example, I’ve got (Ricky) Nolasco this week here. He’s got five different pitches. Throws a slider, he throws a curve, he throws a split, he throws a straight change up, he’s got a two-seemer. And he throws low-90s.

“We were having a conversation and one thing we agreed on was that pitchers in the big leagues actually have to reinvent themselves time and time again.

“So that being said, the curve is a pitch that is high-to-low, 12-to-6, you name it. It’ll give you depth. It’ll make your fastball better. It’ll save your arm a little bit.

“So we encourage it. If you have the curve, great. If you don’t, we’ll try to teach you one. Hopefully, you can get it.”

Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga

Some of the coaches that talked to Jordan blamed the shrinking strike zone for the demise of the curveball. Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan could throw fastballs at the letters and get them called strikes, which set up their devastating curveballs.

Umpires today won’t call that high pitch a strike and Arteaga agrees that the strike zone getting smaller has had an effect on the choices pitchers have made when it comes to their arsenal.

“Over time, pitchers started to throw the change up more, moving back and forth,” Arteaga observed. “I remember in the 80s and 90s, the split finger fastball was the pitch to learn and then came the slider. That’s the pitch these days being taught.

“Those pitches are basically strike zone down, strike zone right or strike zone left. The curve actually starts up away from the strike zone and it gets in to the strike zone at the end with some depth.

“So if you have that pitch, the hitters are so used to looking for pitches in the strike zone, that once they see the ball go up, they give up on it. And then once they give up on it, it’s hard for them to actually make an adjustment and hit it. So they give up on it and you get some weak swings.

Arteaga has a theory, beyond those that the coaches Jordan interviewed expressed, concerning why you see fewer pitchers throwing a curveball today.

“This goes beyond professional baseball. Because in college, you get big programs, the same way you get big programs in Venezuela, Dominican and Puerto Rico, and so forth and so on. What creates value? The fastball.

“Thirty-five or forty years ago you had to mix, you learned how to pitch. These days, you get kids that are 17-18 years old, they’re just fastball throwers. If they throw something else, it will be a change up and it will be a slider, because it’s easier to throw. But at the same time, it creates more stress on the shoulder and in the elbow.”

Jordan, in his article, claimed that the curveball actually is easier on the pitcher’s arm than other pitches, which goes against some conventional wisdom in the game. Arteaga agrees, however.

“It’s less stressful. It’s not as stressful as the slider.” Arteaga explained. “What happens with the slider is, there’s some kids who believe the slider should be lateral – should be either right or left – it’s more sidewise than it is up and down. And for them to create that, they have to actually drag their arms a little bit.

“So when they drag their arm a little, they get a lower angle. Once you want to make that ball spin, the elbow suffers a lot. So you get tight. Once you get tight, those muscles start to pull against those tendons. That’s when you get all the injuries.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and then-Kernels pitcher Ethan Mildren

There has been talk among the fan base about the Twins limiting the number of sliders and similar pitches that some of their youngest pitching prospects throw in a game. The coach’s next comment perhaps sheds some light on that philosophy.

“If you ask an 18-19 year old to pitch at a level like this,” Arteaga observed, “where he understands he has to come up with something more than the fastball, then he’ll throw the slider more than he should. He might not be ready to throw it, because he needs to mix.“

Arteaga doesn’t necessarily see the curveball as the hardest pitch for his young pitchers to master.

“The change up to me is like the last pitch to come in an arsenal,” Arteaga said.
“There’s not many guys that have the feel for the change up and the repeatability for the change up. And so it’s easier to throw fastball-slider-fastball-cutter than become a fastball-slider-change up guy. So the change up is like the last pitch to come in to the arsenal.

“It’s hard to repeat, because there’s a couple of things that come in to play,” he explained. “One is the grip. You have to find the perfect grip. And number two, you have to find a repeatable delivery, the same as the fastball. So you can get that extension out in front and the pronation to actually make the ball fade a little bit or go down as much as you can.

“So you need to repeat it a lot. Almost as much as your fastball. You need to repeat it so you can get that same feeling, every time, of extension, pronation and arm speed.

“Because if you ask any guy what they fear the most, it is to leave a fastball or change up or breaking ball up in the zone. They say, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ so what do they do? They develop a sinker, they develop a slider; anything they can do to make it go down.“

Arteaga was asked about that split-fingered fastball that he acknowledged was all the rage 20 or so years ago. Does he, or do the Twins, teach splitter?

