Neil Allen will return as Minnesota Twins pitching coach in 2017. Expect to see more Tampa Bay Rays influence as a result.
Allen spent eight years coaching in the Rays system before coming to the Twin Cities prior to the 2015 season. He’s already incorporated a changeup philosophy since his arrival. The next steps — based on a conversation I had with him this summer — will likely include an increased emphasis on fastball command at the minor-league level.
Allen shared with me his thoughts on pitcher development, including how certain philosophies were implemented in his old organization. Given the success the Rays have had bringing quality arms to the big leagues, it should come as no surprise that he’d like to see many of them embraced within the Twins system.
Allen on process and reports in Tampa Bay: “The philosophies come from the higher-ups. The general manager, the manager, and the pitching coordinator would get together and start the program. It would be explained to the coaches and we’d take it to the field. It was up to us — it became our responsibility — and if we didn’t see improvement in individuals, well, we had to answer to that. Why isn’t this guy getting better?
“After every game, there would be reports to fill out. We would report on consistency, on strikes, on location, on arm action. They would get those reports in Tampa Bay every night. They could see the amounts and percentages, as well as our comments on things like the depth of the breaking balls, the movement and arm speed on the changeups, the location of the fastballs. I don’t know exactly what they would do with the data, but every pitch that was thrown in the minor-league system that night was recorded.”
On developmental priorities: “We made a commitment to fastball command. The first thing out of the gate, for a kid down in the Gulf Coast League, was to be able to throw your fastball for strikes. That was the philosophy. Once you could do that, we could bring you along through the system.
“On your side day, you’d have about 35-40 pitches. In A-ball, you had to throw five of 10. In Double-A, it was six of 10. In Triple-A, it was seven of 10. If you couldn’t do it, roll it; do it again. And if you don’t figure it out in those four opportunities, you don’t throw your breaking ball or your changeup. You have to throw your fastball for strikes, because without fastball command, there is no breaking ball or changeup.
“In games, the focus was on being able to work the four quadrants of the plate. Up and in, down and away, up and away, down and in. Keep people off the plate, change eye levels. And you had to be able to throw that fastball. A lot of kids guide the ball — they don’t let it go — and you have to establish, with commitment, that four-seam fastballs to both sides. Once they had that down, we’d teach the two-seamer.”
On velocity and strikeouts: “We didn’t talk about velocity as much. It was more about location. We felt that if you had the release point down and were locating, and you were young and going to get bigger and stronger, the velocity would come. In the mean time, we wanted a consistent release point and strikes.
“Strikeouts will come. They depend on the person’s stuff, but also on location. You get guys who come up with big arms and they’re just throwing for the sake of throwing. You’ve got to locate. At the major-league level, everything is location. You can be 96-97, but the strikeouts aren’t going to be there if you can’t locate. Hitters up here are paid to hit 96-97. They do hit 96-97.”
On changeup ratios: “You had to throw a certain percentage of changeups. I forget what they were, but A-ball had a percentage, Double-A had a percentage, Triple-A had a percentage. That was basically for our starters, but if a reliever was working on something, he had a ratio also.
“The changeup is a pitch I’m a huge monster on. Over in the Tampa Bay system, we were big on changeups. I love the pitch, and it was proven to us when I came over. The year before I got here, we had nine double plays off of changeups. Last year, we threw our changeup 333 more times than the previous year, and we had 42 double plays on changeups. That’s at the big-league level. I think those numbers are right. They’re at least in the neighborhood.
“So, I love the changeup. Of course, you have to throw it at the proper time, with good arm speed, good arm action, and you have to be able to sell it. You also have to be able to throw it behind in the count. That was huge when I was in Tampa Bay — being able to throw your offspeed when you were behind in the count. And I love the changeup righty-on-righty, and lefty-on-lefty. For many years, you didn’t have pitchers doing that. In Tampa Bay, we employed that tremendously.”
On cutters and taking away pitches: “The cutter was a pitch we’d talk to kids about if they didn’t have depth on their breaking ball. We knew they needed something that would move in the zone a little bit if their fastball was real straight, or they couldn’t figure out a slider or a curveball. We would make sure we taught them a cutter, because they needed something with movement. Usually, those kinds of guys were relief pitchers, because they didn’t have a pitch they could throw behind in the count. They were two-pitch pitchers and went to the bullpen. If we had a guy with three or four pitches, with the potential to throw them for strikes, he was in a starting rotation.
“We would [take away pitches]. We would take away a two-seamer, take away a slider, take away a curveball. Whatever it was that we felt was hindering a guy’s development. We wanted to make him steady on a pitch. Maybe he had a curveball and a slider, and one of them was struggling. We would eliminate that one, and focus on the other to make sure he got it over. And again, commanding the fastball has to be the priority.”
On pitching inside and above the zone: “I’m big on pitching inside for effect. In the major leagues, if you let guys get comfortable, they’ll eat you alive. You need to take charge of both sides, especially the inside. Kids today — hitters — are bigger and stronger than they were 20 years ago, so you need to do everything you can to make them uncomfortable.
“We would track how often our guys went inside. And there’s a difference between inside and inside effect. We recorded both. You have to work both sides. Some right-handers can’t get in to lefties, and some left-handers can’t get in to righties. You’ll see that even at the major-league level. Guys have trouble with that. Those are things you look for. Sometimes guys get it in there, but they guided it. Their velocity went from 92 to 88, because they weren’t throwing it. You have to throw with conviction, or it defeats the purpose of going up and in to get a guy off the plate.
“You need to change eye levels, so yes, we teach [working up and over the zone]. But at the same time, we don’t want them to get away from what their primary zone is. You want them to be able to work down. So you really don’t do that until they get to the upper levels. And you let them understand why. Maybe it’s ‘I have more carry, more life up there.’ Recognize who your hitters are. A lot of times, guys can’t get on top of a pitch. You’ve got a good fastball — you’re 95-96-97 — with a little bit of rise, late. That’s when you want to use that. But you don’t really do it at the lower levels; you do it at the upper levels.”
On patience and sport psychology: “You need to be patient. A kid needs to develop consistency. He’s down at a lower level for a reason. You don’t push a kid just because he had a good month or two. You make sure he’s consistent enough that he can get it done when you do move him up. If you don’t — if you move him along too quick — he might try to do too much and you end up having to move him back down. It can be detrimental to a kid when you rush him.
“We did [have a sport psychologist]. We would leave the door open for the player most of the time. We didn’t want to force anything on him. But if we felt a player had a commitment to a pitch he wasn’t sure of… there’s got to be a reason. Why are you not throwing that pitch? Why are you not throwing up and in? Why are you not committed to that breaking ball? If you bounce it, you bounce it. Throw it, don’t guide it. Basically, if we saw something, a flaw — maybe a thought process he had a block on — we’d incorporate the sport psychologist.”
On incorporating change in Minnesota: “I’m still relatively new to the organization. I’ve been here less than two years. You don’t come into an organization thinking, ‘I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.’ I wanted to bide my time and observe. I wanted to watch guys come up from the minor-league system and see how they performed once they got here. How does what they learned play at the major-league level?
“So, there are a few things here and there, which is the case in every organization. But again, I didn’t want to come in and be that guy. I didn’t want to be, ‘We’re going to this, we’re going to that.’ As time went on, I could start pointing to things. If I’m back next year, I have some things I’d like to see. Absolutely.”