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The Strom List: Interview with Demetre Kokoris

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Excellent discussions with one of the best minds in the industry, and Strom’s Go-To Expert - Demetre Kokoris

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It was my great pleasure to have the opportunity to have a discussion with Demetre Kokoris. Originally I had written out a set of questions figuring I wanted to touch on some points to gain some additional insight into Brent Strom, but I can honestly say it turned into an excellent 90 minute conversation where Demetre’s passion for pitching bled through on every topic.

If you don’t know him, Demetre Kokoris is currently the pitching coach for the Blue Jays minor league affiliate. He has had a meteoric rise through the ranks from a Student Manager of a college team with some of the best coaches on the way to a College World Series, before his own success coaching some of the leading college teams before jumping into the professional ranks.

Demetre took pride in being named one of Strom’s top go-to experts. When I asked him why he thought Strom named him as such, he reminisced back to 2011 and 2012 at the Texas baseball ranch, talking about Strom’s presentation largely based on Paul Davis’ work. He jokingly said that a lot of it was over his head and tough to absorb in a short setting, but that Strom had given out his email address and said to contact him with questions.

Demetre eager to learn, took advantage of that as much as he could. He would send emails to Strom asking for more details or explanation when there was something he wasn’t understanding or when it conflicted with a different viewpoint he previously held.

But since then, their relationship has changed. He talks about Strom as a friend, and an “80 grade” story teller, with the ability to immediately relate to the people he’s talking with. Now, every time Demetre sees a potential break-through or cutting edge topic, he has an open dialogue with Strom to vet out the idea. Throughout the conversation, you can see why Strom would see him as such as a resource as he comes into every topic with an open mind and a never ending quest to continue learning.

He told me about his time coaching the Northwood League, a collegiate league that often pushes college players (and their coaches) to the limit as they play something along the lines of 73 games in 76 days. He told me during this time, he was coaching with Ben Stephenson, who previously served with the Twins as a AA video coach. At the time, they were playing about an hour south of Target field. Realizing the Astros would be in town he sent a message to Strom to see if he potentially had some time to catch up. Strom gladly obliged meeting them for breakfast. As he reminisced, he talked about Strom building an immediate rapport with an awestruck Ben. He said Strom noticed the minor league championship ring that Ben had, and honed in on it. During this tough stretch of games without days off, Strom brought back a sense of joy. He talked with Ben, telling him how incredibly proud he should be of what he’s accomplished. From the championship to the progress he was making with their current group of players. As you can imagine, Brent Strom, a World Series Champion and Coach of the Year encouraging a coach during this time was uplifting and helped reinvigorate spirits.

From there the conversation went into the challenges of taking this incredibly complex information - ranging from biomechanics to physics and breaking down that information into palatable bites of information to help guide a pitcher. He talks about learning the mindset of a pitcher, understanding what they perceive the reason they’ve been successful and building on it. Strom always says to shut up and listen to the pitcher, and that’s exactly where Demetre starts. I jokingly asked him about stubborn pitchers who believed they had it all figured out and the challenges that posed. Demetre loves these pitchers. The confidence, finding things in their mind that make them successful and working to build off of that to get the most out of them.

I was always curious how a coach goes about that process - expecting it to be days of studying film and being prepared with the “answers”. Demetre takes a very different approach, seeking to understand a pitcher, their internal motivations and the “why” they play the game. While he does spend extensive amounts of time studying film, he speaks to scouts on why the player was drafted, college coaches on what they saw, and most importantly, the pitcher themselves. He’s a believer in gathering as much information as he can.

Demetre talked a bit about the analytics identifying the strengths of a pitcher and what changes were needed to maximize their effectiveness, but the larger challenge comes to relaying that information to a pitcher in a way they understand and buy into. The importance of learning their why and demonstrating the difference in the changes they make is essential for the pitcher’s buy in, particularly when a player may perceive the “result” of their action too strongly ultimately altering the way they approach it going forward.

As for the beliefs and theories, the names on Demetre’s list shouldn’t surprise anyone with familiar names such as Paul Nyman, Tom House, and Mike Marshall on a mechanics standpoint to overall coaching of Derek and Wes Johnson.

From a training perspective, Demetre is a large believer in the Dynamic Systems Theory we reviewed by Fronz Bosch, but seems to have touches of Gambetta and Bleecker, ensuring his players are always training with a specific goal in mind. The conversation evolved into the technology and tools that have become so essential to the game, and which he thought were the most important. Unlike a lot of the experts who had a focus in a specific area, he’s a believer that the answer is completely dependent on the individual. With tools like Raspodo, Edgertronic, Force Plates etc all providing information that allow you to evaluate a pitcher and identify a weakness. From there, he utilizes a wide range of equipment/tools (such as the Core Velocity Belt and Weighted Balls) that will provide a tailored program to improve an area or eliminate a weakness.

It comes down to designing specific training programs to eliminate weaknesses they identify, finding a way to measure and improve that area from a pitcher. Since we had discussed a lot in regards to the other technologies and approaches that Bosch, Bleecker, Gambetta etc had put forward I had asked him more specifically about control. Out of personal curiosity, I wondered if there was a metrics that measured this, asking naively if there was something as simple as percentage of time they hit the catcher’s target. He explained in detail that it’s still an evolving field and the metric wouldn’t be that simple as there are “safe” zones to miss vs locations that a miss can do a lot of damage. (Missing a high fastball by going higher isn’t a problem, but missing low could potentially lead to major damage).

