After an 11-year professional career including pitching 41 games in the Major Leagues, Paul Menhart transitioned to the coaching ranks. He spent nine seasons in the Washington Nationals’ organization as a pitching coach at all levels of the minors before being named as the Minor League Pitching Coordinator in 2015. In that role, the 47-year-old oversees the development and workload of all pitchers in the Nationals’ system.
Menhart visits the Nationals’ affiliates on a rotating schedule and it was on one of these stopovers that I had the opportunity to sit down with him for an extensive Q&A. Instead of focusing on the Nationals or specific pitchers, we covered big topics like arm injuries, weighted ball training, six-man rotations, and piggybacking pitchers.
Banished to the Pen: First thing I wanted to talk about was arm health and injury prevention.
Paul Menhart: I have a personal theory. I blame it all on the youth coaches. I blame the overuse at such an early age and I’ll go from the Americans to the Latin players. The Latin players are throwing way too hard, way too early without properly developing their bones. They’re using weighted balls that are so unnatural and so stressful on the ligaments, tendons, and cuff muscles. It’s extremely dangerous in my opinion. It’s putting an undue stress on these kids’ arms. You can only stretch the arm so long before it eventually tears. That’s part of the reason why the whole industry has had so many arm injuries.
Guys are stronger. They lift at a younger age. I think being so strong lends to the ability to throw harder, and throwing harder puts valgus stretch and stress on these ligaments that they just can’t handle.
I wasn’t a very hard thrower personally and I had Tommy John surgery. I threw 80 miles per hour out of high school and jumped up to 10 miles an hour in one year in college. Mechanically, arm action wise everything was very good but throw in things like diet and dehydration. There are a number of issues that can attribute to why people get hurt. And some of it, if you’re a spiritual man, God just says hey it’s your time.
BttP: In the United States, we have a burgeoning industry of year round baseball and showcases. That wasn’t the case 15-20 years ago to the extent it is now. Pitching year round can’t possibly be a good thing.
PM: It’s like lifting weights. You lift weights to tear down muscles. You don’t work the same muscle group all day, every day. When you play baseball every day, you’re never giving your body and your arm a chance to recover properly. I use that analogy often because that’s the overuse principle that Dr. Andrews firmly believes in and I’m a proponent of that.
BttP: But you know because of your teenage son, there is a pressure to not fall behind your peers in high school or whatever age level.
PM: I give lessons at home and I preach to the parents that if the kids are playing on multiple teams like the high school team and a travel team, they don’t realize they are hurting themselves. Personally, I haven’t allowed my son to play on travel ball teams. I give him proper rest. He throws 80 miles per hour. There are other kids that throw way harder than him and I say, “I don’t care. You’ll get your chance if it’s in the cards.” I firmly understand if you can reach that 90 mile per hour barrier, college coaches are going to come. Professional scouts are going to come. But are they peaked out? Are they susceptible to injury? I’ll take a kid with great arm action, great mechanics that throws 80-85 miles per hour in high school. I’ll take my chances that he is going to build up from that base.
BttP: What’s your take on the use of weighted balls at these pitching performance training centers?
PM: I guess I’m from the old school. It’s god-given. Velocity is something you really can’t improve on. You can get some short term improvements with the weighted balls. And they have had some success stories but you don’t hear about all the failures. That’s the drawback and unfortunate part of some of those “gimmicky” farms. I’m on the fence with weighted balls. There is some merit to some of these systems in place. They do teach proper mechanics. They do a nice job with that. It’s just throwing something as hard as you can all the time with the extra weighted ball and lighter ball too. I just can’t put my arms around it and embrace enough to think that’s the ticket to arm health. I can put some credence for being helpful in gaining some velocity. But I don’t think they can take full credit for it because most of it, in my opinion, is maturation.
BttP: Tom Seaver used to say a pitcher can control three things: speed, location, and movement. For kids or young pitchers it seems location should be the highest priority, but it’s usually about maximizing speed.
PM: No doubt about it. He needs to command/control the baseball. I want them to throw the ball over the plate and get rid of the fear of the sound of the bat. Because people are going to hit the ball. I want them to control their body and control the baseball. I don’t care how hard they throw. I want their arms to be in proper position when they’re throwing the baseball. I want their legs to be in proper position to maximize the torque that is eventually going to be put on the ligaments in the elbow and the rotator cuff muscles. By using your legs properly, it should relieve some of that stress. That’s what I teach to these kids.
