New Arizona pitching coach Brent Strom faces herculean task

PHOENIX – By trade, Brent Strom is a pitching coach but looks like he will add “magician” to his resume. That’s because Strom, named Thursday as pitching coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks, inherits a staff marginal in talent, and woeful in execution.

His immediately job is to make one of the worst staffs in major league baseball competitive and help secure the future. Now, Strom receives a starting rotation with several openings and a bullpen which was clearly “missing in action” during the 2021 season. With no defined roles in the bullpen and no closer on the horizon, Strom will have to work with what Mike Hazen, the club’s general manager, provides.

For now, there are a few immediate priorities, and these fall in the column of analytics. In 2021, the Arizona pitching staff was 30th in the major leagues in fastball velocity and next from the bottom in pitches low in the strike zone.

Strom comes from a recently remarkable Houston Astros organization and a club that qualified for post-season play in six of the past seven seasons. Under his guidance, Dallas Keuchel (2015) and Justin Verlander (2019) captured the American League Cy Young awards. Strom also aided in the development of Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers, and recently, Framber Valdez.

Since his early days in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Strom, now at 73-years-old, began drifting toward analysis. Huddling with greats like Sandy Koufax, Larry Sherry, and Don Drysdale, he began discussions on elevated fastballs and how pitchers induce contact.

“Now, that changed,” he said late Thursday on a Zoom call with Arizona reporters. “The needle has moved away from strictly the analytical side. My job now as pitching coach is to put the strike zone in a horizontal position rather than vertical. The objective is not to get strikeouts but induce ground balls. The key to pitching success, I believe, is the elevated fastball and D-backs pitchers struggled in that area last season.”

Since he began serious discussions with the Arizona organization, Strom told reporters he has reached out to starters in the effort of education and acquaintance. Now, he plans a similar dialogue with relievers.

After a run of eight seasons as pitching coach for the Astros, Strom said he began to feel the stress of winning. The need to be successful at every level of post-season play became a psychological burden and quietly began to tell Houston officials he seriously contemplated retirement after the 2021 season.

“I had the feeling that it was time to move on,” he said. “So, I went home to Tucson and began thinking, ‘I miss the game’ and wanted to get back. The Diamondbacks called, and in fact, they were the only team that called. If Arizona had an interest, I had an interest.”

The issue was World Series participation. As soon as the Braves took down the Astros in six games, Strom said he had enough. Then, Torey Lovullo, the Diamondbacks’ field manager, called and the rest, as they say, is history.

“(Strom) checked all the boxes,” Lovullo said on that Zoom call Thursday. “He is more than captivating and know he will make us better. We hit the jackpot with (Strom).”

There is no question Strom arrives in the desert with impressive credentials. As teacher and mentor, he is well respected in the game, and the Astros thrived. From 2018 until 2021, Houston ranked among Major League leaders in strikeouts (first), quality starts, first), ERA (second), and opponent batting average (second).

“There is talent here,” Strom pointed out. “The talent level will determine where we will go this year.”

Yet, the “talent level” is marginal at best, and Strom, Lovullo, Hazen, and the organization will likely stand out at home plate in Chase Field, waving their magician’s hat and hope something comes out of their collective bags of tricks. That’s something not presently available to this group of decision-makers.

Elsewhere … with the trend in recent years to have a hitting coach and assistant coach, the same can be said on the pitching side. After he was named pitching coach, Strom told reporters he would like another set of eyes. In that regard, he will lobby for an assistant pitching coach to sit along in the dugout. That is a similar situation as in Houston. There, Josh Miller and Bill Murphy aided in Strom’s direction of the staff …

After former Diamondbacks’ lefty Robbie Ray captured the 2021 American League Cy Young award, Lovullo, his former manager in Arizona, was not surprised.

“We saw what he could do in 2017,” Lovullo said. “He made some mechanical changes, and we knew he was capable of big things.”

In 2017, Ray went 15-5 with the Diamondbacks and recorded a 2.89 ERA. He finished seventh in the voting for the National League Cy Young award. … with a history with reliever Chris Devinski, Strom said he would like to bring back the 30-year-old to the major leagues. Devinski was an important part of Strom’s Houston bullpen for five years and went 1-0 (eight games, 8.59 ERA) during an injury-plagued 2021 season. Last month, Devenski signed a minor league contract with Arizona.

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