July 15, 1999
There are not many athletes that thoroughly enjoy the conditioning aspect of their sport during the off season. The getting-in-shape time filled with running and lifting weights can be particularly brutal for Arizona State student-athletes because running outdoor in 100-degree heat is unpleasant to say the least.
However, ASU athletes take their sports very seriously and treat conditioning as a vital and necessary part of their success. The Sun Devil baseball program is especially adamant about the importance of conditioning, and year round players can be seen doing sprints and various exercises on the field at Packard Stadium.
The odd thing though, is that with ASU baseball it is not only the players conditioning, but pitching coach John Pawlowski as well.
"I want my players to see that if everyone around them is working hard there is no reason they shouldn't be working hard, and then translate that into their performance," Pawlowski said.
Pawlowski became the Sun Devils first full-time pitching coach under head coach Pat Murphy. Hired after the 1998 season, Murphy felt that Pawlowski's excellent track record at Clemson University and overall personality was what the ASU baseball program needed.
"He is a tremendous person, we had heard that from everyone we talked to, and that is what was most important," Murphy said.
"He also had a track record of really developing young pitchers at a school that had similar goals, to go to Omaha and win it."
Pawlowski came to ASU from Clemson where he had been the pitching coach and assistant recruiting coordinator since 1993. During his time there, Clemson made five consecutive regional appearances and had two trips to the College World Series in 1995 and 1996. The Tigers were ACC champions in 1994 and 1995 and averaged 46 wins from 1994 to 1998.
Pawlowski's pitching staff was ranked No. 1 in the nation for team ERA in 1996. That year two of his pitchers were first-round draft picks - Kris Benson (No. 1 pick to the Pittsburgh Pirates) and Billy Koch ( No. 4 pick to the Toronto Blue Jays). Clemson had 15 pitchers drafted during Pawlowski's tenure as pitching coach and the Tigers' recruiting classes have ranked in the top-10 nationally over the last five years.
That last statistic is particularly impressive and another one of the reasons why Murphy was drawn to Pawlowski.
"We had the opportunity to get someone like J.P. and we took it," Murphy said.
"He is so capable in recruiting. I think it is important for pitchers and their parents to think, 'This guy is going to be with my kid for at least three years.'"
Murphy might consider himself fortunate to have Pawlowski as a pitching coach, but Pawlowski is as equally excited to be a part of the Sun Devil program.
"Ever since I was growing up and playing I envisioned Arizona State as being the place where I wanted to come and play, but I didn't have that opportunity and now I have the opportunity to coach here," Pawlowski said.
"What Coach Murphy has done with the program and the commitment he has really excited me. In my eyes this is the greatest college baseball tradition in the country and to become part of that is something special."
Pawlowski's credentials are not only limited to his coaching experience at Clemson. He is also a former major leaguer, as he pitched in the Chicago White Sox organization from 1985 to 1991. He also had stints with the California Angels (1991-92) and Baltimore Orioles (1992) ballclubs.
A Clemson alumni, he received his bachelor's degree in industrial education in May of 1996. During his three years as a Tiger pitcher he compiled a 9-3 record his junior year and was a sixth-round draft pick to the White Sox in 1985.
Pawlowski's experience made him the number one choice to be the next Sun Devil pitching coach as he seemed most qualified to help achieve the goals of the ASU baseball program - to not just get into the NCAA tournament, but to go to Omaha and win it every year.
Another goal that Pawlowski will have a hand in is building up ASU's pitching program into one of the nation's finest.
"One of the things that Coach Murphy and I talked about before I even got here is that he envisions ASU baseball as being a pitching program, a full year-round pitching program where ASU is looked at as being a place where young pitchers want to come here and develop," Pawlowski said.
After understanding Pawlowski's pitching philosophy it would be difficult for young pitchers to not want to come play at Arizona State.
Pawlowski's dedication to his pitchers is not limited to his running and throwing with his staff. He is ultimately devoted to putting pitchers in situations where they can be successful.
"I try to keep things in perspective. The phrase I use is, 'Keep it simple smart.' That means don't overcoach, don't get too analytical with young pitchers because sometimes I think that gets in the way of performance," Pawlowski said.
"The second thing with young pitchers is putting them in situations where they can be successful. If they start off successful then it automatically starts to build, if you struggle at it in the beginning then it becomes a confidence factor and that plays a part of being unsuccessful later in their career."
These lessons were not lost on Kris Benson, currently a starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who pitched for Pawlowski at Clemson.
