Assistant Of The Year: TCU’s Kirk SaarloosAwards
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Many eyes were on TCU pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Kirk Saarloos entering the 2016 campaign.
Saarloos had gained some serious steam on the national stage in his first three seasons with the Horned Frogs. He was considered by most to be a fast-rising commodity who would soon be a head coach. But, he wasn’t immune to naysayers. Some thought Saarloos, a former seven-year big leaguer, lucked into some prized arms at TCU when he arrived in Fort Worth prior to the 2013 season. Somehow, at least to some, he still had something to prove.
Well, anything that Saarloos needed to prove is no more after the 2016 season. As the Horned Frogs reached the College World Series for a third-straight season, the 37-year-old Saarloos did an outstanding job with his pitching staff. The Frogs had a banner 2015 season with a staff loaded with premier arms. But, from that pitching staff, they lost 48 starts, over 62 appearances out of the bullpen and over 400 total innings.
Surely the Horned Frogs weren’t going to emulate that type of success in ’16? They weren’t far off that mark. The Frogs entered the season with some major question marks on the mound. And while prized two-way star Luken Baker earned a high-profile pitching role early in the season, the Frogs lost him on the mound for the year about halfway through the spring, creating yet another tough obstacle for Saarloos’ pitchers – that on top of the uncertainty surrounding imposing righthander Mitchell Traver for much of the season.
Again, under his tutelage, the pitching staff prevailed. Jared Janczak, a Preston Morrison-like righthander, was forced to redshirt as a freshman in 2015. As Jim Schlossnagle put it during the super regional against Texas A&M, he simply wasn’t ready and needed to be much better to earn any significant innings in ’16. Janczak, thanks to Saarloos’ guidance, blossomed into one of the better and mentally strong pitchers on the staff. In addition to a quality overall campaign, Janczak made his biggest statement against A&M in the super regional. The heavily favored Aggies were supposed to be a bold test for Janczak and the Frogs. However, the righty stymied the Aggies’ imposing lineup with a fastball and slider combination, helping the Frogs set the foundation for a weekend that propelled them back to Omaha yet again.
With a pitching staff that was supposed to be in rebuilding mode, Saarloos went well beyond what was expected. TCU finished 16th nationally in ERA with a 3.18 mark after finishing the 2014 and ’15 campaigns with strong numbers as well – No. 1 nationally in ERA in ’14, second nationally in ‘15 with a 2.45 ERA.
That’s what Saarloos has done to help mold the Frogs into one of the nation’s premier pitching factories, while also establishing himself as one of the elite recruiters in college baseball.
For those reasons and more, Saarloos is the 2016 D1Baseball.com Assistant of the Year.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, last year is the best job he has done here. We lost close or more than 400 innings and had you told me before the year that Traver wouldn’t pitch for as long as he did and Baker would get hurt, and we’d still overcome those things, that’s impressive,” Schlossnagle said. “Given that we had Janczak starting in Game One of the super regional and in Omaha, I’d say he did an unbelievable job with our pitching staff. I think everyone out there and around the country were waiting to see what he could do with this pitching staff. Clearly, he has made the good ones great and the average ones much better.”
California Cool Works His Magic
Jim Schlossnagle is particular about his coaching staff. He always wants an assistant that not only will help the program reach larger goals, he also wants that assistant to help create great synergy with each member of the coaching staff, while also seeing that positive energy cascade down to the locker room.
From the first time he saw Saarloos in action, Schlossnagle didn’t need much direction to target the former big leaguer the summer of 2012 after previous assistant Randy Mazey left to become the head coach at West Virginia. The Frogs and Cal State Fullerton had played a hard-fought series that year, and Schlossnagle vividly remembers being impressed with Saarloos’ “California cool” demeanor, and of course, the results he helped produce on the mound.
So, later that year when the Frogs were playing UCLA in the Los Angeles Super Regional – a series Schlossnagle’s club lost – the long-time TCU coach called Saarloos and invited him to dinner. He wanted to get to know the young pitching coach he admired so much, but who had just two years of coaching experience.
It didn’t take long to be convinced Saarloos was the guy he wanted guiding the pitching staff moving forward. He was very much worth the risk despite an obvious lack of experience.
“I talked to Dave Serrano, John Savage and there’s a group of other coaches out there I talked to about Kirk. I told them this is what I am looking for, and I had some guys jump through the phone to talk about Kirk. I talked to a few people in pro ball, I got a lot of opinions, all very good,” Schlossnagle said. “I had followed his career as a player, and when he came back and got into coaching I always admired that he was a self-made player. It wasn’t so much that he wasn’t talented, but he was kind of a self-made pitcher. He was one of those guys you thought would make a great coach someday.
