HOUSTON— “Do you know what Kirk looks like?”
This wasn’t technically a lie. Brandie Davidson, from TCU’s media relations department, had told pitching coach Kirk Saarloos to expect me to come down from the press box to the stands for an interview at some point during his downtime at the Houston College Classic, and she wanted to make sure I could find him.
Did I know what he looked like? Sure, he was a normal-looking thirtysomething white guy with brown hair and a beard. Was I confident I could pick him out of a crowd of thousands at Minute Maid Park, in street clothes? Absolutely not. Guys who pitched seven years in the big leagues don’t get more normal-looking than Kirk Saarloos.
On Saturday night, Brandie led me down to where TCU’s coaches were sitting, and I introduced myself to a man who looks like your seventh-grader’s favorite social studies teacher, the one who can get the hyperactive kids to sit still in class and uses basketball metaphors to explain mercantilism and chaperones the winter semi-formal.
Only Saarloos doesn’t teach middle schoolers about social studies, he teaches college kids how to pitch, and he’s really good at it.
That Saarloos is possibly the hottest assistant coach in college baseball would’ve been a lot less surprising 15 years ago than the fact that he spent parts of seven years in the major leagues. Since the strike, 563 men have pitched 500 or more major league innings, and among them, Saarloos has the 14th-lowest K/9 ratio in that time.
Even when he was in the majors, people talked about Saarloos’s stature and fastball velocity in polite, euphemistic, almost patronizing terms, like he’d overcome some sort of tragedy.
From the 2003 Baseball Prospectus Annual: “Saarloos moved out of the bullpen last year and shot through the system despite a fastball that only runs in the mid-80s. However, all of his pitches have good movement and he keeps batters off stride with pinpoint command and an uncanny knack for changing speeds.”
From the 2007 Baseball Prospectus Annual: “(A’s GM Billy) Beane knows that a pitcher who walks as many batters as he strikes out is always walking a tightrope. Most teams will give a player with some history of success enough rope to hang himself, but given the A’s thin margin between success and failure, if the A’s do that, they might be hanging themselves, too. Don’t be surprised if Saarloos turns into a pumpkin and costs the A’s a few games before he’s sent away.”
Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano, who was Saarloos’ pitching coach at Cal State Fullerton, and later, as Fullerton’s head coach, hired Saarloos as an assistant: “For a guy who threw 84-86 with unbelievable movement, he had more success than you’d think he would as an undersized righthander.”
Saarloos himself: “I felt like I was a college pitcher that was just lucky enough and worked hard enough and I made the big leagues. I always felt like I was a college-type player.”
From the 2009 Baseball Prospectus Annual: “We’re as surprised as you are that Kirk Saarloos has gotten 500 big-league innings.”
TCU makes it three in a row with a 5-1 win over UTA on Tuesday. Check out highlights from the game.https://t.co/FgkiX8iEpt— TCU Baseball (@TCU_Baseball) March 9, 2016
BP got it right—after 26 1/3 lackluster innings for Oakland in 2008, Saarloos was done as a major leaguer. He spent another year at Triple-A, was released, and for the first time in his adult life, found himself with nothing to do during baseball season.
“I think he had a sour taste in his mouth after he’d gotten released and his career was over,” Serrano said. “He was up in Washington living with his in-laws. I was at Fullerton at the time, and we were going up to play (Washington). Kirk and I had stayed in touch, so I reached out to him and I said, ‘Hey, I want you to come out. We’ll bring a uniform out, we’ll suit you up and I want you to be in the dugout this weekend when we come out.’ ”
Saarloos did, and in 2011, Serrano made another call.
“I said, ‘If a general manager told you that if you went all the way down to rookie ball and spent a year in rookie ball, you’d be in the big leagues the rest of your life, would you do that?’ ” Serrano said. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I think that’s what’s going to happen here. If you come back and finish your degree as a student assistant, I’m almost going to promise you that after a year, it’s going to be hard for me to keep you around here because so many people are going to be after you as a pitching coach.’ ”
At the end of that season, Serrano left for Tennessee, and when Rick Vanderhook was promoted to head coach, he made Saarloos his pitching coach. After a year in that position, Saarloos left for TCU, where he’s put his own imprint on what has become, under his tutelage, one of the premier pitching staffs in the country.
Saarloos’ pitchers at TCU have been incredibly diverse, from short lefties like Brandon Finnegan to mammoth righthanders like Mitchell Traver and Luken Baker, with every kind of arsenal, delivery and body type in between.
