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.”
‘He just let me be me’
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.