COLUMBIA, MO. • Growing up in Ripon, Calif., just east of the Bay Area, Fred Corral spent many days tagging along with his mother at the convalescent home where she worked. Fred treasured visiting with countless folks he’d call his adopted grandparents, listening carefully to their stories about baseball, especially the Los Angeles Dodgers and especially a certain lefthanded pitcher whose legends captivated the child, a lefty himself.
“It was always a great joy because they’d tell you stories about Sandy Koufax that would make you think he was 20 feet tall and throw the ball faster than anyone ever could,” Corral said. “I grew up locked and loaded on Sandy Koufax stories.”
Koufax retired in 1966, long before Corral could watch him uncork a fastball, but after his own college pitching career — he was an All-Pac-10 lefthanded reliever at Cal-Berkeley in 1987 — Corral later crossed paths with southpaw royalty.
In his second of many jobs in baseball, Corral was a pitching instructor with the Dodgers. In spring training before the 2000 season, Corral was watching a young lefty throw in Vero Beach, Fla.
“I get a tap on my shoulder and I hear, ‘Do you mind if I work on this guy’s breaking ball?’” Corral said. “I turn and there’s Sandy Koufax.”
To this day Corral isn’t sure what mush came out of his mouth next.
“Oh my gosh .. sure … here,” he recalled. “That’s what my brain was saying.”
Nearly 20 years later, Corral has crafted a life around his craft. Now in his second season as Missouri’s pitching coach, he’s in charge of a whole staff of promising lefties.
There’s a little known secret over at Taylor Stadium: These Tigers might be pretty good. Armed by one of the Southeastern Conference’s best collection of arms, Mizzou (20-10-1, 3-5-1 SEC) is up to No. 27 in the NCAA’s RPI after shaking off some early nonconference losses. The Tigers opened league play on the wrong end of a three-game sweep at Arkansas — the Razorbacks (No. 6 RPI) only outscored MU 9-5 in the series —but have since taken two of three from nationally ranked Ole Miss and split last weekend’s series at Texas A&M 1-1-1.
The Tigers still aren’t getting much offense, especially from projected first-round MLB draft pick Kameron Misner, but heading into this weekend’s home series against Kentucky (16-13, 1-8), Corral’s staff ranks No. 8 nationally in ERA (2.81) and has the SEC’s lowest ERA in conference play (1.81). The Tigers have held opponents to a league-low batting average (.207) while issuing the fewest walks (24) and inducing the most double plays (12). On Tuesday, Mizzou held off St. Louis University 3-2 in 10 innings —the Tigers’ fourth extra-inning game in a week — and blasted Kansas State 17-2 on Wednesday.
“Our confidence is peaking,” said Corral, who came to Steve Bieser’s MU staff from Georgia and has also coached pitchers at Tennessee, Memphis and Oklahoma. “Our guys are understanding our strengths. They know that hitting is the toughest thing you can do in all sports and they’re playing their strengths and playing their odds.”
Odds come up a lot when Corral is on one end of a conversation. He insists on simplicity with his pitchers and often reminds them of the Rule of 68.
“Sixty-eight percent of batted balls result in an out,” he said, which reminds Corral of another anecdote, many of which he’ll recite during a 40-minute interview at the team facility on Thursday, the team’s only off day this week.
Corral recalled a lesson Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux once said he learned from his father, a former blackjack dealer in Las Vegas.
“He told Greg, ‘You’re the house and the house always wins,’” Corral said. “In pitching that’s the case. You have an advantage as a pitcher. When you don’t overthink things and you attack with your strengths and you allow the hitters to make it tough on themselves, that’s where you find success.”
This season, the Tigers have untapped their talents different ways under Corral’s watch, from utilizing his thirst for the latest technology to absorbing old fashioned tough love. But for any pitcher who’s been part of his teams — he calls his group of pitchers a brotherhood, not a staff — there is one blueprint: Corral’s seven-step plan. It’s a mental map, Corral said, to guide his pitchers through every scenario they face on the mound all aimed toward throwing strikes and finding paths to the most optimal pitch counts.
Corral, 52, has coached 83 players who have signed professional baseball contracts, including former Tennessee Volunteer Luke Hochevar, the No. 1 overall MLB pick in 2006. Hochevar, a student of the seven steps and, more famously, a key piece in the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen during their 2015 World Series championship season, has called Corral the best pitching coach he’s ever worked with.
When he joined Bieser’s staff last year, Corral quickly won over his new charges.
“He can get you the answers you need to anything,” junior lefty T.J. Sikkema said. “If he doesn’t know the answer he’ll find someone who’s best suited to get the answer. He’s always going to be working for you.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a coach who’s more passionate about pitching,” said senior lefthander Tyler LaPlante. “The guy knows more about pitching than I know about most of life.”
LaPlante (1-1, 2.70 ERA) has established himself as the Saturday starter in Mizzou’s all-lefty weekend rotation, flanked by junior college transfer Jacob Cantleberry (3-1, 2.75) on Fridays and Sikkema (2-2, 1.05) on Sundays. Corral has used different approaches for three very different pitchers, resulting in similarly dominant results.
With an assortment of five equally effective pitches, LaPlante has benefited the most from Corral’s embrace of advanced technology, notably Rapsodo, software that calculates a pitch’s velocity, spin rate, spin axis and break. As the brotherhood’s self-appointed “traditional crafty lefty,” LaPlante relies more on control and less on raw power while mixing a fastball that can touch 90 miles per hour with a changeup, curveball and slider.
“He won’t blow it by you, but he knows himself and know how he can get guys out,” Sikkema said. “He’s disciplined enough with his 85, or maybe 90, that he might have any given day to locate pitches, to throw off speed and to understand hitters’ swings. It’s really amazing how much of the mental game he puts into it.”