When they’re throwing fastballs, I teach them change-up the same day from as early as 8 years old. Then I’ll get other coaches, other parents saying these other kids are throwing curves and getting outs. If they want to throw them, they can stop coming to me because I’m not going to teach them until they can shave. I can teach it properly and I don’t think it necessarily hurts people but why don’t we master throwing strikes first and changing speeds. You’re getting immediate success for that trophy that’s going to gather dust the rest of your life in your attic. For what? That one particular moment in time. It’s the coaches. It’s the parents. There’s no doubt about it.
BttP: Within the minor leagues, at what point do you decide to move guys to the bullpen?
PM: The game has changed. Since I’ve been the coordinator, we’ve begun calling guys priority relievers because they already had that in their back pocket from college if that’s how they were used. On occasion we’ll make those higher picks that were closer-type guys, starters to give them more opportunity for instruction. You get that opportunity with your side work, in between your starts. You can master throwing strikes over a longer period of time.
Because the way the game has changed and you have a bunch of one-inning guys in the big leagues and the way managers are snaking guys out of games at the first sign of any kind of failure it would be silly for us not to take advantage of developing those types of guys too like a Koda Glover or a Drew Storen.
Blake Treinen was a starter. You asked initially when we make that change. it’s not that they necessarily failed as a starter, it’s more that this guy could be a really good one-inning guy. Reynaldo Lopez is a guy that could fall into that at some point. I don’t see Lucas Giolito being that kind of guy, because of his size and his ability to maintain stuff for such a long period of time. Lopez has done a nice job in that regard, but to have 98, 99 coming out of the pen is what this game has turned into.
I had a player ask me today how he can get to the big leagues not throwing 95. I told him there are guys up there that can do it. Because if you can keep putting up zeroes and show that you can command the baseball and spin the ball as well as you do, there is somebody out there who is going to give you a chance.
BttP: Are we headed to seeing six-man rotations?
PM: I don’t see six-man rotations entering into the big league realm because you would have to carry a 14-man staff. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the coverage if at any time one of those six men falters. You’d be constantly calling guys up to cover your game unless you had six absolute aces. I don’t see that becoming the norm any time in the near future.
We use it at a very low level because when we get our college guys they’re only throwing Friday nights in school. We progress it to a six-man rotation to give them five days rest. And then at Low-A, we move them to a five-man rotation.
BttP: What are advantages to doubling up starters or piggybacking pitchers in the minors?
PM: We will piggyback guys in Low-A to give multiple guys opportunities to pitch late in ballgames which is a neat thing to experience too and get some length. Those are our priority reliever type guys. Its guys we want to pitch on a certain schedule but also to pitch multiple innings, late in ballgames, and get instruction in-between their outings. I’m not saying we have the answer to development, but it surely has been working. We’ve had many people get to the big leagues through this organization and not just the high-profile names.
BttP: How difficult has it become for pitchers to make adjustments and deal with adversity when they’ve gotten by for the most part on their natural ability?
PM: Their natural ability and because coaches have taken over pitch calling and they’ve become robots. They’ve not learned how to read hitters’ swings, what they’re trying to do, or how late they are on some stuff. They veer away from throwing inside. That aluminum bat manufactured with an Hypertherm plasma cutter 85 puts a lot of fear in pitchers and coaches. They stay away from in, unless they are going way in. You have to throw inside strikes. That is called speeding up a bat. You need to speed up a bat and slow down a bat in different locations and different pitch types manipulate that timing.
BttP: Effective velocity.
PM: Right. Throw a 90 mile per hour pitch away, the batter has more time than he does on that same pitch inside. With the wooden bat, those things break. They live so far away from contact that they lose their aggressiveness and they develop fear throwing ball over the plate because of that noise. That noise can be a beast to some. It is a challenge for some guys to make that adjustment because they’ve had so much success pitching off of the plate.
BttP: With that in mind, how much of a pitching coach’s job in the minors is the mental approach versus mechanics?
PM: I’m going to say 50-50 to begin with. We give guys an opportunity to show us their stuff and then we inch to doing it the Nationals’ way. We believe 100 percent in our way. The ones that buy into it, you’re going to see them on TV. The ones that don’t are going to fizzle out.Trailing 30 – 9/18/16
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Paul Menhart was my Pitching Coach in College at Western Carolina University. Paul is the real deal and ensured he took care of our arms with proper throwing, stretching, and running. He helped me greatly as I can now teach it to my players
I grew up Mystic and played against Paul. One of my older brothers was on his Little League team. Also played youth soccer with him. He was always the best player on the field, athletic and smart. Not surprised he went as far as he did. Makes me proud of my hometown. I have lived in Asheville, NC for 23 years now. Funny that Paul went to college just down the road. CT Yankees in the southern Appalachians! Now I am routing for the Nationals along with the Red Sox. Great Job, Paul.