Jordan Zimmermann moved to Class AAA in the spring of 2009, and upon meeting his new pitching coach, he thought to himself, “This is going to be a long year.” Steve McCatty can have that effect. He comes from a Michigan family of carpenters and construction workers, of fighters and yellers, and he wears their hardscrabble history on his face. His eyes pinch down. His cheeks droop. Another pitcher met him and wondered if McCatty hated him. “They always think I’m in a bad mood,” McCatty says. “I can’t help how I look.”
Over the next few years, as both he and McCatty settled into place with the Washington Nationals, Zimmermann came to know McCatty. He burst into laughter when McCatty told stories. He absorbed McCatty’s barbs — about a favorite football team or a pitch that turned into a home run — and dished some back at him. “He comes across as a tough guy,” Zimmermann said. “But he’s a bit of a pushover.” Zimmermann also came to know a little about why McCatty’s cannot straighten his right arm.
This year, McCatty has overseen the best pitching staff in the National League. In regard to his role, McCatty called himself, “a glorified pitch counter.” Most any coach would have succeeded with the Nationals’ talented stable of arms simply by following the advice McCatty’s friend Al Kaline, the Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer, gave him this spring: “I’ve see them pitch. Don’t screw it up.”
The Nationals’ staff has thrived under McCatty’s steady, soft hand. He keeps them relaxed with his constant humor and keeps them rolling with careful observations. He lets pitchers find what works best for them, and when he disagrees he gives an unfiltered, often explicit opinion. He is, most of all, a character.
“Deep down, he’s a big teddy bear,” reliever Craig Stammen said. “He’s been really good for this staff. There’s a lot of guys with good stuff, and they’re able to handle it on their own. Success is sometimes determined by a little something here and a little something there. The mental side of the game is a big part of that, and he does a really good job with that.”
McCatty aims to make pitching as simple as he can: Throw strikes. Pitch to your strength rather than a scouting report. Find out what works for you. He pitched one year with lightning in his arm and nearly won a Cy Young Award. He pitched for four more seasons with a bone chip in his biceps and figured out a way to hold on. By reinventing himself, he came to believe all pitchers must learn themselves.
“Instead of trying to do what other people wanted me to do, I did what I did, what I knew would work best for me,” McCatty said. “That’s what I try to get these guys to do. I’m not going to sit there and call the game for them. If I tell you to do certain things in certain situations that aren’t your strength, I’m putting you in a box.”
“I’ve never heard him talk mechanics to anybody,” reliever Sean Burnett said. “I know in our meetings and stuff, it’s kind of, ‘Do what you do.’ If you’re going to get beat, get beat with your best pitch.”
McCatty keeps to one message for each starter, sitting down after each start. He tells Edwin Jackson to “be athletic” and Gio Gonzalez to throw the ball over the plate. Stephen Strasburg likes to talk the day he pitches, right after his start. The other four regular starters prefer digesting their outing and chatting the next day.
“Most important, what he did for me, which I deeply appreciated, he didn’t try to change anything,” said Gonzalez, who arrived from Oakland this season. “He just let me be me. He didn’t want to change my personality. He didn’t want to change my mechanics. He has a big influence in my success this year.”
McCatty also stresses the importance of reading situations. Against the Red Sox earlier this season, Zimmermann threw David Ortiz a curveball for a strike, and Ortiz didn’t even offer at it. He came back with a fastball up and in, and Ortiz whacked it for a home run. McCatty told Zimmermann to be leery when a hitter disregards one pitch — it means he is looking for another.
“I don’t pitch anymore,” McCatty said. “I don’t get to play. This is my competition. Every pitch that they throw, I’m not throwing it, but I’m in it.”
McCatty never expected he would become a coach. He assumed as a young man, like many young men, that he would play forever. He pitched nine seasons for the Oakland Athletics, then two more in the minors. He doesn’t reference his career often with his players. “We got to force it out of him, really,” reliever Drew Storen said.
“I know he was on a baseball card with Nolan Ryan,” Burnett said.