Lately LaPlante has toyed with a knuckle splitter, a pitch he studied through the Rapsodo program and brought to life on the mound. Corral calls it a power curve.
LaPlante pitched the first nine innings of Saturday’s 15-inning victory at Texas A&M despite a finger blister that caused him to give up on his slider after two turns through the Aggies’ lineup.
“Ok, use the power curve,” he told him.
Before LaPlante and his bloody blister abandoned the slider, Texas A&M No. 3 hitter Braden Shewmake smacked two singles off the lefty. Seeing LaPlante’s new pitch the next two at-bats, Shewmake flied out and grounded out to the pitcher.
“That showed (LaPlante’s) aptitude,” Corral said, “and how technology allowed him to get there.”
Sometimes too much technology can backfire. That’s what happened to Cantleberry last fall. He came to Mizzou known for a wicked changeup he honed at San Jacinto Community College in Houston but struggled with his command in Mizzou’s fall scrimmages. He tried to pump fastballs in the mid 90s that he couldn’t harness. His walks soared. Corral noticed Cantleberry became too consumed with the team’s technology.
Since taking over the program three years ago Bieser has put an emphasis on using the latest tech programs and even hired a student, MU senior statistics major and Parkway Central graduate Matt Kane, to serve as the team’s manager of advanced analytics. He computes data from programs like Rapsodo and Trackman and HitTrax to give Bieser, Corral and their players more knowledge on the mound and in the batter’s box.
For years at Sacramento City College Corral worked under longtime coach Jerry Weinstein, who would later manage in the minor leagues and built a reputation as one’s the game’s true tech-savvy innovators. They’re so close, Corral gave his oldest son Justin the middle name Jerome after Weinstein.
“He’s my mentor,” Corral said.
But, Corral has learned, sometimes technology can be too much. Last fall, some pitchers were so wrapped up in spin rate that their mechanics suffered. Cantleberry included.
When he joined the team last year the transfer was too “hardheaded,” Corral said. Solution? Corral went hard right back at him.
“It took a little stern relationship to say, ‘Hey, this is who you are right now. We’re going to get you where you need to be with those higher velocities, but you’ve got to master the strike zone. … He was so inundated with technology that he was scrambling his own eggs.”
Cantleberry was making a mistake that’s common for young pitchers, focusing too much on what happens on the mound and not the plate. Corral likened it to driving with your eyes focused on the steering wheel instead of the road.
“I got on him, but I couldn’t love him more,” Corral said.
“I just think it’s because he had high expectations for me,” Cantleberry said. “He wanted to see me do better. He brings out a lot of intensity in all of us.”
Cantleberry has since added a slider and relied on a changeup that’s the envy of the brotherhood. He throws it anywhere from 75 to 85 mph and can move it to all corners of the plate. He leads the staff with 55 strikeouts in just 39 1/3 innings.
Corral calls the changeup “one of the most devastating, dirtiest pitches I’ve ever had as a coach.”
“The thing almost acts like a knuckleball the way it comes out of his hand. It has such low spin rate,” LaPlante said “It’s such a swing-and-miss pitch for him.”
Then there’s Sikkema, who tied a Mizzou freshman record with eight wins two years ago mostly pitching out of the bullpen. Projected as a high draft pick this summer, Sikkema is Corral’s unquestioned leader and owns the team’s best concoction of velocity, movement and intensity on the mound. In 42 2/3 innings he’s allowed just three extra-base hits (no homers) and five earned runs with 43 strikeouts.
“Dude comes in chucking anywhere from 91 to 95,” LaPlante said. “Obviously it’d be nice to have that kind of velocity.”
“He’s a true warrior,” Corral said. “Some guys have to be archers. Some guys have to man the catapults. T.J. is one of those first-in guys.”
Corral recently told a major league scout he likes pitchers who are fighters. But that’s not Sikkema.
“Anybody can get into a fight,” Corral told the scout. “It’s the ones who can finish fights that you want. He’s one of those.”
Corral has a nickname for guys like Sikkema: Big Shooter. His Twitter account (@FCorral34) is loaded with references.
“I’ve used that my whole career,” Corral said. “It means tough guy. He’s a bad ass. You think Big Shooter you think of Clint Eastwood and the tumbleweed coming across the way.”
Corral’s approach with Sikkema this year has been simple: Give him the ball and get out of the way.
“One thing I’ve learned is maybe coaching (a pitcher) up is shutting up,” he said. “I let T.J. do what he’s very familiar with. His stuff plays bigger than what it is. And it’s pretty good. But it plays bigger because of the confidence that he has, the trust and the knowing of his strengths.”
There’s been times the last two seasons during a tight midweek game when Sikkema has asked for the ball to get the Tigers out of a jam even though he’s slated for a weekend start.
“I’m still that guy,” said Sikkema, the veteran of the brotherhood with a career 13-9 record and 2.58 ERA with 200 strikeouts in 192 innings. “There’s just something about me once I get around the game I want to be the guy with the ball in my hand.”
Corral has learned to let him pitch. In a pinch, Sikkema knows how to throttle his velocity to conserve his arm for the next outing. With a 3-2 lead in the 15th inning Saturday, Bieser and Corral let Sikkema get the final three outs for the save, even though he was scheduled to pitch the next day.
Caution was thrown into the Texas wind.
“One thing I’ve learned,” Corral said, “is fear ceases all forward movement. Good things that have happened on this planet don’t happen because someone has said, ‘I’m going to tread lightly.’”
The next day, a game that ended in a 2-2 tie through 10 innings because the Tigers had to catch a plane out of Houston, the Aggies touched Sikkema for only a pair of unearned runs through seven innings.
Just another Big Shooter firing strikes for the Tigers this spring.