“I felt really good about him, and the night before we played UCLA in the super regional that year, we met up with he and his wife, and just had a great conversation. We went 0-2 in that super, we were home on Sunday, and I flew him out on Monday. I felt really good about his visit and I offered him the job. He’s just been outstanding,” he said. “He’s such a great human being and he’s very personable. His personality kind of balances out my personality because I’m more serious and he’s got that Southern California cool about him. He endears himself to the kids right out of the gate, and they trust him. He’s young and hip enough, and kids are really attracted to that. Beyond that, he’s just a really good coach who does a good job of taking what a kid already does and building on that.”
Lefthander Brandon Finnegan, now with the Cincinnati Reds, made arguably the most notable transformation under Saarloos. In 2012, a year before Saarloos arrived, the talented lefthander showed flashes of greatness. However, he finished the year with just 56 strikeouts, along with 30 walks in 62.1 innings of work. A year later? Finnegan had 30 more strikeouts and his free passes stayed about the same. Then, as a junior, Finnegan blossomed into one of the nation’s elite pitchers and prospects, tallying 134 strikeouts in 105.2 innings, while also showcasing three quality pitches he could throw for strikes.
“Finnegan would have to be the big transformation for me. He came in and really changed things for Brandon. The best thing he does with the pitchers is between the ears. He came from the Ken Ravizza way of thinking at Cal State Fullerton, and we are heavily invested in Brian Cain. But one thing Kirk realizes and preaches is that it doesn’t matter how often you bring in a mental coach if you don’t practice those things on a daily basis,” Schlossnagle said. “He agrees with the visual and imagery aspects of things, and I think the big thing with Finnegan is that he helped him get control of himself. One of the big sayings we have in our program is that you can’t control performance until you control yourself, and he really helped Brandon with that. He became a strike thrower and really helped him with the changeup.”
While Saarloos had had his fair share of success with power pitchers, he’s also shown versatility with pitchers of more of the pitchability variety. Saarloos helped mold the righthanded Michael Roth, Preston Morrison, into the most decorated pitcher in TCU history despite being a walk-on from North Carolina, while this past season, Janczak developed into a front-line starting pitcher about halfway through the season and never looked back.
Those are just a few of many great examples.
“One thing he doesn’t do is make pitchers pitch the way he used to. He wasn’t a power pitcher, but he recognizes the qualities of a power pitcher. He helps those guys refine their pitchability and ways of managing the strike zone,” he said. “And he’s always great for those guys who don’t have great stuff. Janczak was very similar to Morrison in just his ability to manipulate the baseball. In our program, we’re not gadgety in terms of using weighted ball programs or anything like that, not that those things are wrong. We’re just not overly mechanical. He’s going to help our guys manipulate the baseball and get it to where they want it to go. He’s really big on every single time you pick up a baseball, you have a chance to get better or worse, and our pitchers do a pretty good job with that approach.”
Synergy Sets The Tone
Schlossnagle leaves little doubt about Saarloos and his coaching staff, which includes hitting coach Bill Mosiello and Zach Etheredge: It’s the best group of coaches he’s coached with, and that includes the staff he put together as the manager of the USA Collegiate National Team.
The Frogs have an array of personalities between Schlossnagle, Mosiello, Etheredge and Saarloos. And Schlossnagle remembers a conversation he had with his wife back in 2014. TCU was sitting at 15-11 overall, 2-4 in the Big 12 Conference at the end of March that year after a tough series loss to Oklahoma State. Schlossnagle loved the synergy his staff and team had, but so far that season, it simply wasn’t showing up in the win-loss category.
Schlossnagle remained patient and the Frogs eventually prevailed. In addition to winning a wild Fort Worth Regional over Sam Houston State, the Frogs won a hotly contested super regional series against Pepperdine to advance to Omaha for the first of three-straight trips.
“There’s no doubt in my mind this is the best coaching staff I’ve ever had,” Schlossnagle said. “I remember telling my wife back in 2014 that this is the best staff I’ve ever been a part of and that it eventually had to show up on the baseball field. It’s about the players, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also about the ability to teach and the give and take with different personalities. We ended up going on that run that year and we’ve ridden it since.
“Mo [Mosiello] and I have similarities, Kirk and Zach are a little more laid back, and we all complement each other pretty well,” he continued. “You definitely can’t have everyone be the same. We’ve had some really good arguments and they are all definitely not “yes” men, which I really like. I’ve given those guys the freedom and ownership of their specific areas, and it’s really fun. The thing that has been constant the last four years is the synergy within our coaching staff.”
Saarloos has been a constant as well, and will soon be a head coach. For now, Schlossnagle is enjoying watching his pitching coach work wonders.