Thanks to Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti, Orioles' pitching now a strength

Two veteran coaches helped drop club's ERA to 3.43 this season, the lowest since 1979

(Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
September 30, 2014|By Eduardo A. Encina | The Baltimore Sun

While introducing Dave Wallace and Dom Chiti to Camden Yards this offseason, Orioles manager Buck Showalter pointed out the bronze statues of the team's six Hall of Famers beyond the left-center-field fence.

“You know, if you two guys figure out this pitching here,” Showalter joked, “there will probably be a statue out there of you two guys.”

And after the strides the pitching staff has made under Wallace, the pitching coach, and Chiti, the bullpen coach, in their first year working with the Orioles, Showalter recently joked that he's going to have to make good on his promise and give the duo miniature statues of themselves.

As a staff, the Orioles posted a 3.43 ERA this season, third-best in the American League and their best since they had a 3.28 ERA on their way to the World Series in 1979. Last year, the Orioles' team ERA was 4.20, just 10th-best in the AL.

Wallace and Chiti are baseball lifers — they've combined for nearly seven decades of baseball experience in coaching, managing and front office work — whom the Orioles plucked from comfortable jobs with the Atlanta Braves.

Wallace, who has been a major league pitching coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox, was the Braves' minor league pitching coordinator before joining the Orioles. Chiti had spent five years in Atlanta's front office as a special assistant, working his last year there in charge of pitching development.

Molding young pitchers has been a passion for both longtime coaches. With an up-and-coming rotation that had untapped potential and a bullpen that needed to be reworked after trading 50-save closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics, the Orioles provided a challenge.

Wallace, who had two hip replacements, finally felt healthy enough to venture into a major league dugout again. And he wanted Chiti, who also worked with Showalter when he was managing the Texas Rangers, as his right-hand man.

The results of their first year on the job are just short of amazing. Even though they have different titles, Wallace and Chiti essentially share pitching coach duties. They've earned the pitchers' respect and adoration with an individual approach to teaching but a consistent message. The pitchers talk about how much more relaxed the atmosphere is and how Wallace and Chiti have shown their investment in them as pitchers and people.

“It's hard to imagine any guys who have had more impact [on the pitching], but that takes away from the players,” Showalter said. “Dave has such a great resume, and we were lucky to get him. A lot of teams didn't realize he was available and healthy again.

“A lot of people who are 30 years old would love to have his energy level. He's got a tough side to him. There's some tough love, but he's very organized, very prepared. I knew Dom before, and I was kind of hoping this was where he wanted to go. Dave and he really play off each other's strengths.”

Wallace and Chiti know each other well from working together with the Braves for the past four years. They go to the ballpark together, they eat together, they leave together. Early in the season, the pitchers presented Wallace and Chiti with T-shirts saying “I'm with this guy” with a cartoon likeness of each other on them.

The foundation of their work with the Orioles staff was laid out in January, when they watched all the pitchers throw bullpen sessions, first during a minicamp in Sarasota, Fla., and then in Southern California, where a group of pitchers work out in the offseason.

There wasn't much critiquing, just watching, which surprised closer Zach Britton, who was fighting for a roster spot at the time.

“They watched our workout [in California] and pulled us in the stands and at the track,” Britton said. “They said, ‘You guys are good big league players. We've seen your video. I know you guys have been through your ups and downs, but you guys have the stuff to be very good at the big league level.'

“And that was it. We were like, ‘Are they just blowing smoke?' What is it? We were like, ‘Do you guys have anything else?' And they were like, ‘No, we'll see you in the spring.'”

Spring training came, and Wallace and Chiti still watched — most of the time next to each other. Eventually they held one-on-one meetings with each pitcher. But instead of telling them what they needed to do to get better, it was a back-and-forth discussion of the process.

“I think once a player feels like he has some ownership of what he's doing, and he has an invested interest in himself — which obviously they do — it helps,” Wallace said of the importance of those meetings. “And did we offer ideas? Yeah. But you never force something down a player's throat. You ask, ‘Hey, what do you think?'

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