From the Pages of Vine Line: Our February Q&A with pitching coach Chris Bosio
(Photo by Stephen Green)
Now entering his fourth season with the Cubs, Chris Bosio has earned a reputation as one of the emerging pitching coaches in the game. His success stories include everyone from Jason Hammel and Scott Feldman to Jake Arrieta and Hector Rondon. And this season, he should boast one of the best staffs in the NL. The following feature is from the February issue of Vine Line.
Don’t let the Cubs’ record in each of the last three seasons fool you. While the team has struggled, the pitching has remained comparatively strong. Despite massive turnover and an influx of unproven arms, the staff has continued to surprise. Much of the credit for that steadiness amidst turmoil goes to emerging pitching coach Chris Bosio.
The 51-year-old former major leaguer came to the organization prior to the 2012 season, the first under the new baseball operations department headed by president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer.
From 2012-14, the Cubs traded established pitchers like Paul Maholm, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, Scott Feldman, Jeff Samardzija, James Russell and Jason Hammel. In their place stepped everyone from Jason Berken and Justin Germano to Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks.
Talk about having to adjust on the fly. But Bosio has done it masterfully and managed to keep the staff running in a positive and consistent direction under three different managers. Now that the Cubs appear to be at the end of their “acquire-and-flip” phase when it comes to pitchers, he is ready to lead the organization’s arms into their next stage of development.
At any point in the season, a pitching coach has to keep tabs on between 11-13 pitchers, factoring in the rotation and the bullpen, but many more arms than that filter through the club during the course of six months thanks to injuries, ineffectiveness and trades. The Cubs trotted out 30 pitchers in 2013. Couple that with all the personnel a team uses in Spring Training, and that’s a lot of players for any single person to process, making the roles of associates such as bullpen coach Lester Strode and catching/strategy coach Mike Borzello all the more vital.
Bosio, known simply as “Bos” around Wrigley Field, brings a great deal of clubhouse credibility to the Cubs. The right-hander carved out an impressive career as a major league pitcher, going 94-93 with a 3.96 ERA over 11 seasons, seven with the Brewers and four with the Mariners, for whom he threw a no-hitter in 1993.
“I work great with Bos. He and I are kind of two of the same—very intense competitors,” said Hammel, who rejoined the Cubs on a two-year deal in December after spending the second half of last season with the Athletics. “I think he’s a little grumpy sometimes, but it is what it is. I kind of speak for everybody here. We’re tired of the old Cubs. This is the new Cubs. We want to change the feel.
“Coming back here, Bos called me back too. He made his pitch: ‘Hey, I want you back. I work great with you.’ He was very good with his words to help me make adjustments, very simple stuff. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Always approachable when media members need the latest update on one of his protégés, Bosio took some time out for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with Vine Line just days after the Cubs re-obtained Hammel and signed Jon Lester to a six-year deal to be the ace of the staff.
Lester will lead a competitive rotation that, at midwinter, also included Jake Arrieta, Hammel, Hendricks and potentially Travis Wood in the five spot.
Vine Line: Did you feel like Christmas came early with the signing of Lester?
Chris Bosio: I think we all do. We’re adding not only a quality player, but we’re also adding a quality person. Everything I’ve heard about Jon—his upbringing, the things that he’s gone through (e.g., beating cancer) in his life—he’s a guy who has overcome a lot, and he’s a guy who has achieved a lot.
At the same time, he’s a guy who is hungry to achieve more. I think that’s what made Jon Lester so attractive for us, honestly.
VL: In addition to Lester being a great pitcher and giving you added depth, is there a residual effect on the rotation in that guys can now be slotted into more comfortable roles?
CB: No doubt. Any time you can add a guy, a 200-inning guy, it’s going to help everybody—not just on the pitching staff, but also on the 40-man roster. You have a guy who’s going to be out there longer, that third time through the batting order, in the sixth or seventh inning.
Jon Lester is going to be out there in those situations. We just haven’t had that. We haven’t had that No. 1 big gun in the past. We all knew how well Jeff Samardzija threw the ball, and his All-Star selection, and Jason Hammel. But for me, you can never have enough of these guys.
