Having spent four years on the mound and the last two seasons as a coach at Slippery Rock University, John Kovalik has become the first assistant in head coach Jeff Messer’s 34-year tenure to reach the professional ranks. The announcement was made in early December that Kovalik had been signed into the Houston Astros’ minor-league system as a pitching coach.
Under Kovalik’s instruction, Rock pitchers compiled a 57-39 record over the past two schedules. He helped four different pitchers earn All-PSAC West status, and the team competed in the league’s postseason tournament each year.
With one-time teammate Lou Trivino and former pupil Alex Pantuso both pitching in the Oakland Athletics’ system, and Matt Adams occupying first base with the Washington Nationals, Kovalik has joined three other SRU players in the professional ranks.
“It’s an honor to even be brought up in the same conversation as those guys,” Kovalik said. “Being able to get the university’s name out there, more than it already is in the professional realm, is something that I take pride in.”
“To have three [former] players in pro ball, whether it be minor league, [major league], playing, coaching, it’s pretty phenomenal at this level,” Messer said. “And they’re all outstanding human beings. If baseball were to stop tomorrow, all three of them would be successful out of baseball.”
Described as aggressive and structured in coaching style by Messer, Kovalik incorporated more mechanical and scientific techniques to Slippery Rock’s pitching hill. His implementation of velocity-based, high-intensity training methods such as the use of weighted balls and long toss was influenced by Driveline, a company that he trained with during his off-seasons in independent ball.
The outstanding results he had while part of the Gary SouthShore RailCats, an American Association club, affirmed his belief in the regimen. To Slippery Rock, he brought the analytics-based training group’s ideals, which have garnered praise from the pitching coaches of Oregon State and Coastal Carolina, both of whom have won a College World Series in recent seasons.
The networking that helped Kovalik find a professional gig started during his playing days. He made contacts while pitching in independent baseball, and the communication continued into the start of his coaching career. Other than his main priority of player development, Kovalik trekked around to recruiting events and camps in all different sorts of areas to meet as many people as he could.
“Just [learning and listening] to other people’s perspectives on the game of baseball has contributed so much to who I am as a coach today,” Kovalik said.
Obviously, he picked up on some of the intricacies of coaching from the man he’d been around for a half-dozen seasons. He lauds Coach Messer for his relation to players and the way he runs his program overall.
“I’ve seen the way [Messer] runs things from a player’s standpoint and from an assistant coach’s standpoint,” he said. “The organization and consistency on a day-to-day basis […] is a perfect model.”
Kovalik’s experience coaching undeveloped talent will benefit him in the Astros’ farm system, which, along with international signings, consists of players drafted from high school or postsecondary institutions. Also, at the professional level, Kovalik will not be restrained by the limitation of instructional hours that college baseball is sanctioned by.
He has already been involved in pitcher development in his couple of months on the job. He recently spent six days in the Dominican Republic working a January performance camp for Latin players at a club academy.
“I think it was a good transition, going from college to pro, for John,” Messer said. “It was a great situation for him, and he couldn’t pass it up.”
After working spring training with the Astros, Kovalik will begin his job as pitching coach with the Tri-City ValleyCats, the club’s short-season A classification affiliate, in Troy, New York. He will be working with pitchers that Houston has acquired recently through the draft.
“He’s very driven. He’ll do an exceptional job with the Astros,” Messer said. “I wouldn’t put a ceiling in the level that he could go to.”