Peterson's success is no joke
Pitching coach uses humor to bring best out of Mets hurlers
NEW YORK -- Rick Peterson found his calling early.
No, not baseball -- though that's certainly been the Mets pitching coach's longtime love. Instead it was comedy, engrained by programs like the Red Skelton Show of his youth. A young Peterson would sit in front of the television and literally write down the punch lines.
And then he would use them.
"Many times in middle school, my teacher would walk out of the classroom," Peterson said. "She'd come back in and I'd be standing in front of the class telling jokes."
And he still is today, in a sense. Peterson has become arguably the game's most successful pitching coach -- turning water into wine, in the view of so many outsiders -- using his own mix of knowledge, comedy and a little organized chaos. He's transformed the Mets rotation from a massive question mark into an even bigger exclamation point, and he has done so in every which way but the norm.
"I'm truly disguised as a pitching coach," Peterson said. "I know pitching inside and out, I've studied pitching my whole life, but probably my real interest is helping people untap human potential."
John Maine needed some potential untapped when he first met Peterson in 2006. Maine was a former sixth-round Draft pick, a former top-100 prospect, but beyond that, nothing special. He didn't have the high-end velocity or the raw stuff of so many of his peers, his repertoire instead pegging him as a classic back-of-the-rotation guy.
Headed to New York in 2006 for his third taste of the big leagues, Maine was the owner of a 6.60 career ERA. And Peterson, ever the optimist, didn't care -- if he even noticed.
"It's like if you walk in the kitchen and you've got all these marvelous ingredients laying on the counter, but you don't know how to put those ingredients together and make a gourmet recipe out of it," Peterson said. "I'm looking at these ingredients and I'm saying, 'Wow, this is not scrambled eggs. You've got something much better than this.'"
That something much better has since transformed Maine into a rock. It's hard to say he's been a No. 1 -- not with Tom Glavine, Oliver Perez, Orlando Hernandez and Jorge Sosa all pitching tremendously -- but, frankly, he has been. Even on nights without his best stuff, Maine usually scrapes out enough to win, and he's tied for the team lead with six of them to date. Impressive, considering his best pitches have yet to make any hitter tremble.
Not so for Perez, who had the opposite problem heading into his tenure with the Mets. Perez had a reputation for nightmarish stuff, and an utter inability to harness it.
In his case, Peterson knew what to say, but not how to say it. So he did what any good pitching coach would do, and learned Spanish. Sort of.
"I'm still going to the 'Jose Reyes El Profesor School Academy,'" Peterson joked in reference to Shea's mid-inning language class. "I'm getting better. But because I can communicate in and not speak a language, it comes across comical as well -- I don't conjugate my verbs very well and I probably say things backwards. But the message is clear."
And that message has since transformed Perez from an erratic guessing game to a certifiable ace, his 70 strikeouts in 75 2/3 innings a testament to his dominance.
|"He's a psychology guy, you know, so he knows the inner workings of the mind."|
|-- Barry Zito, who worked with Rick Peterson in Oakland for four years|
Instead of peppering one side of the plate with basically two pitches, Glavine -- under Peterson's tutelage -- began expanding both the zone and his repertoire. And it's literally added years on to the back end of his career, arming him with new ways to attack hitters.
"He likens it to trying to play golf with one club," Glavine said. "He said I had all these other clubs, and I wasn't using them."
Three stories, three successes -- without even touching upon El Duque or Sosa. Those right-handers are turning their first full seasons in Queens into perhaps their best seasons, both a year removed from arguably their worst.
Peterson's dreamlike rate of success seems a carbon copy of his time in Oakland, when the pitching coach first grew his fame as the mentor of the Athletics' "Big Three" -- Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. The only difference is that those guys were all blue-chip prospects, expected to succeed. The Mets' rotation, meanwhile, was populated by two pitchers well past their primes, two with electric arms but no control, and one who was considered for some time to be just plain average.
Not anymore. All five have seen a revolution this summer, and together, they've hovered among the top five rotations in all of baseball in terms of ERA.
Peterson's secret is molding his approach to fit with the personality of each pitcher. Relying on analogies and jokes, mostly, he's managed to wriggle his way into his pitchers' lives and use that knowledge to help them learn.
With Glavine, for example, it's all about golf, and the two liken everything to a day at the links. With Perez, it's the comedy of Peterson's futile Spanglish. For everyone, the basic message is identical, but no two pitchers hear it quite the same way.
"He's a psychology guy, you know, so he knows the inner workings of the mind," said Zito, who flourished in his four years under Peterson. "He's one of the best, for sure."
The Mets saw him that way, first plucking him from the A's in 2003, then last winter extending his deal through 2009. And while Peterson was worried at first that the Mets wouldn't take to him -- he refuses to consider himself, and rightfully so, a "baseball guy" -- his knowledge of pitching alone was more than enough to win them over.
Peterson recalls some sideways looks and odd glances when he first began hanging around the Mets clubhouse, but few of those lingered beyond the first few lessons with his new crew. His numbers made sense, even if his methods did not, and the trust he developed then has fostered the success he's developing now.
After all, he's used to sideways looks and odd glances. He likely earned his fair share back in middle school, telling those jokes in front of the whole class.
But now, that quirky personality fits right in. And Peterson, too, got his thrill a couple of years ago, when who else but Jerry Seinfeld -- another of the young comedian's idols -- stepped into the Mets clubhouse prior to throwing out a ceremonial first pitch.
Peterson gawked. Seinfeld gawked. And baseball and comedy met once again.
"He goes, 'Ahh, Rick, I got to tell you I'm such a big fan,'" Peterson said. "I go, 'You're a big fan? Are you kidding me?'"
For once, he wasn't.
It was a chance encounter, but one that stuck with Peterson, who values his understanding of people far more than his understanding of pitching. And he sees humor -- a universal joy -- as one of the many keys toward achieving just that.
The Mets, in turn, see a coach who's galvanized their staff, and they're plenty happy with the results -- regardless of the means. They see his wild success as a sound investment. Peterson sees it as an expected payoff.
And fans see it as something of a miracle.
"If you look at it from the outside, it appears that way," Peterson said. "But if you look at it from the inside, it's really not at all. These guys were so close with what they were already doing, and they were just lost."
And now, it seems, they're finally found.
Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.