By Jack Loder
There is a lot of collective wisdom within the Orleans Firebirds coaching staff. Kelly Nicholson has been at the helm for 17 seasons. Max Fecske and Phil Cebuhar both come from successful Division I programs and Kyle Hunt recently left the Cape to assume a paid assistant job with San Francisco. If you put all of that experience together, it still wouldn’t eclipse that of pitching coach Jim Lawler.
At 70 years old, he’s forgotten more about the game of baseball than any of his current players have learned at this point in their careers. Lawler has been a collegiate head coach, a power five pitching coach for two decades, and has worked with professional pitchers along the way as well. Listening in on a bullpen session, Lawler speaks softly from behind the mound after most pitches. Sometimes he has a lot to say, sometimes it’s nothing more than a nod or a gesture.
When he talks, the Firebirds’ pitchers listen.
“Jim has so much knowledge for pitching sometimes I feel like I need to start writing things down as he talks to us,” right-hander Cole Stallings said. “We’re lucky. Very lucky.”
Lawler is always judicious with his time, which is why I made sure to not waste any of it when he agreed to sit down with me before a late July game at Cotuit, and then later that week at home. I don’t know much, but I do know when to shut up and listen.
Jack Loder: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve consistently preached to your pitchers over the years?
Jim Lawler: (Chuckling) Just throw strikes. I keep it simple. Keep a healthy arm and repeat your delivery too. Guys are all so hung up on the radar gun these days it’s hard for them to repeat their delivery. You can’t go max effort every pitch and expect to have a consistent delivery. Pitchability is important these days
I felt lucky that the first couple of sentences directly answered my question. Then, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.
Loder: What do all of the best pitchers you’ve coached have in common?
Lawler: They all have a great secondary pitch. All of them, there’s no doubt about that one. They all throw hard, the difference comes with the second pitches. Those are the guys that can really strike your ass out.
Loder: What made you so obsessed with the change up?
Lawler: The harder we throw the more the change up becomes necessary. The best pitchers at every level throw the change up really well, especially starters. Deception is the name of the game, that’s what’s going to sign your checks in the long haul. Having command and usage of a good change up is so important for young hard throwing arms to develop.
Loder: You had a pretty great playing career, but if you could go back in time and change one thing about that part of your baseball journey what would it be?
Lawler: I wouldn’t change much. I cherished every moment on the field. I had some bad injury luck so I’d say maybe getting some of the procedures they have available today and making them available for guys like me way back when. In those days if you got hurt, there wasn’t a surgery to fix it. I hurt my shoulder early on, the guy said I could open you up from your shoulder to your bicep but you’ll never play again anyway.
Lawler went on to talk about the current state of pitching, and how velocity has become such an obsession that young pitchers jeopardize their arm health in order to achieve the ultimate projectability. He went on to provide a disclaimer, citing his age and experience as often contrasting the current state of the game. It’s important that Lawler’s point of view is advocated for, especially on this topic. There aren’t many people in the baseball world more qualified to speak on the topic of health.
“It comes back to repeatable mechanics,” Lawler said. “Pitching is already rough enough on your body, if you can repeat your delivery precisely, you’ll train your arm and your body well.”
Loder: What’s your favorite memory about Cape League Baseball?
Lawler: I don’t know if I can nail down one memory, but I’ll say how special it is being around 30 guys who are really good at what they do and are all dreaming about playing in the big leagues. That’s a commonality with every guy who plays out here. They’re naturally talented but they’re also so good because of the passion they have for the game. Never gets old being a part of that.
Loder: How about your favorite baseball memory overall? (I knew what I was getting into here when I asked this) Fully prepared to use up the remaining storage on my phone recording his answer, I got this instead.
Lawler: I got too many damn years to answer that.
Never change, Jim.