White Sox coaching 'relay' paying dividends
Pitching success comes from instructors' depth, with Cooper leading charge
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Class is currently being held on the back fields of the White Sox complex at Camelback Ranch, where a young hurler such as Chris Beck can be found working on a slide step or a veteran such as Scott Downs throws a bullpen.
There's also the mound at the Camelback main field or any other Cactus League venue. Eventually 12 of these pitchers will graduate, and their advanced education moves to Chicago and U.S. Cellular Field, with Don Cooper as the professor.
But in the pantheon of White Sox pitching excellence, there is more than one guru besides the highly respected pitching coach. It's a team effort to help build one of baseball's sturdiest pitching staffs over the last decade.
"We are doing a solid job, to tell you the truth, as an organization," Cooper said. "I take pride in the White Sox pitching. My passion is White Sox pitching. That would go from the top of the Major League level all the way down.
"It's like a relay race really. Maybe the low A coach hands the baton off to High A, and High A to Double-A and Double-A to Triple-A. In the big leagues, we have to try to get those guys that we bring up through the system over the hump."
Since 2003, White Sox starters have posted the Major League's highest total of quality starts at 970. The team struggled through a miserable 99-loss campaign in '13, but still ranked fifth in American League quality starts at 90 and posted a franchise-record 1,249 strikeouts.
These totals, along with a 3.98 ERA, were accomplished with a group that featured five starting pitchers who were 25 years or under by year's end. Cooper has worked with hurlers as young as 19-year-old Jon Garland and as old as 40-year-old Jose Contreras, leaving age, like a won-loss total, as just a number.
In his 12th full season as pitching coach, Cooper also doesn't worry about past shortcomings of new charges before they arrived on the South Side. Success stories such as Esteban Loaiza in 2003 or Contreras, as just a few examples, have fostered the "Coop will fix him" legacy. With Spring Training more than three weeks in, he's presently focused on trying to help each hurler in camp improve.
"He's got a fun personality, but he takes his job serious and wants the best for all of us, obviously," said White Sox starter John Danks, who has been with Cooper for eight seasons. "He works hard and likes to have a good time, but not at the expense of getting some work done."
"A lot goes into what he does. It's not going through the motions and telling this guy to do that. There's a purpose behind it," said White Sox ace Chris Sale of Cooper. "It's a pretty good track record of having guys come in here and not being complete and leaving here pretty completed. He cares about not only pitching, but off the field stuff, too."
Along with the team struggles, Cooper dealt with health issues in '13. Diverticulitis (inflammation of the intestines) cost the pitching coach 10 games from April 9-18 and three more from Sept. 6-8. There was offseason surgery to correct the problem, which Cooper admitted to be major during a recent interview.
Cooper's doctor told him that it would take six weeks to recover, and although Cooper felt he'd be fine in three, the 58-year-old quickly realized you don't heal as quickly when you get older. There actually was some hesitation on Cooper's part to talk about the ailment because he understands there are so many people who have it worse.
"I'm real good right now," Cooper said. "I'm trying to eat better. My biggest struggle is food. I think that's my addiction. I like food. I like to eat. And Major League Baseball, they are feeding you breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everybody has to watch it to a degree. I'm a little bit more aware. I'm trying to be better, but that's a challenge in itself.
"I didn't realize that people in my family had this. Certainly genetics, getting older, I fit that category. That's it. But stuff comes everybody's way. I don't care who it is. Not right. Not fair. I didn't ask for it. I didn't want it. And I don't care because there are many different examples.
"You just have to keep moving. You have to turn a negative into a positive somehow," Cooper said. "The positive I got is this is behind me now. I can focus."
General manager Rick Hahn explained that White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf makes sure everyone in the organization "gets the attention they need to be healthy." Everyone includes the coaches, the player development staff and scouts, who are forced to take physicals so some of these issues get diagnosed early.
"Look, it's a stressful gig," Hahn said. "The travel is easy, but it takes a toll on your body as it goes for an extended period of time. Guys finally did take advantage of the opportunity to exercise and find a release for the stress in a healthy way."
Bullpen coach Bobby Thigpen took over during Cooper's absence, and while Cooper never wants to be gone, he has full trust in a man with Thigpen's expertise. The same goes for all of the Minor League pitching coaches, Minor League pitching coordinator Curt Hasler and Minor League field coordinator Kirk Champion.
That pitching relay has paid great dividends for the White Sox over the years. Now, Cooper is healthy and ready to run his leg.
"If you can't do it with us, I'm a believer that now you are going to have a tough time doing it anywhere else," Cooper said. "You [aren't] going to get the attention, the love and all the work. We are going to do that with everybody, whether they are the first-round pick or the 101st-round pick. They get the best we got."