“No, we don’t,” he answered quickly. “If you have one out of college or whatever and you can throw it, yeah, we’ll let you throw it. Why not? But we don’t encourage that.

“We believe the less stress you put on the arm, the better it is. If you see the games on TV, in the big leagues, you don’t get that many guys throw the split finger fastballs any more. Maybe a few, but not what it used to be.

“And it really has to be a good one for you to throw it in the big leagues, because they can see the seams. If it looks like a fastball, yes, you’ve got an advantage. Make it look like a fastball, in and out of the strike zone, you’re OK.”

As Arteaga alluded to earlier, Nolasco spent the better part of a week in Cedar Rapids, getting a pair of rehabilitation starts in with the Kernels. The interview came before Nolasco’s final Kernels appearance Sunday, but the coach liked what he saw of Nolasco leading up to that point.

“He threw everything he’s got in the first outing so I expect the same in this one too. He got in to a jam a little bit there, and struck out a couple of guys. He looked like a big leaguer. Throwing his pitches down, making it go right, left, down.

“Like Joe (Mauer) was saying, he’ll make it tough on hitters, when he’s right, he’ll make it tough because everything goes different directions and it’s the same motion.

“Just seeing him throw in the bullpen, he’s got command, he’s got control. And he’s healthy, so hopefully he’ll be OK.“

And did Arteaga’s young Kernels pitchers watch the way Nolasco went about his business?

“Oh yeah. That’s the way it should be. They’re paying attention.“

Thorpe, Romero Make Kernels Debuts

As the Cedar Rapids Kernels wrap up the final stretch of the first half of their 2014 Midwest League season, the parent Minnesota Twins sent them some needed starting pitching help in the form of two teenage pitching prospects.

Australian 18-year old lefty Lewis Thorpe and right-hander Fernando Romero, a 19-year old out of the Dominican Republic joined the Kernels from extended spring training last week and both were immediately inserted in to the starting rotation by manager Jake Mauer and pitching coach Ivan Arteaga.

Lewis Thorpe

Lewis Thorpe

Thorpe was the 6th ranked prospect in the Twins organization by MLB.com during the offseason and #7 on Baseball America’s list of Twins top prospects.

Romero was also among the organization’s top 15 prospects by both organizations coming in to the year.

Romero was the first of the pair to debut, getting a start on Thursday on the road in Appleton WI against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. The righty went five full innings, giving up a pair of earned runs on seven hits and one walk. He struck out six Rattler batters. The Kernels lost the game 7-4 but Romero got a no-decision, leaving the game with the score tied at 2-2.

Thorpe had less luck in his first start with the Kernels, picking up a loss in Kane County on Saturday as the Kernels fell to the Cougars, 5-2. All five runs were charged to Thorpe and all were earned. He gave up six hits, walked three and struck out just one batter in 4.2 innings.

It makes for an ugly stat line for Thorpe, but that’s more than a little misleading.

One very close pitch at the knees being called ball four instead of strike three was the difference between escaping the fifth inning relatively unscathed and getting the hook. He left the game with two runs across and bases loaded in the home half of the fifth inning, but all three baserunners came around to score after he departed.

Afterward, Arteaga agreed that Thorpe looked much better than his stat line would indicate.

“He got through two outs in the fifth inning, but just ran out of gas, unfortunately,” said Arteaga. “I think he deserved better. His line doesn’t say what he actually looked like. One thing is his line, but another thing is what he actually did and how he looked.

“He had poise. Obviously he needs a little work with the breaking ball but his fastball (command) isn’t going to be a problem. He throws the ball well. Being the first time and all, I think that I’m very pleased with what I saw.”

Arteaga was also happy with his first look at Romero since spring training in March.

Fernando Romero

Fernando Romero

“He’s got one of those arms that make you go, ‘wow,’ Arteaga said, adding that Romero throws, “94 to 99 (mph). He was able to throw a hard slider and a couple of them were sharp, especially against right-handed hitters. Coming over for the first time, I thought he looked really good.”

Arteaga, whose rotation has struggled at times through much of the season, was heartened by his first look at the new additions.

“It’s very encouraging, to have those two guys join the rotation – very encouraging for everybody because they showed that they will compete. They will throw it over and they’re going to be just fine, as advertised.

