Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Young pitchers play big roles for Cardinals
By Anna McDonald
Joe Kelly has allowed just three home runs in nine starts since moving to the rotation.
ST. LOUIS -- Something catches your eye during batting practice. As a ball flies high toward center field, one of the Cardinals' rookie relievers tosses his glove into the air in an attempt to see whether it will catch the ball. Ah, youth. Do you remember doing that as a kid at practice when the coach wasn't looking? Of course, the glove in the air never caught the ball, but it was always an experiment worth trying.
For the Cardinals, reliance on young pitching is more than tossing chance in the air and hoping to catch something good. The plan has been in the making since the 2008 draft, and in 2013 the results are showing.
St. Louis has used 12 pitchers age 25 or under this season, the most in the majors. The Astros are second with 10, and only one other team has used more than seven. The young Cardinals pitchers have combined for 31 wins, 489 2/3 innings pitched, a 3.31 ERA and 468 strikeouts.
"These guys have great stuff," injured closer Jason Motte said. "What it comes down to is just going out there and believing in what you have, believing in your stuff out there and being yourself. You know, you have a guy like [Seth] Maness, he doesn't try to go out there and be like [fellow Cardinals pitcher] Trevor Rosenthal and throw it 100 miles per hour. These guys know what they have, and they don't try to do too much."
Veteran reliever Randy Choate joined the club this season and has been impressed with the talent and character of his younger teammates.
"I don't know if it's necessarily the Cardinal way or what, but they've obviously drafted guys that are well-rounded," he said. "They have a personality where they don't have that big of an ego."
Seth Maness has surrendered just one earned run in his past 16 appearances, a span of 15 2/3 innings.
Joe Kelly, who starts Tuesday night against the Reds, was a third-round pick in 2009 out of UC Riverside. The 25-year-old right-hander relies primarily on a 95 mph sinker and four-seam fastball but added a curveball and changeup after getting drafted.
After beginning the season in the bullpen, he moved to the rotation, where he's gone 5-1 with a 2.25 ERA in nine starts.
"It's been different because I was in the bullpen at the beginning of the year, then got a start, then go back to the bullpen," Kelly said. "[I had] 15 days before outings one time. I just have to show up to the field every day and be mentally tough and don't think about how many off days I've had, just be prepared to pitch every single day. It's different, but I guess being versatile like this is key."
Kelly offers another important skill to the club.
"Everyone thinks I'm the best dancer on the team," he said. "In the clubhouse one day I started dancing, and I just keep doing it more and more."
Rosenthal disagreed with Kelly.
"Um, I mean I'm a pretty good dancer, too, so I don't know if Joe can say that," Rosenthal said. Seth Maness also had his doubts. "That's a big statement for Joe, especially with his locker being right next to mine. I'm good at singing. I train dogs, too. I'm really good with animals. In the offseason I train animals."
These guys love to joke around with one another. When asked what pitch he would feel most comfortable throwing if the bases were loaded and the game was on the line, Maness said, "I'm going to take Trevor Rosenthal's fastball," eliciting a laugh from Rosenthal, whose heater has made him one of the best eighth-inning guys in the league, with a 2.49 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings.
But they're also serious about their craft -- and learning how to improve.
"The curve was hard [to learn]," Kelly said. "The changeup came a little bit quicker than the curveball. The curveball took a little longer. But yeah, coming from the bullpen to starting you had to learn those pitches. There's a comfortable grip that I have. I started playing with that every day. Worked on it a lot. ... It's not even that great right now, either, but I'm still working on it."
Rookie starter Shelby Miller has received the most attention of the young pitchers, owing to his 12-8 record, 2.90 ERA and six scoreless starts. Like his teammates, he's quick to credit instruction he received in the minor leagues. "I think my biggest learning experience last year was Blaise [Ilsley] at Triple-A when I was really struggling early on. He's a big factor in my mechanics, the change in my second half and why I started to succeed a little bit more. But at the same time, Gerdy [Memphis pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd] and Dennis Martinez, who won 250 games in the big leagues, I learned how to throw a really good curveball from him."
Michael Wacha, a first-round pick last year who made his major league debut in May, also praised Eversgerd for helping him with his mechanics in Memphis. He also listens to the veterans on the St. Louis staff.
"I guess after my first start guys started getting a little bit of a scouting report, so you know I've just been talking to Waino [Adam Wainwright] and the other starters," he said. "They just really help me on not tipping your pitches, with the off-speed pitches, how to command those a little bit better."
Successfully developing young arms is not just about pitch velocity or movement, health or good mechanics. Now that the Cardinals' youth movement is here, if you look closely, there's an organizational foundation in place to make good pitchers great and gifted pitchers productive for the long term. One things Cardinals starters will do is watch one another's bullpen sessions.
Wainwright said he hopes he imparts some knowledge to the younger guys.
"I certainly learned from some of the best, Carp (Chris Carpenter), Dave Duncan, even Lilli (Derek Lilliquest) now," said Wainwright. "The reason we started watching bullpens back in the day even before I was even here was that sense of oneness that comes along with it, that thought that your starting staff is not just five individual guys but one family and so with that thought in mind that's kind of how we do everything."
Rosenthal also said veteran guys on the team have consistently told him that not every team in the majors has what the Cardinals have -- teammates working together.
"It's really special," Rosenthal said. "Especially for the young guys to be able to have that relationship and be able to talk to them and learn from them and be comfortable on the basis where we have the opportunity to learn more often."
There is still one unanswered question: Which pitcher really is the best dancer? No one knows them better than Eversgerd. If he had to project (because baseball is all about projections, right?), who would win a dance-off?
"Here's what I'm going to say. I think you have to break it into categories," Eversgerd said. "So, I'd say as far as classic dancing moves, formal dancing, I'd say Maness. But as far as doing a lot of quick feet, quick movement -- break dancing or something like that -- I'd have to go with Kelly."