When MLB spring training opens next month, Steve Janssen will be standing in the Arizona sun evaluating his new bullpen. The Dutch national team isn’t returning for pre-season training. Their former coach will be flying solo in his new career as pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs Arizona complex.
Steve Janssen has just become the first Belgian coach in Major League Baseball (MLB). Named Europe’s Baseball Coach of the Year by the Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) in 2016, the 45-year old first began his coaching career back in 2000 when he began with the Rotterdam Neptunus 2nd division team. By 2003, he was coaching with the national team.
Since that time Janssen has coached the Dutch national team, as well as the top Neptunus team, through a series of championship seasons. In his 18-year history in The Netherlands, his teams have won four European Champions (2003, 2005, 2014, 2016), as well as the World Cup in 2011. Named the 2009 Dutch League Coach of the Year, he also coached in the 2004 Olympic Games and at the 2017 WBC.
Now, Janssen is headed to the bigs. The Chicago Cubs have signed Steve to a one-year contract with their Arizona facility. EBSM sat down with the coach to discuss his new role with the Cubs.
“I started coaching when I was like 13-14 years old, so it was pretty early. I helped out with the little kids. For some reason I always got more desire out of coaching than playing and nobody understood it, even my dad never understood it but, for some reason, it just gave me a little bit more.”
Before becoming a coach, the Antwerp native spent just a few years playing ball in Belgium. At the age of 15, Janssen was already catching in the top Belgian league. Before he left the game, he would play in 7 national championships, as well as European Championships with the national team, and in European Cups with the Brasschaat Braves, where he was a player/coach his last two season.
Did your years behind the plate draw you to pitching?
My entire career wasn’t that long, because I quit playing ball pretty early, but I saw pitches every day in front of me so I could see, from a good angle, what pitchers did good and wrong.
I call myself a student of the game. I just studied all aspects of the game. I kind of tumbled into becoming the pitching coach for the Dutch. It was actually out of the blue that I became more specialized in that aspect and, from one thing another thing came and well, the snowball got bigger and bigger through the years.
How did the Cubs come into the picture?
The way, I think, it always does at that stage. They were looking for people and talking to the people in their network and, I assume, they came across someone in my network that threw out my name and then they called me.
I did a few phone interviews and then they said we want to continue this conversation so I went through the background check. Then we had a chat about what my preferences, in terms of work, would be. Did I prefer A ball or AA or would I rather be in Arizona at the complex year round working with the youngsters?
They told me at the start they were pretty satisfied with the entire organization, in terms of the talent they bring up, but thought they could do a better job on the pitching side. So that’s why I chose to stay at the complex and work with their youngsters, because I thought I could be more use out there.
What are you most looking forward to?
The opportunity. Being able to work for a professional organization with the history of the Cubbies and being able to get guys to the next level in their growth to become major league ball players. At the end of the road, if you could say, ‘Hey, you know what? This kid made it to the big leagues and, for some – however small or little it was – time, I was able to be part of that journey’, that would be fantastic.
You’ve been to the States before, is there anything you’re excited to being around, or having access to, on a regular basis?
Obviously it’s not only going to be a great adventure, being able to work for the Cubs, it’s also going to be a different life, a different lifestyle. I’m just looking forward to the entire opportunity, the total picture. It’s going to be fun. That’s for sure.
Do you have a next goal in mind or are you just enjoying the moment?
The next goal, the only thing I’m thinking about, like I said earlier, is to go in there and try and help those youngsters to be better players and hopefully, get them to the next level in their journey. The rest will take care of itself. The same as with players. If players play good, they get new opportunities. It’s not different for coaches over there.
At this stage I’m just going on this adventure, and to try to help the players out to become better players, and then we’ll see. We don’t even know what this day will bring so we definitely don’t know what tomorrow brings.
When we spoke in 2015, you were talking about the Long Toss throwing program created by Alan Jaeger. Is that something you still work through with pitchers?
Absolutely. For me that’s a no-brainer. I call it breathing of the arm, same thing. The arm is an organ so it has to breath so it needs to throw every day without limitation on the distance as well as the time.
I think that’s one of the main reasons why so many people get hurt these days. They don’t throw enough. I’m not saying don’t pitch enough, just don’t throw enough, especially here in Europe. They just throw to warm up instead of warming up to throw.
How long do they play catch? 5, if you’re lucky, maybe 10 minutes. That’s it. They do it just as part of their warm-up routine. Then, they go in the gym and try to lift weights but, you know what, I never saw a pitcher throw a dumbbell to a catcher.
Is there a difference between practice and playing in games that leaves athletes who practice more than compete at a disadvantage?
That’s the way I’ve always said it. It’s no different for a hitter than a pitcher. For me, a hitter has 5 different swings. He has a swing off the T, which is different than the one on soft toss, which is different than the swing when he’s doing BP and its different from the swing when he’s dry swinging on deck. And that swing on deck is different than the swing he’s taking live, when he’s facing a pitcher.
The same thing for pitchers. They’ve got different throwing when they’re playing catch, when they’re just going through the motions doing dry work. It’s different when they throw in the bullpen or on flat ground or off the mound in a game. Even off the mound in a bullpen session and in a game, it’s two different ways of throwing.
It doesn’t make sense, and especially in Europe. I call us the world champions of practice. I’m not going to say we don’t get better, but we still have that big gap, and that’s because we just don’t face the competition we have to. The only way to get better is to challenge yourself against that next level. It’s as simple as that.
Leading by example Janssen has risen to his own career challenge and is headed to the bigs as a result. We look forward to following this European-bred coach through his MLB career. Watch this space for updates on how his new staff does under his tutelage.