So in a world where having a measurable output to find ways to improve performance, the lack of a defined process seemed abnormal, so how does he measure and improve in this area? He created a competitive game. Having a pitcher watch every pitch from their previous outing, giving themselves points for executing the pitch to get a “score” and working to improve it. Additionally, he talked about the mindset challenge for a player who hits the marks in the bullpen but struggles once he gets against live competition. As you may expect, players get nervous looking to be so perfect that they end up losing the game plan they went into the game with.

And the mental game? Well, it’s one of the key elements to success for Demetre. Having worked along side long-time legendary sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, Demetre found a mentor. Not only the elements of “why” that we discussed earlier, but teaching exercises that allow a pitcher to mentally reset. As an example, he described a pitchers mindset in a fashion similar to a stoplight. When they’re in green, they just go. They’re following their plan and they’re not in their head. Yellow? Something happens - an error, or getting squeezed on a pitch, or a pitch gets crushed. He talks about having a pitcher take a moment, taking key deep breaths and even having something they say in their mind (such as “look at what I’m going to do”). The goal of which is allowing them to focus on that instead of the events that just occurred. Lastly, is the Red zone. This is when the wheels are falling off. You keep giving up hard hits, the shortstop boots the ball, the ump just isn’t giving you the calls, etc. He describes this zone a lot like being in tilt as a poker player. When you’re in the red zone, it’s near impossible to get back to green, your goal is to survive for long enough to get back there. He talks about walking around the mound, stepping off the mound onto the grass - a different feel under your feet or something else to focus on while you work to get through it. The whole purpose is to survive long enough to get back to the dugout and reset to go back out there. We’ve all seen the pitchers that struggle with blow up innings, and Demetre uses elements from Ravizza to help train through that mindset.

But the mental game goes so much further than that. He talks about doing everything with a purpose. For him, the “trigger” to get his head into the game is to put on a baseball hat. Now? You’ll almost never see him wearing a baseball hat unless he’s in game/coaching mode. It allows him to switch the focus purely to baseball and nothing else once he puts that hat on.

From there we discussed the differences between coaching in professional baseball vs that of collegiate leagues. Going into the conversation, I figured it would be difference in technology, caliber of players / ego, etc. To my surprise, he described the difference in approach based on a players pedigree, describing minor league ball more similar to the fall for collegiate leagues. That’s not to say there isn’t an extreme focus on competitiveness or winning the game but a dynamic where the situation has less focus on today’s game and more on developing the player. It can be having a pitcher throw their worst pitch, or even one they normally wouldn’t lean on in a given situation. Gaining experience throwing that pitch in the heat of the game. That of course, is a complete 180 from anything prospects have experienced in competitive sports before.

But the differences don’t stop there. The game of baseball itself is different. The obvious element is wood vs metal bats, but Demetre recalled a presentation by Josh Kalk that was eye opening to him, and actually is part of why Strom’s method of high fastballs plays so well. The strike zone itself is actually different, with a larger vertical strikezone compared to the horizontal one that is common in the collegiate level. This takes pitchers who were able to survive or even thrive on pitches down and away or getting the calls on the edges to require a very different approach.

The most refreshing part of the interview to me was Demetre’s passion which continued to bleed through. Demetre is humble and not afraid to admit to making a mistake. I had asked him for advice for new coaches out there, specifically ones who have heard the sayings along the lines of “the worst thing you can do to a pitcher is teach them to be a pitcher” or “no coaching is better than bad coaching”. He recalled a story about teaching pitchers to drive off their back leg, an age old adage - then after seeing Strom’s presentation in regards to utilizing the glutes and that driving off their back leg encouraged players to become quad dominant, he was doing them a disservice. He commented that he actually thought about sending an apology letter to the pitchers he previously coached to that effect.

But that’s exactly what makes him great. He takes the time to listen to everyone’s viewpoints, to continually keep learning and improving himself. While you can easily see that Demetre has a desire to be the best pitching coach in the game, his ego doesn’t get in the way of going for his ultimate goal - which is to serve the players and do whatever he can to make them just a bit better. Ken Ravizza had told him, if you were in coaching for yourself, you’d never be successful.

And while it’s easy for anyone to just speak about altruistic goals, Demetre backs it up. In the Strom list article I highlighted a group of his podcasts, all of which are centered around giving back. From helping pitchers decide on what program is best, to helping people who want to go into coaching understand the path - he looks to share what he’s learned and give back to the community.

For new coaches interested in learning? He highly recommends learning, not only from leading experts like Strom, Derek Johnson, Wes Johnson etc - but from counterparts at your level which have been successful, and taking the best elements from them.

I pushed him for educational resources that he’d recommend, and information poured out of him faster than I could capture. So I asked him to narrow it down to three. He went with Tom Seavers’ book The Art of Pitching, Derek Johnson’s The Complete Guide to Pitching, and Driveline baseball’s resources.

I could not be more thankful for an incredible conversation with Demetre, not only for helping us gain another glimpse into Strom’s mindset, but for taking the time to explain concepts to me and giving back to the community the way he does.

The Blue Jays are lucky to have him, and I’m excited to watch their pitching prospects develop over the next few years!