The pitching coach is not a position of glory in Major League Baseball. The majority of their face time on television typically comes when they make a mound visit to settle a rattled pitcher or when they make the call to the bullpen from the dugout phone.
With the exception of a handful of legendary pitching coaches they often go unnoticed in all but the worst of situations.
Leo Mazzone, Mel Stottlemyre and Dave Duncan are a couple of the lucky few that have broken down the walls of anonymity, and that was only after years of putting out some of the best rotations the game had ever seen.
In 2002, when the White Sox promoted their long time minor-league pitching coordinator Don Cooper to pitching coach, it’s fair to say that most simply assumed that Cooper was destined to become just another face in the crowd.
Cooper, like many other pitching coaches, had a rather uneventful professional baseball career. He played in parts of four seasons for the Twins, Blue Jays and Yankees, pitching in just 44 Major League games and sported an abysmal 5.26 career ERA.
However, Cooper has been able to carve out a new legacy in the past nine seasons as one of the game's premiere pitching coaches, developing a knack for reviving fledgling pitcher’s careers.
In 2003, the White Sox acquired career journeyman Esteban Loaiza in free agency. In nine previous seasons the 31-year-old right hander had never won more than 11 games in a single season. Cooper influenced Loaiza to add a cutter, the result; Loaiza won 21 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting that season.
Gavin Floyd was once considered the top pitching prospect in the Phillies organization, but had been less than stellar in parts of three seasons with the Phillies when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox after the 2006 season.
In 2008, his first full season under the tutelage of Don Cooper, Floyd went 17-8 with a 3.84 ERA, and has continued to be a valuable member of the White Sox staff ever since.
Flash forward to 2011, and Cooper’s work is once again paying dividends with his latest resurrection project, 27-year-old right-hander Edwin Jackson. Jackson, who is said to have some of the most electric stuff in baseball, was having issues in Arizona (although he did manage to toss a no-hitter with the D-Backs) when the White Sox traded for him at the deadline in 2010.
Since the trade, Jackson has managed a 6-2 record with an ERA hovering around 3.00, highlighted by this afternoon’s 13 strikeout performance against another one of his former teams, the Tampa Bay Rays.
Don Cooper’s numbers during his tenure as pitching coach of the Chicago White Sox speak for themselves. The White Sox have averaged sixth in the American League in team ERA since 2002, an impressive feat considering that U.S. Cellular Field is known as one of the more hitter friendly ballparks in baseball. He has also been a huge part in two AL Central titles, and his starting rotation in 2005 was the centerpiece of the White Sox first World Series title since 1917.
All of these are great feats. However, it’s his penchant for bringing pitchers back from the dead that truly makes him one of the best. “Coop” may have a ways to go before he has earned the right to be discussed amongst the great pitching coaches of all-time, but for now I think it's safe to say he’s one of the best in the game.