Assistant Coach Of The Year: Paul Evans
Paul Evans was the head coach at Rend Lake JC in southern Illinois when he caught his big break. During his three years at Rend Lake in the mid-1980s, Evans sent a few of his players on to play for Keith Guttin at Southwest Missouri State (now just Missouri State) and provided Guttin with information about other players in the area. In the summer of 1988, Evans was coaching in the Cape Cod League when Guttin called him up to see if he’d be interested in joining his staff as pitching coach.
“I didn’t see myself living in West Frankfort, Illinois, for the rest of my life — nothing against West Frankfort,” Evans said. “I wanted to be a Division I coach. That was 27 years ago.”
Evans hasn’t had to make another career move since. Evans, Guttin and longtime former assistant Brent Thomas (who retired in 2014 after 32 seasons working under Guttin) proved to have outstanding chemistry, and together they built their program into a Missouri Valley Conference powerhouse. From 1996-2003, the Bears made six regionals in nine years, capped by the program’s first College World Series appearance in 2003. Missouri State went through some leaner years over the next decade, but the program kept on churning out premium pitching prospects under Evans’ tutelage.
And in 2015, Missouri State won a school-record 49 games en route to its first national seed and a trip to super regionals. Evans’ pitching staff was a big reason for the Bears’ success; the MSU staff ranked 12th in the nation in ERA, third in WHIP and fourth in strikeouts per nine innings. And the two leaders of the staff reached great heights, as righthander Jon Harris became the fifth pitcher to be drafted in the first round under Evans, and lefty Matt Hall earned first-team All-America honors after leading the nation with 171 strikeouts.
For his outstanding work in 2015, after many years of exemplary service at Missouri State, Evans is the 2015 D1Baseball Assistant Coach of the Year.
“He’s done a really good job for a really long time, but I think if you look at this year’s staff, we had three guys that had great years — that would be Jon Harris, Matt Hall and (closer) Bryan Young,” Guttin said. “But I think where you really need to look is how the other guys performed, and I think that’s where Coach Evans really came through, with the performance of those other guys.”
Guttin cited the performance of No. 3 starter Jordan Knutson (6-2, 3.16) and setup man Sam Perez (9-1, 3.31) as particular success stories for Evans this year.
“For lack of a better term, Sam had kind of been a journeyman righthander for us,” Guttin said. “Paul gave him a very defined role, and he was 9-1 for us. This is is a guy who had thrown very little for us in his first two seasons. Sam Perez was money in the bank in that setup role, and I give Paul a lot of credit for his development and his usage.”
Evans determines how each pitcher is used on his own. Guttin said about three years ago, he gave Evans complete autonomy over the pitching staff.
“I said, ‘I want you to make all the in-game moves.’ So he handles the pitching staff during games, he handles the pitching changes. We don’t even really discuss it — it’s up to him, and that’s worked out very well for us,” Guttin said. “We’ve been together 27 years. He does a great job putting together scouting reports on how to attack opponents’ hitters, and he spends a lot of time doing that. I just felt like he’s got better feel for how to attack guys, and it’s worked out very well for us.”
It’s fitting that Guttin used the word “attack,” because that word seems to come up over and over again when pitchers and coaches describe Evans’ philosophy. Hall describes Evans’ mantra this way:
“Basically just get after it. I mean, attack, attack, attack. You can’t expect to win when you’re giving everyone free passes; just know that the numbers are always going to be in your favor. Just compete with quality stuff every day.”
That’s another important word — “compete.” One reason Evans has been so successful for so long is that he keeps things simple. He doesn’t try to be a mechanical “guru.” He’ll help pitchers make mechanical adjustments when necessary, but the bedrock of his approach to teaching is a focus on mentality.
“He just had to drill into my head: ‘Compete. You can’t be a Friday night guy and go out there and walk six guys and give up five runs per game,’” Harris said. “His biggest thing to me, he always told me, ‘When you’re on the mound, you’ve got to be a prick. Don’t take no for an answer, go out there and get 27 outs and give your team a chance to win.’ They’re throwing their ace against me, I can’t let anybody beat me. I’ve got to be a bulldog. From day one when I got into school, that was his big thing: being able to compete and get outs. That’s what I had to learn early on.”
