One of Mike Martin Jr.’s first jobs as the head coach for Florida State baseball was to hire a pitching coach.
Some thought he might go with someone local, a person that he had ties with, or a former Seminole. Instead, he went in his own direction and he found someone that immediately changed the trajectory of Florida State’s pitching staff.
Jimmy Belanger was hired as FSU’s new pitching coach last summer and in the time spent scouting the team since, the Seminoles’ pitching has looked more powerful, commanding, and confident than in any recent season.
“He thinks how I think when it comes to pitching; he’s innovative,” Martin Jr. said on what made him so confident in hiring Belanger.
“His personality is such that he’s a family guy that genuinely cares about his players and how they perform and how they go about their life.”
The family atmosphere at Florida State was one of the biggest reasons Belanger was excited to take the job after talking to Junior.
“Meat’s great. It all starts with him. He’s the leader of the program and he instills all that. It obviously comes from 11 and he’s been around this place his entire life,” Belanger said on the family atmosphere in the program.
“Whenever I talk to recruits, I always tell them, programs can preach family, but the Martin family has been involved at Florida State forever. It is a true family atmosphere.”
Improvement across the board
Florida State’s pitching staff improved their numbers in every major statistical category from 2019 to 2020. Despite it being a short season, FSU still faced three top 10 teams in its first 17 games. FSU’s team ERA dropped by 1.92 runs, the WHIP dropped 0.25, the BB/9 dropped 0.4, and the batting average against also dropped by 51 percentage points. The Seminoles strikeouts per nine innings also rose from 10.4 to 12.1. The Seminoles gave up more than four earned runs just once in 17 games.
The improvement in numbers came in large part to a newfound confidence within the whole group, which Martin Jr. attributes to Belanger’s knowledge of the game and his everyday actions.
“He knows what he’s doing. He’s really good at his craft. Kids are going to have more confidence when they’re seeing results and that’s through hard work and outstanding coaching,” Martin Jr. said.
“He’s not a loud guy that puts more pressure on you. It’s a firm hand, but it’s a loving hand as well. We’re going to do things a certain way and do it right over and over so many times that you can’t do it wrong.”
Confidence is something that a player has to grow on their own, but Belanger does everything he can to aid his pitchers confidence — to him, the ultimate goal of coaching.
“The biggest thing for me is the guys got to know that I care about them before they care what I know. What I always try to do with every new guy or every new staff,” he said.
“I don’t come in and just start throwing all these things out at them. They need to first know that I care about their career or what they got going on.”
Belanger prides himself on learning as much as possible to be as helpful as he can for his players. With all the different throwing and strength programs in the baseball world, it’s important for coaches to understand the different techniques.
“I just try to be educated in it all and learn about it all. That way, if a guy needs that, we can do that. I feel like, in my profession for these guys, I just have to be versed in at all. So if they need it, I can kind of help them. I feel like I have a lot of tools that if they need it, I can help them with that.
“At the end of the day once they are comfortable in their routine, I just kind of let them roll with it and I’m there for them if they need me.”
Track record of success
Prior to landing at Florida State, Belanger was an under-the-radar name in the industry, but his record and production spoke for itself. The New York native produced 22 MLB draft picks before his time at Florida State, including tenures at Monmouth, Maryland, and Kentucky. He’s also produced two first round draft picks with Zack Thompson in 2019 and Pat Light in 2012. He continued his run of draft picks early at FSU, as CJ Van Eyk was taken in the second round and Shane Drohan was selected in the fifth round of the shortened 2020 MLB draft.
Belanger has even produced a staff with six draft picks in one season at Kentucky. But with the circumstances of this season and the talent level in Florida, the 2021 staff is the deepest he’s ever worked with. “This is as deep of a staff as I’ll probably ever have just with the circumstances.”
Drohan always flashed the tools to be a dominant weekend starter and a high-end draft pick, but was never consistent enough to put it all together through two years at Florida State. After two years, he was walking 9.3 batters per nine innings. In 2020, a significant decline in the walk rate, 5.6 BB/9, led to a drop in contact rate, as he struck out two more batters per nine innings than his freshman and sophomore seasons. That progression in his game came from a quick bond he struck with Belanger.
“Belly and I clicked early, he realized how I respond to competition and challenges. Everything I did there came with a small competition or challenge,” Drohan said. “Doing that allowed me to think less when it was time for my outings on the weekend and just go.”
The strides that Drohan made in his junior season led to a fifth round selection by the Boston Red Sox. The southpaw also got third-round money due to his projection and raw tools on the mound. I asked Drohan if he thought Belanger’s work with him was the reason he was able to get that money and selection in the shortened draft. His response was, “Oh absolutely.”
