Honeycutt key to Dodgers success
Pitching coach has fostered young talent into top staff
LOS ANGELES -- How has Rick Honeycutt done as the Dodgers' pitching coach?
"He's been here four years and we've been near the top in the league in ERA every year," said general manager Ned Colletti, who provides Honeycutt the arms that currently lead the league in staff ERA, as they did last year. "We fast-track a lot of our young pitchers and there's a lot of teaching on the fly."
If the Dodgers finish with the lowest team ERA this year, it will be the first time they've led the league in back-to-back seasons since 1982-83. It was the franchise's desire to reclaim its pitching-rich tradition that in 2001 brought Honeycutt back into the organization for which he pitched five of his 21 Major League seasons.
Honeycutt, now 55, was hired as a pitching consultant after his wife called his former manager and club official, Tom Lasorda, looking to get her husband out of the house and back into the game. The timing was good, as longtime franchise pitching guru Dave Wallace had assumed interim GM duties and set out to rebuild the organization's pitching foundation by returning to its past.
From 2002-05, Honeycutt was the Minor League pitching coordinator during a time when new scouting director Logan White drafted the nucleus of the current pitching staff -- Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Scott Elbert and James McDonald. Honeycutt also worked in the Minor Leagues with Hong-Chih Kuo and Ramon Troncoso.
Honeycutt's most critical current project is to straighten out Billingsley, an All-Star the first half who has gone haywire the past month.
"I've had him since Day 1," said Billingsley. "He's just got a good feel for the person and how he communicates. He's made a huge difference for me. He understands what he's talking about. A new person wouldn't know all the details he knows about me."
Broxton, who anchors the most efficient bullpen in the league, also credits Honeycutt for his development.
"He's a great person," said Broxton. "I've had him through the Minor Leagues and Major Leagues. He's very easy to like. He's been great for the organization. He's got 20 years on the mound, so he knows what he's doing. The biggest thing for a pitching coach is communication. He knows how to communicate."
Perhaps Honeycutt's most important achievement in communication came in 2005, when he convinced management not to release Kuo, whose repeated arm problems limited him to only 44 innings in his first five seasons. Kuo is the only current Dodgers pitcher who was on Honeycutt's first Opening Day staff in '06.
"I'm most proud of Kuo," said Honeycutt. "In '04, a lot of people were ready to give up on him. The next Spring Training, it was a battle to keep him here. I put my reputation on the line for him in a bunch of meetings to say, give me this year with him. People thought he'd continue to be hurt. I had injuries in my career. My belief was the ability was still there and he only had to get healthy. And I was hard on him that year. I had to find out if there was validity to what was being said. He actually had injuries."
When Grady Little was hired by Colletti as manager for the 2006 season, Honeycutt was promoted to Major League pitching coach because he helped mold those young pitchers that were expected to be the future. And even when Joe Torre replaced Little for the '08 season, Honeycutt was held over, joined by former teammate Ken Howell, who deals directly with relievers as bullpen coach.
"Mel Stottlemyre was my pitching coach in New York and he's one of the guys who recommended Rick, and that carries a lot of weight with me," said Torre. "The main reason was that he was familiar with the pitchers here and they felt comfortable with him. He played a good number of years for Dave Duncan and that certainly didn't hurt. His personality is a big part of it. He's a lot like Mel in the fact that he doesn't get overly excited. He's very good."
Torre mentioned Duncan, who over two decades serving as Tony La Russa's pitching coach in Oakland and St. Louis earned the reputation as one of the finest in his field. Honeycutt pitched for Duncan for nine seasons.
"What I learned from him was preparation, the mental side," said Honeycutt. "The truth of the matter, Duncan will tell you he's not much on the mechanical side. He wasn't a pitcher. His strength as a catcher was to try to find what people do well and keep them in that role. You've still got to execute the game plan. Command the ball away. Pitch ahead and be aggressive. There's no genius to any of that, but they are required if you're going to pitch for them. If you can't do that, they change your role or get rid of you."
Through video and scouting reports, Honeycutt stresses preparation for his pitchers and expects them to be as active in calling the pitches of a game as the catcher.
"You have to have the physical side, but you have to have the mental side, too," Honeycutt said. "When you're young in the Minors, sometimes you can get by with your stuff and depend on someone else to call the game. Here, we try to incorporate so every pitcher becomes more prepared. Russell Martin does a great job, but you can't put it all on the catcher. The pitcher has the ball and the responsibility. Throwing the wrong pitch in the wrong situation, the pitcher has got to know better."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.