“I saw Romero and Thorpe during spring training. It was just basically a matter of time before they were going to join us and the time has come. They’re here and they’re doing really well.”

Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Ethan Mildren

Thorpe and Romero will form one-third of the Kernels’ six-man rotation going forward, joining four pitchers selected by the Twins in the 2013 First Year Player Draft: Kohl Stewart (1st round), Ryan Eades (2nd round), Aaron Slegers (5th round) and Ethan Mildren (12th round).

The Kernels, who sat in seventh place in the eight-team Western Division of the MWL coming out of the weekend, will get a chance to start over with a clean slate as the league divides their season in to two halves with the second half starting on Thursday, June 19, after next week’s MWL All-Star Game. – JC

‘ZONING’ With Kernels Pitching Coach Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga is in his first year serving as the Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach, but he’s far from being a rookie when it comes to working with young pitchers in the Twins organization.

After bouncing around the minor leagues for much of the 1990s with the Expos,  Rockies and Mets organizations, the Venezuela native began coaching young pitchers for the Twins organization in 2001 and he’s been helping to develop the organization’s young arms ever since.

Arteaga spent several years as the pitching coordinator for the Twins’ Venezuelan Academy and coached at both Rookie League levels before serving as the pitching coach for the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle a year ago. This season, he and Gary Lucas (the 2013 Kernels pitching coach) traded assignments, bringing Arteaga to Cedar Rapids.

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer share a light moment while watching a pair of Kernels pitchers work out. (Photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer share a light moment while watching a pair of Kernels pitchers work out. (Photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Several hours before game time, you can find Arteaga, often sporting a shirt with the word “ZONING” across the back, working with his pitchers in the Kernels bullpen down the right field line at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Recently, he agreed to sit down and talk about his work with the Kernels and the Twins organization.

First things first. What’s with the ZONING shirt?

“We’re trying to implement, as an organization, visualization, focus, concentration – actually throwing the ball to one spot without thinking how to throw the ball,” Arteaga answered.

The secret to doing that, according to the coach, is visualization.

“First, you know what you throw in certain situations and you know where you want to throw it, right? That should be how we pitch. Knowing your strengths and your weaknesses and how to apply that to the hitters’ tendencies.

Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga

“So zoning is basically, we’ve been working for the last couple of years on having the pitchers visualize the pitch before they throw it. OK I have an 0-0 count, I want to throw a breaking ball, I don’t want to throw it down in the dirt, I want to throw it for a strike. So I’ll visualize the pitch how I want to throw it.”

Arteaga was quick to point out, however, that it’s not a cookie-cutter approach to teaching pitching.

“Everybody’s doing it for the most part, (but) everybody has his own way of doing it. Getting in to the process of thinking about pitching, and throwing the ball; not thinking about the process of ‘how do I throw the ball? My mechanics are off, or this or that.’ You throw the way you throw and it’s kind of hard for us to change that.”

It’s not that pitchers don’t need to work on mechanics, of course, but those thoughts are ideally confined to the bullpen workout sessions. Pitchers can’t afford to be thinking about that kind of thing on the mound during games.

“You shouldn’t and if you’re doing that, then something’s wrong,” confirmed Arteaga.

While he’s an advocate for the Zoning philosophy, Arteaga doesn’t believe that simply subscribing to the approach will assure a young pitcher’s success.

“I don’t think that success will be dictated by the Zoning or by how you run or by how you lift or if you sleep enough or how heavy you are or how skinny you are,” said the coach.

“Success is a combination of all those factors, plus talent. Success is how you put together the whole package. Mental toughness and talent all together and you apply that in to the game.”

Arteaga has been entrusted this season with a number of the Twins organization’s top pitching prospects. Some were high draft choices, others highly coveted international signings, but the coach sees similarities in what each of the pitchers on his staff must overcome.

“Facing adversity,” Arteaga said. “Because that’s the main thing. The game is full of adversity. I’ve seen guys with a lot of talent, but they cannot get people out. And I’ve seen guys with lesser talent that are just great, because they’re mentally tough and they know how to apply their talent to the game and to the hitters’ tendencies.

