Apodaca having a blast mentoring Colorado’s minor league pitchers

Grand Junction Rockies pitching coach Bob Apodaca at Suplizio Field.

Bob Apodaca has homes away from home throughout the Colorado Rockies organization.

The Rockies’ former pitching coach is now the organization’s assistant pitching coordinator, working in the three lowest classifications, Grand Junction (Rookie), Tri-City (Short-Season Class A) and Asheville (Class A).

He loves being in on the ground level of the pitchers’ professional careers.

“This is not work, this is fun, this is a pleasure,” he said before a recent game. “The pregame is where I gain so much pleasure working with them, answering questions, introducing little drills.”

Apodaca can usually be found in the right-field bullpen in the afternoons before a game, talking with the various pitchers and studying their bullpen sessions from every angle.

“You give them a grace period as far as what you want to work on, so you break out little drills, and without them realizing it, you’re guiding them in the direction you want to with the little drills,” he said. “They start making little advancements without getting technical about it. That’s the last thing I want to get. I want them to be the athlete the scouts signed.

“I want them to be an athlete out there, a nice, flowing, rhythmical timed athlete. They have to learn that is so important to be the complete pitcher, not just a ‘stuff’ pitcher, because that’s all they’re trying to do now, is create ‘stuff’ and not being able to change speeds and locate.”

It’s all part of learning how to pitch, not just throw the ball past hitters. Apodaca gives his young charges the example of Jon Gray, who came into Grand Junction last year as Colorado’s No. 1 draft pick (third overall) with a 100 mph fastball and nasty slider.

Gray, like Colorado’s first-round pick this season, Kyle Freeland, had to wait until July to take the mound. There was work to be done.

“He came in here with fastball, slider, advanced pitches,” Apodaca said of Gray, now pitching at Double-A Tulsa. “We didn’t take away his slider, we de-emphasized it, and we really encouraged him to throw his change-up. In a recent article, he said his change-up is now on par with his slider.”

Freeland, who graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and then went to the University of Evansville, makes his first start of the season Wednesday against Missoula. His innings will be closely monitored, increasing as the season progresses.

The Grand Junction coaching staff and the various instructors and coordinators sit down with every new player and devise a plan for the season. During those meetings, Apodaca said, the player is asked what he thinks got him signed, what he thinks his strengths are, and what he wants to improve or develop.

“You notice we don’t say ‘weakness.’ We say ‘opportunities for growth,’ ” said Apodaca, who lives in Florida and is racking up frequent-flier miles this summer. After spending the first homestand in Grand Junction, he went back to Florida, then to Pasco, Washington, to work with the Tri-City Dust Devils pitchers, then planned to return to Grand Junction.

“Yeah, I should have done it some other day,” he said of his three-day off period at home.

Throughout the season, the coaches meet with the players about their progress, tweaking the plan as they go. The pitchers usually want to improve their command or develop a second or third pitch.

“Maybe it’s the change-up,” Apodaca said. “Now there’s clarity, what things we’re going to be working on. That’s not enough. What things are we going to enhance for those opportunities for growth? What drills, what are we going to do?

“We’ll break it down into that, but the most important thing is: I don’t want Kyle Freeland to go out there and he’s working on a change-up and their hairiest-chested guy comes up to the plate in a tie score, I don’t want him to think, ‘I can’t get beat on this pitch, I can’t throw it.’

“We want him to throw it with conviction, without worrying about outcome. This is the only way we’re going to learn to develop this pitch.”

It was that case with Gray’s change-up, and once he started throwing it with conviction, he started on his rocket rise through the organization. After four starts in Grand Junction, he moved to Class A Advanced Modesto last season, going 4-0 with a 0.75 ERA.

That got him an invitation to spring training this season and an assignment to Tulsa, where he’s 7-3 with a 3.76 ERA. He was a Texas League All-Star this season, and his name has been bandied about for a late-season call-up to Colorado, if not before.

“It’s fast coming,” Apodaca said of the ultimate promotion for Gray. “It’s just (a matter of) time, and he’s willing to spend the time, from what I’m reading and word of mouth. The last thing you want ... you never want to send a young man up there who is not equipped to face the best hitters in the world.

“My last year (with the big club), we saw it with (Drew) Pomeranz and Alex White and even (Juan) Nicasio to a degree. They weren’t ready to perform, but it was a necessity.”

Colorado’s rash of injuries necessitated the promotion of former Grand Junction pitcher Eddie Butler from Double-A Tulsa to Denver last month.

After one start, he developed inflammation in his right shoulder and is now back throwing bullpen sessions and batting practice after getting on a strengthening program.

“He was a meteor,” Apodaca said of Butler.

All of the Grand Junction pitchers would love to be the Rockies’ next meteor, but it doesn’t happen all that often. Apodaca calls baseball a marathon that you run in a sprint.

“Their vision is short-sighted right now,” he said. “Our vision is long. We see three, four years in the future and what benefits they’re going to gain from what they’re doing today.”


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