“The strides that I made in the short amount of time with Belly are the reason why I had the opportunity to go through the draft process even with the shortened season. Teams that I talked to would always ask ‘what clicked’ or ‘what changed’ and it was Belly that was that difference. He showed me that blueprint that allowed me to build myself as a pitcher. Couldn’t be more thankful for him, even though it was a very short time, he changed my life.”
Tyler Ahearn was a dominant force coming out of high school, but just couldn’t find the strike zone through his first two years at Florida State. With the arrival of Belanger, Ahearn looked like a new pitcher in 2020. Going into his junior year, the RHP had a career BB/9 of 8.7 and an ERA of 7.6. In a shortened 2021, he posted a 1.93 ERA and 3.9 BB/9. The newfound success came in large part from confidence instilled by Belanger.
“It’s just belief in myself and Belly did a great job with me with that. If I had a tough inter-squad, he’d always hit me with a text and give me motivation. I’m much more comfortable now, I believe in myself. I get on the rubber and have fun with it. Some of freshman and sophomore year I was a little uptight. Now, I just trust my stuff and go out there and throw.”
Ahearn had a chance to be drafted or sign as an undrafted free agent this past summer, but decided an extra year with Belanger at FSU would be better for his career.
“He’s a big reason why I love coming back and he’s a great coach. He really likes to develop us. He really wants the best for all of us and he tries to get everybody’s 110%. Everyone’s really comfortable with him and we love him as a coach,” Ahearn said.
Hunter Perdue missed the 2020 season with elbow surgery, but was able to sit back and learn from Belanger throughout his rehab. Through a year of sitting out, he saw the way Belanger worked with his teammates, exciting him to get back on the mound and work with the pitching coach.
“Belly’s fantastic. Watching him work with other guys and even just talking to other guys, they loved how he went about things and how he is always open to answer questions. If you’ve got them, he’s always there to help. He’s not a ‘cut-and-dry’ guy, he’s never like ‘you have to do this,’” Perdue said.
Veterans like Chase Haney, Jonah Scolaro, Clayton Kwiatkowski, and Conor Grady have all seen velocity jumps under Belanger’s coaching. Those velocity jumps and their buy-in to his philosophies come out of a special bond and trust Belanger has created in a short time with this staff.
“It’s a trust. Those guys, they trust him that he knows what he’s talking about and that he’s doing it in the best interest of their careers. We’ve seen a lot of up ticks in velo and pitch ability and all the things that amount to winning. It’s a good group,” Junior said.
Haney is now in his sixth year at Florida State. Belanger has been the third coach he’s worked with at FSU and Haney thinks the addition of the former Kentucky pitching coach was a “blessing” for the program.
“He came in and a lot of guys bought into his philosophies right away,” Haney said. “He had a great balance of connecting with us on a deeper level than just a player to coach level. He really cares about you personally.”.
Strength in numbers
For years, Florida State’s pitching was based on the ability to induce weak contact, craftiness, and just pounding the strike zone. Under Belanger, the philosophy to success has been power, swing-and-miss stuff, and working all quadrants of the zone. The pure depth and power of the current staff may be the most Tallahassee has ever seen. Martin Jr. said, “We want to have depth so that in the seventh, eighth, and ninth inning we’ve got guys out there with velocity. The numbers don’t lie, that’s what you want.”
That depth in power will give FSU more room for error. But the power isn’t the only thing Belanger is looking for.
“It’s just a little bit more room for error. It makes guys make earlier decisions. You can get them to swing at worse pitches. At the end of the day, it’s “AAA34K.” It’s ‘any pitch, any time, anywhere, three pitches for strikes.’ That’s what we pride ourselves on and no matter how hard guys throw, that’s going to be our deal,” Belanger said.
Florida State lost their top three pitchers from last season, but they still bring back a handful of young guns, as well as veterans and exciting newcomers.
“We had so many young guys that pitched some Innings last year that I feel like they’re so much better. I feel like Parker’s going to be in a bigger role. Brandon Walker, he was much improved from last year just from his command. Doug Kirkland’s much improved. Hubbart’s much improved. You get a guy like Hunter Purdue who sat out all last year who’s a premium arm,” Belanger said.
“Everybody is better. Out of the fall, I felt really good about where everybody was at coming back.”
Belanger is excited for the upcoming season not just because of the talent on the staff, but the leadership and men they have in their locker room. “I heard Nick Saban say yesterday, ‘When your best players are your leaders and best people, then you got something special’ and I think that’s what we have.”
Belanger’s history and productivity shows that a head coaching job is likely in his future, but a few years in Tallahassee could change the outlook of FSU’s pitching staff for years to come.
Between the power depth, the confidence Belanger instills, and the family atmosphere he has created, Florida State’s pitching staff is set to reach new heights in 2021 and beyond.