Chew on this statistic a minute.
Oregon lefthander David Peterson has struck out 107 batters this season . . . and walked six. That ratio – efficiency, in neon lights – is best in the nation by a couple of laps, and is one reason Peterson also ranks among the Division I leaders with nine victories. This, by a junior who had occasional command issues his first two years.
It’s a full-blown reboot in confidence, and no wonder. The "Pitcher Whisperer" is in the house.
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That’s what Oregon head coach George Horton has been known to call his new pitching guru, Jason Dietrich. Consider Dietrich’s resume. Former pitching coach at Cal State Fullerton, and guess which team led the nation in strikeout-to-walk ratio for three years running, 2013-15 (and ERA in 2016)? Now in his first season with the Ducks, and guess who’s currently second in the country in the same statistic, with Peterson as strike thrower-in-chief?
Which makes you wonder what Dietrich’s secret could be.
“Smoke and mirror show,” he said over the phone. He was kidding, presumably.
“To be honest I don’t have the answer. You try to paint the picture of why walks – we call them freebies – can come back to haunt you. Just try to make them recognize the importance of throwing strikes, as simple as that sounds.
“I don’t think there’s any formula that I have. Recruit strike throwers.”
It’s a wee bit more complex than that. Wait till you hear what it’s like to play catch at Oregon. But first, listen to Peterson talk about his own personal renaissance.
“Attention to detail, refining my routine, polishing up the way I go about things,” he said of this season. “From the beginning, we worked a lot on breaking everything down to its simplest form. Getting my direction to be better towards the plate. The analogy he uses is put my nose into the catcher’s glove. So it started with focusing on that, then focusing on everything you do.”
And his confidence?
“I think I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum. Last year at this point I was trying to fix some things mechanically, and every week I was trying to be different, trying to tweak something different . . (now) I know what I’m doing. I know what works for me and what doesn’t work for me.”
Arizona State got an up-close look at what works for Peterson last Friday, and it wasn’t pretty for the Sun Devils. Peterson threw a four-hitter, striking out 20, walking one. “I’ve never seen a more special performance than that,” Horton told the Eugene Register-Guard afterward. “That’s what it looks like when Clayton Kershaw or (Madison) Bumgarner do it as well. That’s big-league stuff.”
Confidence. Focus. Doing all the little things. Or as Peterson said, “working on things at the ground level.” That’s life in the pitching classroom of Jason Dietrich.
You’re an Oregon pitcher, and it’s time to play a little catch to start the day. A few friendly lobs, loosening up your arm, right? Wrong. Each throw should have a purpose, and place. Rest assured, the coach is watching.
“A lot of them kind of go through the motions,” Dietrich said. “I challenge them to focus on playing catch with their partner, learning to hit different quadrants of their bodies. I just think if you take pride in playing catch, that will lead into your focus on everything else you’re doing.
“If they don’t do a good job I’ll tell them they can go home. I don’t want them around unless they’re going to put the attention to detail in learning how to throw the ball to their partner. It’s just the challenge of trying to get them to understand the importance of every little thing that they do. They get to practice their craft only so often, once or twice a week on the mound. Why not challenge them to be focused whenever they have a ball in their hands?”
All part of the mental component of pitching, which Dietrich knows can be tricky for young collegians.
“The game speeds up. You’re taking your game to the next level. A lot of them don’t know what to do, so they try harder, they get nervous, they don’t know how to deal with adversity. So what happens is they panic, so to speak. It’s all this adversity they’ve never experienced before.
“You’re not trying to get their mind to overthink it. You’re just trying to get them to recognize the importance of everything they’re doing, and how to slow things down the best they can.”
Which takes us back to Peterson, a product of Aurora, Colorado, just north of Denver. Side story to that, by the way. Aurora made tragic headlines in 2012, when 12 people were killed and 70 injured in a mass shooting at a movie theater. Peterson was in high school, and saw his community in shock.
“It was obviously a hard time for a lot of people,” he said. “It hit some of my friends more than it hit me. I kind of felt like I was watching from the outside a little bit, but I did know a couple of people who were close with some people involved in it.”
Peterson felt his game starting to come together over the past summer, pitching for Team USA. Then came the connection with Dietrich, and the transformation was complete. He was 8-11 his first two years with an ERA of just over four. This season, he’s 9-2 at 1.94.
“The talent was there,” Dietrich said. “It was just a matter of him figuring out what was best for him. He’s put in the work. We changed a couple of things, nothing crazy, just to help him be consistent. He’s had an open mind. Sometimes juniors, they might have a tough time wanting to pay attention, but he’s hungry and he wants to get better.
“The crazy thing is, he doesn’t care about strikeouts. He goes, `I just want to get outs.’ That’s a good thing, when they understand it’s not about striking out people. It’s about getting outs, and getting your defense back in the dugout.”
Pitching has helped Oregon to a 25-14 record, and thoughts of the NCAA Tournament, if the Ducks can finish strong. More impressive numbers, more Dietrich magic. “The numbers, it’s not about that,” he said. “It’s about the relationship with the players and seeing them grow. That’s what means the most to me.”
Strikes are nice, too.