VL: Travis Wood struggled for much of 2014. What’s the key to getting him back on the track that made him an All-Star just two years ago?
CB: You know what? If you really jumped into the numbers, the No. 1 thing that pops out is the walks (Wood had a career high 76 bases on balls in 2014). Travis will be the first one to say that his command was not there. The big inning killed him. You reflect back on what caused the big innings, and it was the walks. In the year he was an All-Star, he had his fastball command. Being in that position of a starting pitcher, it comes and goes.
And Travis, not having an exceptional secondary pitch to bail him out, relied a lot on his fastball, his cut fastball. When the fastball command is not there, you’re really rolling the dice. That’s the kind of year he had. But I’m expecting him to bounce back. He’s durable. He’s a fighter. He’s everything that we are as the Chicago Cubs. I’m expecting him to come back with a vengeance like he did two years ago.
VL: The team has between 11-13 pitchers at any given time during the season, but more guys than that pass through, either from the minor leagues or via trades. How important is it to have Lester Strode and Mike Borzello to help you keep track of everything and everybody?
CB: We have a system that we work with in the spring. Everybody has a role, including our minor league coaches. We all trust it. We’ve had great success coming out of Spring Training with it. It’s even more so with fresh eyes on it. It’s always good to get fresh eyes and that fresh input.
The biggest thing is staying positive with guys, but at the same time being honest with guys. We’ve got a really good, open line of communication with our pitchers. We’re going to work on the things that we need to work on, and the things that we’re good at, we’re going to get better at. Having Lester Strode and Mike Borzello with me is huge in our pitching structure, as well as the [minor league] pitching coaches and pitching coordinators.
In Spring Training, you’ve seen it in action. All these guys have roles. We talk a lot with the minor league pitching coaches and coordinators during the season, and it’s not just the 12 guys on a pitching staff. We say in Spring Training, “We need 11 or 12 starters, and we’re going to need 11 or 12 relievers.” If we get to those numbers, then we’ve had a couple of hiccups, if you will.
If we don’t get to that number and we’re able to maintain a solid five or maybe even six starters, it means we haven’t had to make a lot of trades like we’ve had to in the last three years, and we’ve remained healthy. Being healthy has allowed some of our young pitchers to have really important innings. It’s a nice mix that we have, and it’s going to get better with the additions on our coaching staff and when you bring in All-Star- and world champion-caliber pitchers like Jon Lester and Jason Motte. We added an All-Star catcher in Miguel Montero, and Hammel could have been an All-Star.
VL: You mentioned Motte. The bullpen ended up being a strength as the season went along, but do you feel like you can never have enough arms out there?
CB: With Hector Rondon having the season he had—he was basically the seventh- and eighth-inning guy before that—and having 29 saves in basically four months is pretty impressive. Jason just gives us another arm down there to go along with the guys that we have, with Rondon, Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm and Brian Schlitter.
We’ve got some guys down there. You add Motte to that equation, and our bullpen is becoming even more competitive. That’s what you want as an organization. You want to keep adding competition at every position. That’s how you close the gap on talent with so many other clubs, especially in a really tough National League Central.
VL: Do you consider yourself more of a mechanics guy or a psychology guy? Or do you have to be a bit of both to be a pitching coach in this day and age?
CB: You’ve got to be a little bit of both. Some of my best work is sitting and talking. Some of my other best work is a little of both, like with Jake Arrieta or Scott Feldman or Paul Maholm or Jason Hammel. You’ve got to be able to listen. You’ve got to be able to teach. You’ve got to be there not only for them, but also for the rest of the players on that club.
There are a lot of conversations that go on, not just with your pitchers and your catchers, but with your position players—what we’re going to be doing, how we’re going to be pitching certain guys. The communication is endless.
That’s where we made up a lot of ground in the second half of the season. We had really good communication with everybody on defense—where we’re going to play guys, how we’re going to pitch guys. It really didn’t matter who we threw out there because all the guys were following the game plan, and our preparation was better than it had been. That’s why we were winning more games against really tough clubs coming down the stretch.
We’re definitely going in the right direction. We’ve got a little more pop with our pitching staff. A lot of good things are happening, and the players and the coaching staff are aware of it.
—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald