March 22, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Sitting on the couches in the Doubek VIP Room overlooking Goodwin Field at Cal State Fullerton, Jason Dietrich isn’t used to this. The Titans’ fourth-year pitching coach, soft-spoken by nature, shies away from the attention of an interview and photo shoot, let alone a story about him.
He was the same way when he pitched for Mater Dei High School, Rancho Santiago College (now Santa Ana College), Pepperdine and then four years with the Colorado Rockies organization. With long, flowing hair and glasses then, he focused on working as hard as he could, being a good teammate and earning wins.
Now as a coach at Fullerton (11-9 through Monday), he’s driven to mentoring elite pitchers. He’s helped develop major league draft picks Thomas Eshelman, Justin Garza, Michael Lorenzen and Tyler Peitzmeier. His staffs have shattered the program record for earned-run average, as well as ranking near the top in most shutouts, lowest opponent batting average, fewest hits, fewest runs, fewest walks and fewest home runs allowed.
The Titans’ 2016 pitching staff currently ranks fourth in the nation in ERA (1.92).
In January, Dietrich spoke at the American Baseball Coaches Association national convention in Nashville, Tenn., about his pitching philosophy. But even with the spotlight on him, he illuminates others.
“It’s all for the player,” said Dietrich, 43. “That’s why I do it: I do it for the players.”
Sean O’Leary was running out of options in 2006. The senior Cal State Los Angeles pitcher’s scholarship was pulled after the departure of the coaching staff, prompting him to pay his own way or find another program. Coaches weren’t exactly seeking a knuckleball pitcher, either.
His prospects brightened once Dietrich arrived as pitching coach. Dietrich advocated for him to retain a spot on the team, believing in his potential when others didn’t.
“Coach Dietrich is the Greg Maddux of pitching coaches,” O’Leary said, referring to the Hall of Famer. “He takes pitchers that show heart and determination and makes them into a better player.”
“It’s easy to like a pitcher who passes the eye test of 6-foot-3, 95 miles per hour arm,” O’Leary continued. “But (Dietrich) would take a staff of 5-10, 85 to 88 (mph) who had heart and determination to succeed. He is simple-minded but teaches the complete package of the art of pitching, the way Maddux pitched.”
Roughly 6 feet and 175 pounds, Jimmy Litchfield pitched for UC Irvine from 2011 to ’14. He didn’t throw hard, but Dietrich, who served as UCI’s pitching coach for two seasons, convinced him he could be successful.
Litchfield eventually pitched for the Anteaters in the 2014 College World Series.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity (Dietrich) gave me, because there was plenty of other colleges who just turned away from me, told me I’d never be able to pitch at the D-I level,” Litchfield said.
Dietrich’s philosophy boils down to work ethic: grind and grind, day after day, year after year.
“He told me, ‘I have faith in you. You do the work, put in the time and effort and you’ll succeed,’” O’Leary said. “And he was right.”
Dietrich understands his players because he wasn’t physically overpowering himself. Small and known as the quiet kid who had worn glasses since fifth grade, no one expected much from Dietrich.
But he thrived at Rancho Santiago College with competitiveness and intellect. “He was a hard worker,” said Don Sneddon, former Rancho Santiago coach and Titans All-American and assistant coach.
“He looked like he might have been a chemistry major instead of a pitcher,” Sneddon continued. “Right away he changed that image when he went out and pitched and competed. He was definitely a competitor on the mound.”
Dietrich learned his work ethic from Sneddon and from attending Cal State Fullerton baseball games with his father and brothers. He saw how hard the players sprinted on and off the field. “You respected how hard they played from the first pitch to the last pitch,” Dietrich said. “That’s helped me understand and respect the game.”
He instills that same hustle in his Fullerton players now as a coach. Every drill must be completed with game-speed intensity. Simply “going through the motions” is unacceptable.
Eshelman, an All-American right-hander who was selected 46th overall by the Houston Astros in the 2015 MLB draft, learned the hard way.
The 18-year-old rookie was often instructed to train at the Student Recreation Center for extra repetitions (as were all of the pitchers). He didn’t know that Dietrich went to the center at the end of the day to ensure his players’ names were on the check-in roster.
