Spring training 2024: Meet MLB's oldest, wildest pitching coach

Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

LESS THAN FOUR months after the Arizona Diamondbacks' postseason run ended with a World Series loss to the Texas Rangers, baseball's oldest pitching coach is back in his comfort zone, instructing his pitching staff as he walks the backfields of spring training.

His body might someday tell him it has had enough, but that time hasn't yet arrived for 75-year-old Brent Strom, and with a freshly signed two-year contract, his entire focus is on getting the D-backs one step further than the team went in November.

"I've been conditioned to lose the World Series," Strom said between Brandon Pfaadt pitches during live batting practice one recent morning. "I've lost three of them. All three on our home field. Watching the other team celebrate on our home field is doubly painful.

"I'm like the Buffalo Bills."

Though Strom is now 1-3 in World Series appearances -- having previously made three trips with the Houston Astros -- there is little doubt that Arizona's playoff magic would have run out earlier than it did without his deft touch in handling such an inexperienced group.

The Diamondbacks were powered by stellar performances from starters Pfaadt, Merrill Kelly and Zac Gallen, along with a parade of unheralded relievers, including Ryan Thompson, Kevin Ginkel and Andrew Saalfrank, silencing the powerful bats of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies on their way to the National League pennant. But the pain of falling short on the sport's biggest stage yet again kept Strom from reveling in his fourth World Series in seven years.

"It's imperative that we realize there was some luck involved last year and we got hot at the right time," he said. "I don't want this to be a one-and-out type of thing."

Using that as motivation, Strom immediately turned his focus to 2024, skipping his annual offseason trip to Europe in favor of working at a baseball clinic in Cuba and setting up Zoom calls with his pitchers to find new ways to come back even better this season.

"I've always gone with the idea of trial and error," Strom said. "If it doesn't work, we try something different. You need an open mindset and a highly competitive nature. Heard that from Tom Brady. You have to keep evolving."

Aside from a rare mound visit gone wrong -- like the one that saw Corey Seager hit a World Series Game 3 home run that helped Texas take control of the series -- nowhere is Strom's mentality on display more than when he strides out to the mound to calm a pitcher in the most anxious moments of a game, regular or postseason.

"He's very direct," Pfaadt said. "He's very firm. Sometimes he'll come out there and give you a nice squeeze on the arm, let you know it's not a dream. He'll say 'I want you to do this' and usually if you execute then you have success."

FOUR DECADES BEFORE he was making World Series mound visits, Strom was coaching in the Dodgers system when conversations with Sandy Koufax helped crystallize the overriding principle that has shaped his career: A rising fastball is better than any sinker, even as the latter pitch was spreading across the sport.

"Koufax made me realize all we are, are controlled throwers," Strom said. "We're not pitchers. The best way to ruin a pitcher is to make him a pitcher. ... If I get an 18-year-old Koufax, an 18-year-old [Dwight] Gooden and an 18-year-old Bob Feller, you want me to teach them sinkers? They're born doing f---ing this." He shot his hand out to indicate a fastball.

"As Koufax once said, do you know who throws sinkers? People that can't throw fastballs."

But not everyone was ready for Strom's forward-thinking philosophy. Between 1996 and 2005, he made stops with the Astros, Kansas City Royals, San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos before finding himself completely out of the game.

Without a baseball job, Strom helped his wife open a dog grooming business in Tucson, Arizona -- he had gone from discussing pitching with the best left-hander in MLB history to caring for pets.

"I was cleaning dingleberries. ... That was my job," Strom said. "I was washing dogs."

But soon after, then-St. Louis Cardinals executive Jeff Luhnow gave Strom a chance to work with the Cardinals' minor league pitchers -- but only their minor leaguers, according to the coach. Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan had all of the say when it came to pitchers already playing in St. Louis, and they weren't looking for differing philosophies. Duncan preached sinkers -- Strom believed in rising four-seamers.

"I was not received very well by La Russa or Duncan," Strom said. "If it was up to them, I would have been fired after a year. In fact, they told me I was only allowed to work with the kids in the Dominican or Low-A, no one higher."

"[In one meeting] they asked if anyone knows the batting average on ground balls compared to fly balls," he said. "The comment was made that ground balls are .233 and fly balls are .407. So I raised my hand and said, 'Is a line drive considered a fly ball?' They said yes. I said, 'That's bulls---.' A line drive is .700. A real fly ball is .233 and a ground ball is .231.

"I got over my skis a little bit on that one."

Though the Cardinals went in another direction after run-ins like that, Luhnow continued to believe in Strom's message -- and upon getting the GM job in Houston, he hired the then 64-year-old as the Astros' pitching coach.

With Strom guiding one of MLB's top pitching staffs, the Astros won the World Series in 2017 and became a perennial playoff team. But after losing in the World Series in 2021, he decided it was time to move on.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself," Strom said. "Heaviest is the head that wears the crown. Winning in Houston became expected. I was living and dying by the whole thing."

That's when the Diamondbacks called, offering an appealing opportunity: a new challenge, closer to home and a chance to bring his philosophy to a new group of pitchers.

"Brent Strom brought a new glossary, a new pitching glossary," manager Torey Lovullo said. "And he's the architect of what we do every single day on the mound.

"There's a fire in his belly, at 70-plus years old, that I hope we all have. The language changed immediately. The focus as to what we needed to do, pitch to pitch, batter to batter and game to game changed instantly."

Asked what Lovullo meant by a language change, Strom reeled off a few of his favorite terms: "Top-shelf cutters. Elevated fastballs. Stay out of the honey hole."

These were more than just buzzwords; Strom brought a philosophy that resonated with a younger group of pitchers eager to experience big league success.

"Three things impact the outcome of the game most," Strom explained. "Win the battle of three: Throw two of the first three pitches for strikes. Secondly, eliminate or shut down the amount of hard-hit balls. And create chases. Get hitters to chase at balls."

His pitchers nod their heads when reminded of Strom's intense but caring attitude and point to his tireless work ethic as key to gaining their trust. Strom is seemingly always thinking about pitching, sending a middle-of-the-night message to reliever Joe Mantiply while vacationing in Europe and a Christmas Eve note to Merrill Kelly with some holiday reading material about hitters' numbers against him on a certain pitch.

"I haven't been around a pitching coach that works as hard as he does," Mantiply said. "It's nothing to get a text or email at 3 in the morning. He's always looking for ways to get better. I don't know if he sleeps."

THE OCTOBER SUCCESS of Arizona and Houston under Strom has been a victory for the style he has spent so much of his career spreading. The D-backs, like the Astros before them, dominated the top of the zone last postseason.

"For my whole career, I was told [because] I don't have velocity ... make sure you throw the ball down and away, and then we realized that if you throw the ball up in the zone it's going to work a lot better," Arizona closer Paul Sewald said. "He's a huge proponent of rising fastballs and sweeping sliders."

Strom's guidance isn't without hiccups -- Madison Bumgarner was released last year after posting a 10.26 ERA. And there's the occasional salty moment, according to Diamondbacks pitching strategist and former major league pitcher Dan Haren.

"I can sense how things are going during a game to whether I'm going to get a text or call afterwards," Haren said. "He's really emotional. I'm OK with being the punching bag and then giving back info in a way we can all get better and grow from it.

"And he can be funny."

That sense of humor perhaps was never more apparent than in Strom's most memorable mound visit. In a game at Yankee Stadium while working for the Royals, he went to the mound to talk with pitcher Dan Reichert.

"He walked two guys in a row on eight pitches," Strom recalled. "I didn't know what to say to him, we need to get [Jorge] Posada out. I said, 'Dan, you have to get him out fast.' And he said, 'Why?' I said, 'Because I have to take a s---.' He started laughing. The catcher started laughing. I knew I had him right there. He said three or less pitches. I said make it two or less. I turned around and in front of 50,000 fans ... I waddled off the mound.

"And the SOB threw a sinker for a double play. Probably my greatest mound visit ever."

The master of mound visits, indeed. Preparing for another season of them isn't easy but Strom is committed to 2024 and he's still happy doing what he's doing.

"The body will accommodate the goal that's required," Strom said, seemingly referring to himself as much as his pitchers. "I don't know how much further I want to do this but there is some unfinished business here. That's why I came back."