Goss: Chris Michalak points Nationals prospects toward big leagues
By Dick Goss firstname.lastname@example.org January 30, 2013 7:38PM
Updated: March 1, 2013 7:47PM
If any pitching prospects in the Washington Nationals organization would like to learn to throw with either hand, they should approach Chris Michalak.
While in high school at Joliet Catholic in the late 1980s, Michalak was the football quarterback, a regular in basketball and one of the best pitchers in the area. He threw the football and shot the basketball right-handed yet pitched left-handed.
Think about that combination for a moment. Calling him Lefty didn’t seem right.
The 42-year-old Michalak is entering his second season as the pitching coach at Potomac, Washington’s affiliate in the A-Advanced Carolina League. We’re joking, of course, about teaching prospects to pitch with either hand. But what Michalak, who threw 191⅓ major league innings during his career, can impart to up-and-coming pitchers may help determine whether they eventually contribute in the big leagues.
“The talent between guys who are in the minor leagues and the majors is not much different,” said Michalak, who spent two seasons as pitching coach for Washington’s Class A affiliate at Hagerstown before moving up to Potomac. “But the way you go about preparing yourself is different. I have had a lot of guys who threw just as hard as guys in the big leagues, but the big-leaguers have a better plan of what they are doing.
“When you’re dealing with young guys, it may be their first full season of 140 games, playing every day. They’re used to pitching in college, where it’s only on weekends. On this level, you start teaching big-league habits, get guys ready to compete at that level.”
Even more than winning in the Carolina League, Michalak said his most important function is to teach pitchers “the things that will help them win at the next level, and the next level after that. The statistics of a pitcher at this level sometimes do not matter.”
He offered an example.
“You may be in a key situation with the game on the line,” he said. “You know you can get the batter out with your No. 1 pitch, maybe it’s your fastball.
“But I may force you to throw a pitch you’re not that comfortable with in that situation. You may lose, but you also may need to have confidence in throwing that pitch in that situation on the next level, when your fastball alone is not good enough to get the hitters out.”
The Nationals, Michalak said, do not emphasize developing 15-game winners at Potomac. If they climb the ranks and are ready to win 15 when they arrive in the big leagues, now you have something.
Michalak, a Lemont native, was a 12th-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics out of Notre Dame in 1993. He played for 13 organizations in his 17 professional seasons, making his major league debut with Arizona in 1998. He pitched for Toronto and Texas in 2001, was with the Rangers in 2002 and toiled for Cincinnati in 2006. In 61 major league games, including 24 starts, he went 10-15 with a 4.70 ERA.
He ended his career, thus retiring his legendary pickoff move, in the Toronto farm system in 2009.
“I was fortunate,” Michalak said. “My dad (Leo, the longtime and still-active Joliet Catholic pitching coach) was a big part of my career. He helped me all along the way.
“When I got to the big leagues, I definitely wasn’t on the fast track. I took some lumps. I had to learn along the way. It’s called pitching for a reason, it’s not called throwing. When I got there, I had a couple pitches I could throw in the zone and get people out, but I learned the hard way that I had to pitch all the time.”
Michalak played in the Nationals organization in 2007.
“To see where we were then to where we are now, in a short amount of time, is pretty exciting,” he said. “To see guys develop, guys that I had at Hagerstown, it’s really neat.”
Of course, Michalak, who enjoys pitching daily batting practice but adds he is thankful for the shorter B.P. distance, also deals with big names when they are on rehab assignments.
“We’ve had Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen with us, among others,” he said. “It’s great when they come down here for the guys at my level to see how big leaguers go about their business day in and day out.
“When they’re here on a rehab, they’re on a pitch count and they have their own program to follow. I pretty much just give them a reminder when they need it. If I do go to the mound, it’s usually to give them a break. They can get a little amped up and need to be calmed down a bit.”
Michalak lives in the Dallas suburb of Keller, Texas, with his wife Shannon, daughter Madison and son Tyler. Madison is a high school freshman and Tyler a seventh-grader. Family is all-important, but he also loves coaching.
“Down the road, just like when I played, I hope to move up,” he said. “But it’s a learning process all over again, and I know it is going to take some time.
“To get the uniform on and go on the field every day, though, that’s all I’ve known. If an opportunity arises down the road, I hope I’ll be considered, wherever it may be.”
For now, however, to have a hand in the rise of the Nationals is more than gratifying.