Four years after being drafted by the Red Sox in the 13th round out of Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., Keith Couch is still learning.
At the same time, though, he’s teaching.
The past two off seasons, the righthander has gone back to New York to coach.
Two years ago, Couch went back to his alma mater and chipped in as a pitching coach under longtime coach Dom Scala.
Last fall, he went back the Storm Baseball Academy, the batting cages he trained at growing up in Mineola, N.Y., and started giving private lessons and coaching an area travel team.
When Couch got a call from his former high school coach at Holy Trinity, Bob Malandro, to come back, he jumped at that opportunity, too.
The way Couch figures it, the next generation of players is also helping him as much as he’s helping them.
“Everything that I get, I try to give that to them and stress to them and it’s a mutual respect thing,’’ Couch said. “They see where I’m at right now and the success I’ve been having and that I’m looking out for them, trying to really show them the way of how it’s supposed to be.
“I just take my experiences and I pass it along to them. The best way to get through to guys is to share what you’ve been through and hopefully they can learn something.”
At 24, Couch has pushed his way through the Red Sox system with his baseball intellect as much as his slider, changeup, and signature sinker that he uses to induce so many ground balls.
Seeing the game through the eyes of both coach and player gives him a unique perspective, he said.
In his first five starts for the Double A Portland Sea Dogs this season, Couch is 4-0 with a 2.48 ERA. In his most recent outing, a 10-2 win over the Reading Fighting Phils, he sat down the first 17 batters he faced. He went 6⅔ innings, giving up just two runs on five hits with no walks and a season-high seven strikeouts.
When Couch and Sea Dogs cerebral pitching coach Bob Kipper talk about the game, Couch understands where Kipper’s coming from.
“Our conversations are about trusting my stuff and letting it play and just reading swings from there,” Couch said. “That’s how you know how to attack guys. If they’re out in front, slow them down. If they’re late, speed them up. Just playing the game. It’s a chess match. That’s the biggest thing.”
Kipper stresses the psychological side of the game, Couch said.
“That’s the biggest thing because everyone at this level has the capabilities,” Couch said. “That’s the biggest separator is the mental side of the game. Our pitching coach here really stresses that with us. He’s been huge helping me out with that. It’s really paying off.”
Couch made his Double A debut last season and the most important thing he learned was having a plan on the mound and trusting his pitches. He’s 12-1 as a starter in Double A with a 2.83 ERA in 20 starts.
“It’s honestly just staying composed and having a plan of attack,” Couch said. “That’s the biggest thing. Walks kill. Just attacking guys and going right at them and trusting my stuff and knowing that I can play at this level and hopefully at levels higher and trusting what you have. It got me this far as it is.”
As a groundball pitcher, having faith in his arsenal is crucial because he wants hitters to put the ball in play.
“That’s going to happen,” he said. “You’ve just got to trust it. That’s the biggest thing. Bad thoughts creep into your mind, you’ve just got to block them out as much as possible. That’s human nature to have that way of thinking, but you’ve just got to block it out and just keep going about it. Good things are going to happen. [Hitters] only succeed 30 percent of the time if they’re a Hall of Famer.”
Spending the offseason watching younger players progress gives Couch a better understanding of the mental side of the game, he said.
“One-hundred percent,” Couch said. “It just helps me, looking at these kids and seeing what they’re doing wrong and I can relate it to myself when I’m pitching.
“It’s like the other side of the game, so you can see both sides of it. I think it’s beneficial to me. I feel like in the offseason it’s more like my studying for the season.”
Part of the reason he gives back is because he knows what a difference having a mentor in the big leagues can make.
For Couch, that mentor was righthander Rob Steinert, who spent time in the Blue Jays’ system in the mid-1990s.
“He’s the one that really turned it around for me, got me on the workout side of it, helped me out mechanically, getting the work ethic,” Couch said. “He was one of the big factors to helping me be on this path.”
So whenever one of his players reaches out, Couch never hesitates to respond, even if he’s in the middle of a season.
“I told my guys in the offseason, when I leave, just because I’m gone doesn’t mean I’m not going to be there to help you,” Couch said. “Stay in touch. Let me know what’s going on. Guys send me video and stuff. They send me the articles from their local high school. The guys are killing it.”
And even though he’s still working his way up the Sox’s organizational ladder, Couch has already had thoughts of coaching once his career’s done.
“That’s 100 percent what I want to do, life after baseball, is to do that,” Couch said. “That’s something that I definitely look forward too.”
Three to watch
1. Trey Ball, Greenville: The Red Sox’ highest draft pick in two decades made his debut Sunday, after staying back for extended spring training. And while parts of his outing were rocky (he gave up three runs on no hits) the 19-year-old went five innings, throwing 49 of his 73 pitches for strikes, to pick up the win.
2. Bryce Brentz, Pawtucket: The 25-year-old slugger mashed through the first month of the season, hitting four homers and driving in 22 RBIs. His grand slam on Tuesday against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs fueled the PawSox’ 8-0 win. In the previous 11 games coming into Thursday, Brentz was hitting .350 (14 for 40) with two homers and 13 RBIs.
3. Matty Johnson, Salem: The 26-year-old outfielder put his slow start (12 for 54 in his first 13 games) behind him and was riding an 11-game hitting streak going into Thursday, hitting .340 (16 for 47) with two doubles, a triple, 15 runs scored, and 7 walks.
Etc . . .
After giving up five runs in his first start of the season, Teddy Stankiewicz, the Red Sox’ second-round pick last season, won his next three starts for Greenville, giving up nine hits and just three runs while striking out 10 over 17 innings. He ran into trouble in his most recent outing, however, giving up four runs on eight hits in five innings in a 5-1 loss to Greensboro . . . Salem second baseman Reed Gragnani, drafted by the Sox in 2013, is second in the Carolina League in hitting (.365) average and third in on-base percentage (.438) . . . Hard-throwing righthander Anthony Ranaudo struck out seven over five innings in the PawSox’ win on Tuesday.