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Ahead of His Time
Much of Peterson’s coaching career has been spent at the forefront of several movements. First, he was one of the first coaches to actually think about the mental side of the game. Secondly, he was the very first coach to ever take his pitchers to the famed lab of AMSI in Alabama for a biomechanical analysis. Sadly, he is still the only coach who makes this a routine for his pitchers. Finally, he was given considerable visibility due to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. The downside of being at the forefront of these three movements? Well, let’s just say that the “traditionalists” didn’t quite get what he was about.
Peterson can recall the day he decided he would go into coaching. “I was in San Diego at the time and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to pitch,” Peterson recalled. “I was on a seven-day fast, doing a lot of meditation; a lot of Yoga. It was on the third or fourth day of the fast when it hit me—I’m a teacher. What did I know best? Pitching. I had some offers to get into coaching so I decided that coaching would be my way to make a difference in somebody’s life.”
He started out as a minor league instructor for the Pittsburgh Pirates. During that time, his early childhood spent among baseball stars helped him as he would often speak to coaches and pick their brains.
“I can remember asking (Braves pitching coach) Johnny Sain about so many things. He would always be at the field at 7AM, just standing in the bleachers looking out over the field, almost like Patton. I’m sure he’d see me walking towards him every morning saying ‘What does this kid want now?’ I’d ask him about pickoffs, teaching pitchers certain pitches, situations, really anything. Mel Stottlemyre was another person I would speak to quite a bit. I could walk up to anyone having grown up around Baseball. I learned so much. I was and still am so fortunate.”
After spending time in the Pirates and Indians farm systems, Peterson was hired by the Chicago White Sox as a pitching coach for one of their Single-A affiliates. However, he got to Spring Training and was informed that he was going to be the Double-A pitching coach for the Birmingham Barons. This is where circumstance meets destiny as the now famed Dr. James Andrews was about to open up his lab in Birmingham, as well. Peterson was, literally, the first professional coach to walk through those doors.
“At first, I was like why do I have to do this? But, once I saw what could be done—identifying potential injuries and having the opportunity to be proactive about injuries—it was a seminal moment in my career.”
He describes that time of his life as his education in biomechanics. As the first, and only, coach to utilize the lab, Peterson forged a friendship with Dr. Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig.
While in the White Sox organization, another one of Peterson’s strengths and beliefs would be called to the forefront. One day, he was called to General Manager Larry Himes’ office.
“Because of my educational background in psychology, they wanted me to interview for a new position as the Director of Sports Psychology,” Peterson said. “The White Sox, after seeing the success Dr. Harvey Dorfman had with the Oakland A’s, decided to put money into a new program. Well, I called Dr. Charles Maher to help me put together a program. I can remember the interview when Jerry Reinsdorf asked me why he should invest money in our three-year proposal. Well, I told him that if you look at all of your reports about your Double-A and Triple-A players and see how many read that they ‘lack focus’, ‘have confidence issues’, or ‘isn’t working hard enough’. Those are all mental skills. If we could help those issues, he would have more viable major league players which increases his franchise’s worth. When Reinsdorf was still hesitant, I told him that we’d do it for free at first and show him how valuable it can be. After hearing that, Jerry said to just do the program as proposed.”
All wasn’t smooth in this relatively new venture of looking at the mental side of a player. Baseball was, and still is, full of men who discount the importance of psychology when it comes to an athlete. Larry Himes wasn’t ready for a full program. Instead, he ordered Peterson to work with five players as part of a pilot program. One of the players involved in the program was White Sox legend and future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas. The impact of the program began to infiltrate the White Sox organization. Peterson recalls the case of a relative unknown, pitcher Brian Drahman, as validation.
“We acquired Drahman from the Milwaukee Brewers, I believe, and he was guy who had a good fastball and a plus-slider. For some reason, he couldn’t put it together. I think he had an ERA of about 9 when he came to us. Well, one day he goes out and tosses a 1-2-3 inning. Larry Himes calls up and asks what’s going on with this guy. I tell him that he lacks the mental focus to be consistent. Himes yells that he should be in the program. I respond with that ‘you told me I could only have five players’. Obviously, the program expanded.”
While Drahman would not have a long career, he did reach the Major Leagues and is the answer to a trivia question as he was the first White Sox pitcher to win a game at the new Comiskey Park.
The final piece of the Peterson’s coaching belief also occurred while with Chicago as the White Sox were on the cutting edge of data analysis.
“Chicago was way ahead of their time when it came to data. We’d have printouts of tracking pitch selection and hit results. The problem was getting any uniformed personnel to look at it. The printouts weren’t user friendly at all. I would literally stare at them for hours at first. They gave great information, but nobody wanted to put the time into looking at them,” Peterson said.
And so it began as baseball would start to produce a seemingly endless amount of data that most traditionalists would scoff at. This battle still rages today. One can only imagine the reaction to these seemingly foreign printouts back then.
As a result of manager Gene Lamont’s firing, many of the White Sox coaching personnel were fired, Peterson included. He finished the season as a consultant for the Boston Red Sox before getting hired as a minor league coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. He didn’t last long in Toronto despite helping the career of a young Chris Carpenter who was taken to ASMI for a biomechanical analysis. In a telling moment about the Blue Jays’ idea of pitching development, Peterson was fired and was told by a front office executive that, “The Blue Jays never want to hear the word ‘biomechanics’ again.” As the Blue Jays go through a season with scores of pitchers on the disabled list, one has to wonder if they still hold that same organizational philosophy. All would be fine for Peterson as he was about to land with an organization that would finally see the importance of his beliefs.