“So, to say that the guys that are pitching well are doing the Zoning and the guys that are not are not doing it, I don’t think that would be very smart on my part. I think that everybody’s doing it, it’s just that this is a level where everybody’s so young and so inexperienced. There’s a lot of things they’re working on at the same time. Holding runners. Getting in a routine. Playing every day. Some of these guys just worked on Saturdays or Fridays. Now they come to the ballpark every day.”

While subscribing to the Zoning philosophy, in itself, won’t assure success, Arteaga believes there is one thing that a pitcher must develop.

“As a pitching coach, if I have to pinpoint to one thing that is going to make these guys succeed throughout the year, it’s mental toughness. Mental toughness is part of the Zoning. Mental toughness is part of who you are as a pitcher when adversity strikes. Adversity could be having a cold, you’re sick. Maybe homesick. That’s adversity. It’s just the way it is.”

It’s hard sometimes to imagine that such things can enter in to the mind of a professional ballplayer when he’s on the mound during a game but, said Arteaga, “It’ll be there. But how do you set your priorities straight, being able to put all that aside and go and perform?”

One thing you hear a lot about with pitchers spending their first year or two as professionals is that organizations try to limit the number of different pitches they work on in a given season. A pitcher who threw a variety of pitches in high school or college sometimes seems to focus on just a fastball and one variety of off-speed pitch early in his professional career.

Do the Twins or Arteaga take that approach with the Kernels’ pitchers?

There’s no one answer to that question, according to the coach. “Always depends on the player, always.”

Arteaga also doesn’t believe there’s a single right approach.

“If I tell you that there’s a philosophy out there that is successful, everybody would be doing it,” Arteaga said with a laugh.

“So everybody’s different and as a coach you have to fluctuate, not only man to man, player to player, but day by day. There are some days that will be cold, some days will be rainy. You have to learn to adjust to that and as a coach you have to let the guys pitch and learn.

“There are some days that the change up might not be there or the breaking balls won’t be there or they’re very good in the bullpen, but not so good on the mound. Or you see that they’ve had a bad week, headaches or something. And the day of the game, everything goes away and they have a great game.

“So this is baseball. There’s nothing set in stone. There’s nothing for you to do every day and you’re going to be successful. There’s no guidelines for that.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

For Arteaga, that means treating every player as an individual.

“As a coach, I’ve got to adjust to every single one of them and understand what they do and how they do it and how they can be successful by doing that.

“Now, yeah, we want to establish the fastball in and out, throw the ball down. We want them to have at least ten per cent change ups every day they throw, the starters, and about 15 per cent the sliders or curve. That’s what we do.

“It’s a very simple philosophy. Attack the hitters. Be athletic around the mound. Pitch inside. Throw the ball down and attack. Attack.”

Treating each player as an individual must be a challenge, given the widely varying backgrounds that pitchers at the Class A level have. Some were still pitching for their high schools a year ago, some were in college and some have been working their way up through a couple of years of short-season rookie leagues within the Twins organization.

Arteaga believes it’s important for him to demonstrate consistency in his approach, even as he works with players individually.

“Number one, I am the coach so I try to be the same every day, regardless of the score or regardless of what happened. I won’t panic. I won’t get too high or too low. If they see that in me, they understand that I am under control. I’m fine with what they’re doing.

“Now, if I pay enough attention, they will tell me what they need. Once I pay attention, and I get to know them and they get to know me, we establish a relationship. Then I can treat everybody in a different way.

“For the most part, yes, you have a standard. That’s who I am. I’m not going to be different to you than I’m going to be to them. That’s who I am.”

The individual approach enters during individual instruction, according to Arteaga.

“Now, how do I teach you? How do I approach the teaching part of it? That is different. You have different needs as a lefty than as a righty. Different needs as a starter than as a reliever. Different needs as a long reliever than as a closer. So, yes, I have to adjust to each and every one of them.”

Since Arteaga was working at the next level up in the organization, with the Miracle in Fort Myers, a year ago, he hadn’t had an opportunity to work much with this year’s crop of Kernels pitchers prior to spring training this year. That means they’ve had just a couple of months to get to know each other. Has that been enough time to establish those individual relationships?

“Yes, it’s all about paying attention. It’s all about spending the time with them. When you’re on the road, this is your family. You’re spending 14 hours on a bus ride in this class. You get to know them a little bit.

“I believe that they know me well. They know how I’m going to act and react and what I like and not only me, as a coach, but what the Twins want. I’m basically an extension of what the Twins philosophy is. Twins first, then yes, as a person, you put out your knowledge and experience and what you are and you try to teach them the way you teach.”

The speculation in the media and among others who follow the Twins minor leagues has been that the Twins had Arteaga and Lucas swap coaching assignments this season because the Twins knew they’d have a number of significant Latin American prospects on the Kernels’ staff and they may find  it helpful from a communication standpoint to have a Spanish-speaking pitching coach.

Arteaga isn’t certain that was really a significant factor, however.

“I don’t know if that’s the case,” observed Arteaga, concerning such speculation. “I guess that it’s got something to do with it. Obviously, the communication factor is important.

“Yeah, I think that helps, but at the same time, I think I have one half (of the pitching staff) that were born in the United States. They’re college guys, some of them are very good prospects. So I have to be able to teach baseball.

“Personally, I think that I can communicate with anyone. I’ve worked on my English for a long time and keep working on it. I prepare myself all the time to be able to communicate in both languages. Not only in baseball terms, but in life. Understand the culture, understand how Americans go about their everyday lives. I’ve spent half of my life learning that, because I was here, playing and coaching.”

Speaking of top prospects, his Kernels staff has a lot of them. Does he feel any additional pressure to make sure all of the high-priced pitching talent with the Kernels this summer progresses the way the Twins want?

“I feel motivation. I have a plan every day and I do my best every day so they can get better. I’m not pitching anymore, so I don’t have stress or sense of urgency because I do everything that I can every day to teach these guys how the game is, the game that we want them to pitch, the Minnesota Twins. So I have my own plan that I have learned over the last 14 years with the Twins.

“So to have guys, regardless of how much talent they have, to be able to coach them every day, that’s my motivation. If not, I wouldn’t be here. That’s what moves me every day, to have the motivation to teach somebody and to actually help them with the game and with life.”

Certainly, a coach like Arteaga must get a sense of satisfaction from seeing his pitchers succeed, though.

“You do,” Arteaga confirmed. Yet it isn’t just seeing pitchers advance through the ranks that gives him satisfaction.

“I think I get most satisfied when we make eye contact, regardless of the situation, that’s the best communication you can have with a human being.”

“I can talk to you all day,” Arteaga continued, “but when you’re pitching and I’m coaching and you pitch a good inning or a bad inning or a bad at-bat or something, and you walk in to the dugout or I go to the mound and there’s eye contact, you should know what is what and how I feel. That’s the relationship thing you create with the player, regardless of whether he’s going to be here for one day or ten days or 25 years. Because you care.”

Ivan Arteaga having a between-innings chat with Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

Ivan Arteaga having a between-innings chat with Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

Arteaga understands that’s not an aspect of the game that many outsiders can appreciate.

“People don’t see that. Fans don’t see that. Journalists don’t see that. TV cameras don’t see that. TV cameras will look at emotions and what is exciting for everybody. But as a coach when, for whatever reason, your team gave up 14 runs that night, then you make eye contact and you’re able to assure those guys, ‘you know what, it’s okay, it’s going to be fine, we’ll work on it.’”

The night before Arteaga sat for the interview, two Kernels pitchers had been victimized for a combined 12 runs. Can he communicate that kind of assurance to those guys after that kind of night?

“Of course, because that’s baseball, It’s every day,” assured Arteaga.

“Because what if I overreact last night and I tell them that they’re not good enough? Maybe because I don’t feel well. That’s me, but it’s not about me. It’s about them. So what if I overreact and I tell them they’re not good? The next thing you know, I’ve lost all that the staff had for me because I overreacted. So maybe apologizing might not be enough after that.

“So, I’m with them every pitch. Yeah, we lost a game, fine. Then today is a different day and make no mistake, these guys are going to work today to get better so they can pitch well tomorrow. It’s a 142 game season.”

Through the first week or so of May, Arteaga’s work with the Kernels is beginning to pay off. Two Kernels starters (Aaron Slegers and Kohl Stewart) are among the top 10 Midwest League pitchers in WHIP, two (Slegers and Ryan Eades) are in the top 10 in strikeouts and two more among the top 10 in saves (Hudson Boyd and the recently promoted Brandon Peterson). Nine Kernels pitchers have ERAs of 3.00 or below.