“Of course, me being a freshman, I didn’t go,” Eshelman said. “He asked me about it. Obviously I lied, I didn’t want to get in trouble. He pretty much disciplined me, got me to go in there, and he demanded that out of all of us.”
Dietrich also monitors classes, grades and bullpens. “He was pretty much a presence in anything you did at school and I think that’s what helped people strive and become better men because of it,” Eshelman said. “He’s not getting pleasure out of finding you do something wrong. He’s just trying to make you accountable.”
Eshelman didn’t understand that at the time. But now?
“(Dietrich) is a key person in my life. For him to (hold me accountable), I look back and I was happy that he did,” he said.
Dietrich is able to get players to buy in to his system because he invests time off the field to build relationships with them.
While serving as pitching coach at Irvine Valley College from 2003 to ’06, he treated his pitchers to tacos every Tuesday after practice. The group talked about family, relationships, movies. Sometimes pitching wouldn’t even come up.
“He cares about people. He has their best interests at heart,” said Kent Madole, in his 15th season as Irvine Valley College’s head coach. “There’s different reasons why people decide to coach. It’s very clear Jason’s whole purpose in coaching is to give back.”
Jeff Kaplan, IVC’s current pitching coach who pitched for Dietrich as a player there, has continued the tacos tradition.
“He’s my biggest influence,” Kaplan said. “Because he was investing in the relationships, when he did get mad at you or had to yell at you or get on you about something, you knew it had the best intentions and that he was just trying to make you better.”
Dietrich teaches that pitching is about learning as much as it is competing. He encourages pitchers to befriend hitters and ask about their approaches and tendencies. He welcomes questions and input from players.
Dietrich has always been a student of the game, especially as he struggled to stay healthy as a player. He had Tommy John surgery out of high school. He had surgeries in his elbow while playing for the Rockies. After being released, he tried to play independent ball but felt another pop in his elbow. “I knew it was time to move on,” Dietrich said.
He turned the experience into a positive, as being sidelined gave him time to watch and study the game. He picked the brains of any coach he could find, a practice he continues today.
“I try to reach out to everybody because I want to get better. I want to learn different things. It’s an ongoing thing,” Dietrich said. “I feel if I don’t do that, I feel like I’m shortchanging the players. I’m not doing my job.”
Dietrich is preparing his pitchers to make adjustments on their own. “The ultimate goal, I think, for him is for his pitchers to become their own pitching coach. That’s what they’re evolving to,” said Mike Saipe, a former Rockies teammate.
“There’s so many Fullerton players that end up playing professionally, that the sooner they can understand what he’s trying to accomplish, to get the best out of them, the better,” Saipe said.
The Titans’ pitching staff has reached new heights under Dietrich. In 2014, the staff posted the best ERA in school history (2.24) while allowing 136 earned runs in 545.1 innings pitched – the second-fewest in school history.
Reaching the College World Series in 2015, the team ranked first nationally in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.96) and walks allowed per nine innings (1.70).
“I see his influence all over those pitchers,” said UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie of Fullerton’s young pitchers this season, who have helped the Titans rank fourth nationally in ERA. Gillespie’s 2011 UCI squad posted its lowest ERA (2.95) in nearly 40 years while Dietrich was pitching coach.
“There was a lot of hype and a lot of publicity (about Eshelman and Garza), all well deserved,” Gillespie said. “I think that his impact on those guys was perhaps underrated. The truth is, as good as those guys were, and we all would like to have had them, they were not the hotshots coming out of high school. … I think he deserves high marks for their continuing development.”
Dietrich, who aspires to be a head coach, still keeps in touch with many of his former players. He will be attending O’Leary’s wedding in September. “That’s the stuff I really love about coaching: the relationships you built with people,” Dietrich said.
“Outside of helping them hopefully be the best they can be from a baseball standpoint, you hope you instill some things that will help them outside of baseball, too. … ,” he continued. “I feel like kind of a step-parent, so to speak, because you’re with them so much. But that’s our job: to help them in the direction they’re striving for.”
“If you can help keep them on their path, you’ve done your job.”