"He has a lot to offer young pitchers from his experience. He has been through the college atmosphere before and he's able to relate to what's going on. He has been to the higher levels and he knows what it takes to get there. It's always a plus to have a coach that has experience at all levels," Benson said.
"What I took from him is to just go out there and keep it simple. There is a point in a pitcher's career where everyone is going to be as good as you are so you have to be tough mentally."
Pawlowski does draw from his experience as a former collegiate and professional pitcher when tutoring pitchers today.
"I just think that my years of playing with the White Sox and the great teachers I had in that organization taught me a lot about staying within your ability. A lot of kids try to be something they're not," Pawlowski said.
"I try to make sure our pitchers pitch to their ability, especially as a young pitcher. A lot of pitchers will try to pitch to a hitter's weaknesses, but I think that the first and foremost thing is for them to pitch to their strengths and then when they're confident enough and understand, then they can pitch to a hitter's weaknesses."
This past season the Sun Devil pitching staff took Pawlowski's teachings to heart and had one of the finest seasons ASU baseball has seen in quite some time. While the Sun Devils' explosive offensive efforts garnered all the accolades last season, the pitching staff sat quietly in the shadows accumulating a 4.94 ERA, the first time an ASU staff has been under 5.00 in five years. Their ERA was also the second best in the Pacfic-10 Conference. The staff also posted six shutouts, the most since 1976 as well as tallying eight complete games, the most since 1995.
As far as pitching goes, the 1999 season may have been quiet, but it was always surprising since anyone could start on any given day.
"This year was kind of different because I told the pitchers they would have to accept any role they were given. I like to have definite roles, but every year is different and these guys had to be willing to start, relieve, close, whatever it may be," Pawlowski said.
"If these pitchers had been stubborn and set in their ways we wouldn't have had a very successful season. I think that reflects on Coach Murphy. He is the consummate team guy stressing fundamentals and team baseball, whatever it takes to win. I think everyone kind of buys into the whole system which makes it nice for everyone involved with the program."
Several success stories did come out of last year's staff including starter Will Waldrip's 10-3 record. Waldrip is the first Sun Devils to win 10 games since Kaipo Spencer did in (199?).
Other success stories include Jon Switzer's stunning debut as a freshman starter and Charlie Williamson as a closer. Switzer, a freshman All-American honorable mention selection, earned a 7-4 record with a 4.12 ERA and 29 walks to 78 strikeouts. In 31 1/3 innings pitched Williamson came up with a 2-1 record, 3.73 ERA, giving up only 10 walks while striking out 45.
More impressive about Williamson, along with reliever Robby Milner, is that they both switched to a sidearm motion just before the season began.
Milner who had a 5.27 ERA in 27 1/3 innings pitched in 1998, put together a 3-0 record and 4.67 ERA in 1999.
"I'm not afraid to make adjustments. The conventional arm slot is the three-quarters arm slot. Anytime you make a change there is a little doubt, but change is good because whatever you can do to be successful is the most important thing," Pawlowski said.
"There are so many pitchers out there and 80 to 90 percent of them throw three-quarters. Why not be one of the 10 percent that are a little different, but have a chance to be a little more successful?"
Williamson couldn't agree more.
"I was really willing to try anything. He seemed enthusiastic about it and had done it successfully with other pitchers before," Williamson said. "After we did it we saw successful results almost immediately. He takes a lot of time and care with each pitcher and treats pitchers as individuals, paying attention to each of our needs."
While there is no doubt that Pawlowski has already made an impact on the Sun Devil baseball program, Murphy feels the best benefits of having him as a pitching coach are yet to come.
"He was outstanding this season, the pitchers overachieved. He did a great job and really brought them together as a unit. They faced a lot of adversity on the mound. This was not exactly the year we wanted, but we still came up with 39 wins and were the 30th team in the nation at the end of the season," Murphy said.
"To have a pitching coach who is not solely into mechanics, not solely into having it done his own way - he is very flexible and open-minded and I think his adaptability is key. He is a great fit for this program, he really is."
Murphy is not the only one who appreciates the fact that Pawlowski dedicates himself to other aspects of pitching besides just the mechanics.
"Even though he knows a lot about pitching mechanics, he also knows a lot about the mental part of the game," Benson said. "You can only get so far with your physical attributes and strengths. Then you have to rely on your mind and that is what he is really great at."
However, perhaps it is Williamson who really puts why Pawlowski is sure to contribute to ASU's future successes in perspective.
"The bottom line is, he really does care about each one of his pitchers."
All the more easy to understand why his pitchers hold such respect and care so much for him.