“He had, like, 40-something complete games?” Stammen said.
“I know he battled,” reliever Tyler Clippard said.
They all see his right elbow is stuck at a slight angle, like the gentle bend of a tree branch. “You can’t not notice that,” Clippard said.
In 1981, McCatty finished second to Rollie Fingers in the American League Cy Young voting. He led the league in wins and posted a 2.33 ERA. He fired fastballs in the mid-90s and cut an imposing, 6-foot-3 figure. He threw 16 complete games. In his first six starts that season, McCatty pitched nine, nine, 10, nine, 92 / 3 and nine innings.
In spring training of 1982, McCatty began to feel nagging pain where his biceps met his right shoulder. His coaches asked him if he could pitch. “Yeah,” McCatty said. “I can pitch.”
Early that 1982 season, McCatty started against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Jim Rice stood in the on-deck circle, ready to lead off the second inning. He yelled at McCatty, “You’re not right.” McCatty glanced at him and yelled back, “I know.”
McCatty kept pitching. His fastball dropped into the low 80s. His ERA rose to 3.99. “It was terrible,” McCatty said. “It was the most frustrating year of my life, as far as playing. I wanted to go play so bad. It was really frustrating knowing that you could do things and now you weren’t capable of doing them.”
The pain in his right arm became part of his reality. Athletics doctors diagnosed “rotator cuff syndrome.” Every start he made for the final four years of his career, he said, he felt miserable.
“I’ll put it to you this way,” McCatty said. “Every time I threw a pitch, I hoped they hit it. Because if they fouled it off or took it, that meant I had to throw another pitch.”
After his career, he learned he had pitched with a torn labrum in his shoulder and a bone chip under the top of his biceps. He figures the Athletics did not want him to have surgery, because it would risk ending his career. “They got what they could,” McCatty said. “Which probably wasn’t too good.”
Even with the pain, McCatty loved every minute. He stayed up late and talked baseball in hotel bars, gleaning information from his hitting teammates. He dealt with his bad days with humor. Once, a teammate came up to him on the mound and held out his fist. McCatty stuck out his hand. The teammate dropped six chicken bones into McCatty’s palm and told him, “This fell out of your elbow last inning.”
In 1982, the Athletics played the Padres in an exhibition, without the designated hitter. Manager Billy Martin hated making the pitcher hit, and so he told McCatty to go to the plate without a bat. McCatty had a better idea. He found a 15-inch souvenir bat and stuffed it in his back pocket. When he walked to the plate, the umpire asked, “Where’s your bat?” McCatty stopped and pulled out the toy bat. The headlines the next day called him “Batty McCatty.”
“I would say my way of dealing with pressure was to laugh it off,” McCatty said. “Otherwise, I might be hanging from a bridge somewhere after one of those games, you’d be so upset at yourself. That was just me.”
He coaches the same way. In his rookie season, Storen gave up a long home run on a slider. He arrived in the clubhouse the next day expecting a tongue-lashing. When McCatty saw him, he told Storen sarcastically, “Hey, that was a good slider.”
“He’s not afraid to cut it up with you,” Storen said. “I think that’s the cool thing. I think his whole approach is very straightforward. There’s no kind of beating around the bush like, ‘I don’t want to hurt your feelings.’ ”
McCatty needed the easygoing demeanor this season. The Nationals’ unprecedented decision to shut down Strasburg introduced a new pressure on the pitching staff. “He had a lot of [stuff] come down on him with the whole Strasburg thing,” left-hander Ross Detwiler said. “And he stayed even-keeled the whole way with everybody else. He very easily could have gotten stressed out about that. But he didn’t.”
The end of his career still eats at McCatty. Now he encourages his pitchers to speak up if they have an injury. He tells them, “I probably shouldn’t have pitched.”
McCatty, at 58, remains a pitcher in mind, if not body. He is there with his pitchers every time they throw. “I don’t worry about screwing them up,” McCatty said. “I let them go play.”
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