Harris showed up on campus as a promising prospect — he was drafted late by the Blue Jays out of high school — but he needed to fill out his 160-pound frame and learn how to win. In that respect, he was similar to fellow tall, lean, projectable pitchers that have blossomed under Evans — first-rounders Pierce Johnson, Ross Detwiler and Brett Sinkbeil. But he’s also had great success with pitchers who don’t fit that prototype, from undersized lefties like Hall and Buddy Baumann to 6-foot righties like nine-year big leaguer Shaun Marcum to funky low-slot guys like eight-year big leaguer Brad Ziegler. All of them thrived under Evans’ leadership.
One hallmark of the Evans/Guttin philosophy is teaching players to think for themselves. They let catchers and pitchers call their own games, which serves to keep the game moving at a brisk pace and keep the defense engaged, but also gives the players more confidence, according to Harris. Later, Evans sits down with them and breaks down pitch selection from the previous game. Not many college pitching coaches handle their staffs that way.
“In the games I’ve played, the catcher looks over, and the pitching coach will give a number sequence, then they look at the wristband, and that tells them, ‘fastball inside corner high and in,’ or something,” Harris said. “It takes away from the individual learning how to pitch themselves, learning how to pitch guys, how good your stuff is and how it works. It also takes away from confidence. If you’re behind a guy who’s a big power hitter, being able to throw that 2-0 breaking ball, or throw that 3-2 changeup to a lefty and getting him to roll over it or swing and miss at it or whatever — being able to call your own game teaches you how well you can pitch without someone else doing it for you.”
Talent is a wonderful thing, but it can only take you so far. At some point, you’ve got to learn how to pitch, and Evans simply has a knack for teaching guys how to get outs, as Guttin puts it. Still, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for those future first-rounders, but Evans shepherded them through.
“We all have hiccups,” Evans said. “Jon, as a sophomore pitching at Bradley, he had a four-run lead, he walked some guys, gave up some hits when he was ahead in the count. I took him out — it wasn’t one of those happy days the next day discussing it. But with Pierce and him both, they missed turns in the rotation. I said, ‘You’re not starting next weekend. We’re going to try something else.’ Maybe it was something we could afford to do or thought we had to do, but it was a little bit of a punch in the gut to them, or a slap in the face, to make them realize, ‘This isn’t something that is guaranteed or given to you. You’ve got to keep earning these things.’ And they were better people and better pitchers for it.”
Guttin said Evans has the important ability to be tough with players when necessary or joke around with them or put his arm around them at other times. By all accounts the hulking Evans — with his goatee and unruly mop of graying hair poking out behind his hat — is a perfect complement to the smaller, clean-shaven Guttin — who has more of a “calm” demeanor, as Hall terms it. Evans is much more likely to crack a joke in the dugout or get fired up in a big moment, while Guttin keeps an even keel.
“He can be a little more stern in his look come game time, but as the head coach maybe you should be,” Evans said. “I can be the guy that’s more loose, or cut up or whatever. It’s been a lengthy marriage when you’ve been together with someone for 27 years. After a while, you know who they are, you know what their tendencies are, you know what they like or dislike, you can almost repeat what they’re going to say in any given moment.”
But one key area they’re similar is that both are straightforward — they don’t “sugarcoat” things, as Evans put it. And players respect that. Evans has formed a strong bond with many former players who spend a lot of time around the program in the offseason, like Nick Petree, Cody Schumacher, Baumann and Ziegler. Harris said he expects to follow in those footsteps and become another alum who spends plenty of time around the program. He values his relationship with Evans beyond baseball.
“Off the field you can talk to him, you can have a conversation with him about anything, not just about baseball,” Harris said. “He’s a big guy with jokes, he always likes to lighten us up during batting practice when we’re sitting around, he’ll tell us a joke to keep everybody loose. He’s just a fun guy to be around. Whenever there was something going on I needed to talk about, I’d call Coach Evans, because he was an outside person to talk to outside of my parents, to give me an unbiased opinion on something.
“To be able to build a relationship as player/coach and a friend-to-friend relationship — I still talk to him now about anything and everything. He’s always there to listen, always there to lend a helping hand. That makes him one of the unique and rare coaches that most guys don’t get to have.”