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It seemed that Peterson’s belief in approaching pitching with science, psychology, and baseball data came to its apex when he landed his first major league coaching job as the Oakland A’s pitching coach.
“There was so much resistance in the game as I was coaching,” Peterson reflects. “Heck, I was fired twice within a year and a half. But, then I got to Oakland. Billy Beane was the first guy who got it.”
In Oakland, Peterson would routinely take his pitchers to the lab in Alabama for a biomechanics evaluation. The “Big Three” of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder would propel the A’s into the playoffs year-after-year, despite having one of the lowest player payrolls in the game. Many detractors of Peterson will point to the fact that he had talented pitchers and that anyone could do well with Hudson, Mulder, and Zito. While those pitchers are quite talented, they have not had the same level of success after they parted with Peterson while Hudson and Mulder have both had major surgery. Additionally, Peterson had pitchers such as Gil Heredia, Billy Taylor, Jason Isringhausen, Jeff Tam, Corey Lidle, and Billy Koch have career years while also staying healthy. His attention to biomechanics helped the pitchers stay healthy. His mental approach helped those that he worked with stay focused while his teaching helped prepare pitchers to succeed. It cannot be coincidence that the majority of Oakland A’s pitchers, youngsters or journeymen, had career seasons under Peterson.
“I was very fortunate to be in Oakland. Billy (Beane) had a sabermetric program for pitching. We looked at data to help call games, how to approach certain hitters. He believed in using the lab to help prevent injuries.”
Because of the reliance on data and forward thinking, the A’s were annual pennant contenders while having one of the smallest payrolls in the game.
Moneyball to the Mets
Before the 2003 season, Rick was hired by the New York Mets to essentially build the pitching program he employed in Oakland. Mets’ management was completely in awe of Peterson during the interview.
“I came to the interview and pulled out the charts from Oakland. Everyone in the room was simply amazed. The Mets had nothing like it in place. In fact, that whole first year was basically spent telling the tech people how to collect the data, format the reports, and what we were actually looking for. Jim Duquette and I really built the pitching and research program.”
Duquette, the General Manager of the Mets at the time, states that this was one of the main reasons for bringing Peterson to the organization. “The statistical and research department was quite lacking when I first took over as General Manager. It was one of my top priorities and a big reason for wanting to bring Rick to New York. When he came with his system, it galvanized our approach as an organization,” explains Duquette.
The Mets’ ownership was intrigued with the Moneyball concept. Duquette explains, “I read the book and thought it had value. I told Mr. Wilpon about it and he felt it was important enough to examine it. We had meetings in which we examined the strengths as well as the myths of it. Art Howe was not portrayed well or accurately for that matter, in the book. He was our manager at the time so it was a bit uncomfortable. But, the principles of running an organization were important to look closely at.”
However, the idea was quite misunderstood by ownership and other personnel. Once, Peterson was approached by Fred Wilpon, who expressed excitement about his pitching program because the team could pay for the best players to do “all of this stuff”. Obviously, Peterson disagreed stating that the Mets didn’t need the best players, but that they simply needed players “who could do this stuff”. It seemed that the Mets were so far behind in the use of objective analysis that they resorted to buying copies of Moneyball and insisting that each employee write some sort of book report. Duquette and Peterson helped change the statistical analysis culture for the Mets organization.
With Peterson’s approach, the Mets saw their pitching staff perform at an elite level. By 2005, the Mets ranked in the top five in every major statistical category. In just two short seasons, he took a group of older pitchers mixed with young, inexperienced players and molded them into a playoff caliber staff. Still need some proof as to the quality of Peterson’s work in New York? The 2006 pitching staff had two late season additions, John Maine and Oliver Perez. Both were essentially “throw-in” type players in trades. Maine was an inexperienced pitcher who came to New York with a career ERA over 7 in 43.2 Major League innings. Instantly, he and Peterson found some flaws which led to a six win, 3.60 ERA finish to the season. In 2007, Maine would have a career season, winning 15 games, posting a 3.91 ERA, 3.5 walks per nine innings, and 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Since Peterson’s departure, Maine has walked more, struck out less, and has had trouble staying healthy. Oliver Perez is the prime example of the Peterson’s invaluable work as a Pitching Coach. He came to the Mets with a 6.63 ERA. After a winter of working (and a nice playoff appearance), Perez enjoyed his career season in 2007 by winning 15 games, a stellar 3.56 ERA, 4 walks per nine innings and 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Perez had a slow start to 2008, but he hasn’t reached the level of 2007 since Peterson was fired by the Mets (seemingly for the sake of making a change). The change in performance, especially Perez, is quite clear. Rick Peterson’s methods work.