“I think the big thing that I try to do is, I want them to be who they are. I don’t want them to be something that they’re not,” Saarloos said. “So we go back right when they get on campus and try to do a good job figuring out what works for them. How can we figure out a way to make it even better? So there’s not one thing that we do for every guy. If you take the personality out of the pitcher, I think you take away a little bit of why you recruited him in the first place.”
Come to think of it, he might have been a good middle school teacher if that was what he’d wanted to do.
“His way of talking and relaying things I think is very attracting,” Serrano said. “I only coached Kirk, I never played for Kirk, but I’m sure his pitchers have a ton of respect for him. They like him, Kirk’s … kind of got this cool swagger about him. I’m sure that’s something that’s very appealing to his pitching staff.”
“He’s a great coach, one of the best I’ve had,” Baker said. “He’s just like the pitching coach I had growing up. He knows his stuff, and he keeps all of us on point and locked into what we’re doing. Everything we do as a staff is all credited to him.”
But style isn’t worth anything from a coaching perspective unless it can be put to work driving home a teaching point. That teaching point, for Saarloos, is a variation on the tune every pitching coach in North America sings: Above all else, throw strikes.
“When I was afraid of contact, that’s when I really, really got hit around,” Saarloos said. “You just basically have to go out there and, no matter if you’re 88 or 98, you have to have the ability to trust your stuff, trust who you are, and go out and just compete and see where it ends up.”
That’s an easy thing to say, but a hard thing to deliver. In Saarloos’ first year in Fort Worth, the Horned Frogs were 13th nationally in ERA and 10th in K/BB ratio. In 2014, they led the nation in ERA and finished second in K/BB ratio, and in 2015, they finished second in both ERA and K/BB ratio.
“We’ve always pitched well, but obviously, we were first in the nation in ’14, second in the nation last year, and so he inherited some really good pitchers, but he also helped those guys go to another level,” TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “This is his biggest challenge, as it’s all of our biggest challenge, and he’s done a phenomenal job with it.”
Saarloos’ message comes from growing up as a pitcher and young coach under George Horton, Serrano and Vanderhook at Fullerton (the de facto capital of command and control pitching in college baseball — Vanderhook’s Titans led the country in K/BB ratio each of the past three years) and lessons learned the hard way in the big leagues.
“Too many times in the first part of my career, I was looking at the name on the back of the jersey, saying, ‘I know Sammy Sosa from watching him on ESPN and now I’m facing him,’ ” Saarloos said. “As soon as that wore off I was able just to pitch and trust what got me there. That’s the biggest thing, consistency and trust, once you do get there.”
Trust is an important refrain for Saarloos — his trust in his pitchers, their trust in him, their trust in their own stuff.
“We really emphasize that and do different things that try and create better strike-throwers, but ultimately it’s about the kids, and going out and the big thing is trust,” Saarloos said. “I think most great strike-throwers have trust — you talk about Thomas Eshelman, he only threw 88-90. You talk about trust…”
Serrano recruited Saarloos out of Valley Christian High School in Cerritos, Calif., a small school that, according to Baseball Reference, has only produced three professional baseball players, including Saarloos. At Valley Christian, Saarloos was a multi-sport athlete who wowed Serrano with his command and ability to induce weak contact.
“He missed barrels. Guys never got good swings on him and he missed barrels a lot,” Serrano said. “It was something that we recruited to. I was in charge of that at that time, and there were certain guys that lit my eyes up more than others. I’d rarely go out there with a radar gun when I recruited. It was about what I saw with feel for the baseball.”
Athleticism, courage and intelligence are must-haves for command righthanders, particularly six-footers who don’t throw hard.
“Does this guy have some deception? Does he have some movement? And more importantly does he throw strikes?” Serrano said. “And that was one thing that Kirk did. He could pitch to both sides of the plate, he was always down in the zone, he had an unbelievable changeup — he just had a great feel. He was a great fielder on the mound, he could stop the running game — he was just an all-around complete pitcher in every way.”
Compare Serrano’s description of Saarloos to what Saarloos says about the kind of pitchers he tries to recruit.
“Obviously everybody wants velocity, but so does Major League Baseball,” Saarloos said. “So I think you have to have a guy who, in my opinion, has to have a really, really good secondary pitch, hopefully a swing-and-miss pitch. And if he doesn’t have the velocity, then you’ve got to see him over and over and over again. Some guys’ velocity might not be very good, but the hitter tells you it’s decent. I think the big thing is just trying to get a guy who has some pitchability, but also a really good arm swing. If you find those guys, they’re really good.”
And here’s Schlossnagle after Brian Howard shut down Louisiana-Lafayette in Houston.
“Our pitching coach, Kirk Sarloos, he does as good a job as anyone,” Schlossnagle said. “He taught (Howard) that little cutter/slider-type pitch that he’s able to manipulate to both sides of the plate, to both right- and lefthanded hitters, so that’s really set him apart.”
Trust, consistency, ability to use the whole plate—these are skills made possible by a combination of innate athleticism and meticulous study.
“I think part of it’s recruiting. You’ve got to recruit guys that know their body, can repeat their mechanics, and are going to able to be good strike throwers,” Saarloos said. “The other hard thing is making an emphasis to them on Day One that, look, your catch play on a daily basis needs to be — you need to get information back every time you throw a baseball. It’s not just getting your arm loose. So we pay real close attention in our catch play throughout the year, because you only get on the mound maybe two times, three times a week—what are you going to do the other days?”
For a high school pitcher with designs on playing pro baseball — and if you’ve got the kind of national championship aspirations TCU has, you’re going to need a few of those — choosing whether to go to college, and if so, which one, includes two major questions on top of the list of concerns all high schoolers have about college: Will I develop? And will I get hurt?
Saarloos sees his own MLB experience as a powerful tool to get his own players a shot at the big leagues, and he’s cognizant of how the long-term goals of college coaches are sometimes at odds with their players’. Unpleasant as it is to talk about, most major programs operate under the cloud of a high draft pick in the past 10 to 15 years who blew out his arm after one 130-pitch start too many, or an emergency relief appearance on short rest in a regional game.
In 2001, Cal State Fullerton made the College World Series as the No. 1 overall seed in part because of a now-legendary performance by Saarloos himself. A relief pitcher his first three years of college, Saarloos moved to the rotation while still splitting the closer’s role with freshman Chad Cordero. Saarloos made 18 starts as a senior, including seven complete games, plus seven more relief appearances for a total of: “153 innings, is that (it)?” Saarloos interjected with a laugh halfway into a question about his usage pattern as a senior.
“I would close on Friday as a bullpen (session) and start on Sunday, and I felt the effects of that later on,” Saarloos said. “For me, that’s the first thing I think about when I get to the field every day.”
Saarloos missed the second half of the 2004 season after surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow, and his career essentially ended in 2009 while he was back on the DL for elbow tendinitis.
That might sound like the cost of doing business for a pitcher, but the temptation to overuse a pitcher to his own detriment is one of the greatest temptations a college coach faces.
“The greatest thing is when a coach looks a family in their eyes and says, ‘Hey, we can’t guarantee that he’s going to be an All-American or a big leaguer, but we’re gonna look after him for the next four years,’ and that’s sincere,” Saarloos said. “It’s not just lip service. Obviously we’re here to win games, but ultimately we’re trying to develop young men and get them to the big leagues, so we know there’s a lot more innings coming out of that arm when they leave here.”
What those pitchers do with those innings is even more important — if a pitcher isn’t any good, it doesn’t matter if he’s healthy.
“The big thing from college to professional baseball is you can get away with a decent pitch in college baseball where guys will chase it,” Saarloos said. “You’re not going to have success when you start getting into the higher echelons of the minor leagues in professional baseball if you only have a trick pitch for guys to swing at out of the zone. For me it’s all based off of commanding and using both sides of the plate with the fastball. You have to be able to get really, really good hitters out within the strike zone to be successful in the big leagues.”
After two years of riding elite pitching to Omaha, the expectations are extremely high for TCU, even after losing five pitchers to the draft coming into this year. Among the departures is Preston Morrison, a Saarloos favorite now in the Cubs organization.
“We were similar, so I think he had the same makeup and temperament and thought processes as I did, so it’s fun,” Saarloos said. “It’s fun to coach a four-time All-American, right? I’ll take a couple more of those.”
This year, Saarloos is charged with creating his next Morrison, either out of an elite recruit like Baker, or a less conventional prospect.
“I think the big thing is we don’t have that guy that you hang your hat on and say, ‘Wow, that guy’s 94-97, and it’s 2-0. Let’s just throw a fastball, because we’re going to beat them with velocity,’ ” Saarloos said. “There’s a bunch of ways to beat hitters, and I think the guys are figuring out how to do that in terms of moving the ball around and changing speeds. It’s going to look different — it’s not as sexy, but for me, I think it’s actually even more fun than in years past.”
Which shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s another chance to teach.