Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Pittsburgh's pitching revival
By Jerry Crasnick ESPN.com
The Pittsburgh Pirates run through pitching coaches the way Primanti Brothers churns out coleslaw and fries. Try four different voices in the past five years, during which the team's starters never finished better than 21st in the major leagues in ERA.
Which makes you wonder: Is it less about the man giving the instructions than the guys who are actually throwing the ball?
That didn't stop general manager Neal Huntington from making another change this offseason in an effort to set things right. After Spin Williams, Jim Colborn and Jeff Andrews all took a crack at maximizing the potential of the Pirates' staff, Huntington dipped into his past and contacted an old friend with an offer of a turnaround special.
The early returns are promising. Under Joe Kerrigan, Zach Duke has three wins and a 2.43 ERA.
Huntington was 25 years old in 1992 and looking for a way to put his Amherst College psychology degree to good use when he landed a job in the Montreal Expos' front office. As the team's video advance scout, he worked closely with Joe Kerrigan, then Felipe Alou's pitching coach and a man who seemed ahead of the curve with his fondness for dissecting video and incorporating statistics in his game plans.
Over the next 14 years, Kerrigan passed through Boston, Philadelphia and New York with mixed results. For every admirer who hailed him for his preparation and brilliant baseball mind, there was a corresponding critic who regarded him as stubborn, heavy-handed or, worst of all, a condescending know-it-all.
After Kerrigan clashed with Brett Myers, Randy Wolf and Kevin Millwood to hasten his departure from the Phillies, a Philadelphia reporter wrote that he had devolved from the "The Professor'' to "Joe Almighty'' in his two seasons with the club.
"Joe is intense, passionate, driven, knowledgeable and not afraid to share his opinion,'' Huntington said. "There are times when guys don't want to hear opinions about their performance and what they need to do to get better. But in our situation, we needed somebody to come in here that had a proven track record and could help us get better. We thought that Joe was that guy.''
If Pittsburgh's young pitchers were at all dubious, they only needed to embrace reality. When your franchise hasn't finished .500 since 1992, it's not as though you have a right to be choosy.
"We weren't good last year, so we're very open to hearing new information and new criticisms,'' Zach Duke said. "And we're willing to work to get better.''
While April has brought surprising starts in Seattle and Toronto, another upbeat story is taking shape in Pittsburgh. True, it's only three weeks, but the Pirates are 11-8 despite a slew of early injuries. They rank second in the major leagues with a 3.36 ERA even after a bullpen implosion ruined a comeback bid in a 10-5 loss to Milwaukee on Monday.
This is precisely the synergy that Huntington was hoping for when he plucked Kerrigan from his role as a studio analyst with Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia to mentor Pittsburgh's young pitchers.
The Pirates staff ranked 28th or worse in the majors in numerous categories last year -- from ERA (5.08) to batting average against (.286) to quality starts -- and from day one Kerrigan preached the importance of pitching inside and working ahead in the count.
But he also customized the game plan for each starter. Kerrigan suggested a mechanical adjustment that allowed Duke, a lefty, to pound the inner half of the plate with his fastball against right-handed hitters. He also suggested ways for Duke to maintain his focus so he could avoid the big innings that haunted him in 2008.
NL ERA Leaders: Starters
Stats through April 27
Ross Ohlendorf's mandate was to develop more consistency with his breaking ball. Ian Snell focused on changing speeds, and Jeff Karstens received a tweak to add deception to his delivery. As for Paul Maholm, he posted a 3.11 ERA after June, so there wasn't much room to nitpick.
Are the Pittsburgh starters going to perform at this level all season? Skepticism abounds. But with all the disappointment the Pirates have endured in building a staff, even a short-term mirage is welcome.
The Pirates have invested heavily in pitching through the draft over the past decade. But former first-round picks Clinton Johnston, Bobby Bradley, Bryan Bullington and John Van Benschoten are mere memories now, and Sean Burnett has a 6-7 career record as a Pirate and is now pitching in the team's bullpen.
Things looked promising two years ago when Tom Gorzelanny and Snell both posted sub-4.00 ERAs in 200-plus innings of work. But Snell has been a monument to inconsistency since then, and Gorzelanny was a disaster last season. He showed up at spring training out of shape and seemingly convinced that he had arrived, and the Pirates gave him a wake-up call with a demotion to Triple-A Indianapolis.
The Pirates say Gorzelanny has shown better commitment this year, but when he pitched poorly in the Grapefruit League, they sent him back to the International League with a directive to start pounding the strike zone with hard stuff instead of pitching "backwards'' and working off his changeup.
"We saw early signs in spring training he kind of went into that 'survival mode' again, so we decided we needed to take a drastic step to get him out of it,'' Huntington said. "To be truthful, we need this guy to be good again if we're going to get where we want to get. He's going to have to be an asset for us.''
When Gorzelanny returns -- and the Pirates expect him back at some point this season -- he'll join a group of pitchers who've endured their share of career setbacks and upheaval. Snell is an undersized former 26th-round pick, and Ohlendorf and Karstens both came over from the Yankees as part of the Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte trade in July.
Maholm, a first-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2003, suffered a broken nose and a fractured orbital bone around his right eye when he was hit by a line drive in 2004. In hindsight, Maholm now says it took him about three seasons to get completely comfortable with his delivery again. When reporters describe Maholm as reliable to the point of "boring,'' he takes it as a compliment.
Duke, 26, might have the most inspiring story of the group. When he posted an 8-2 record and a 1.81 ERA in 14 starts four years ago, he was anointed Pittsburgh's No. 1 prospect by Baseball America. But he discovered it wouldn't be that easy.
Duke has always thrown across his body -- a trait that's a harbinger for arm trouble in the estimation of many baseball people. When Colborn tinkered with his mechanics three years ago, Duke lost his release point and his confidence, in that order. He shut it down with a sore elbow in 2007, then posted an 8-22 record with a 5.08 ERA the next two seasons.
Although reports of a rift with Colborn were rampant in Pittsburgh, Duke chooses to keep any discontent to himself. He regards his three years in the wilderness as more a formative experience than something to regret.
"I know I learned some valuable lessons,'' Duke said. "The main thing for me was not giving up and folding. I kept my nose to the grindstone and I kept working through everything. I feel like now I can make it through whatever comes my way.''
This offseason, Duke left the Pittsburgh cold behind and returned home to the Fort Worth, Texas, area. He worked out with Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan at the TMI Sports Performance Center, and reported to Bradenton, Fla., ready for a fresh start.
Like his fellow Pittsburgh starters, Duke has embraced the Kerrigan program with zeal. There's a lot of information to digest, but the young Pirates were hungry for direction. And Ohlendorf graduated from Princeton with a degree in operations research and financial engineering, so he's not about to be intimidated by a few charts and graphs.
"The guys have all bought in,'' Maholm said. "Whenever Joe says something, he has either stats or video or experience to back it up. That goes a long way with a lot of guys. He's a different bird, but he knows his stuff.''
The ability to make in-game adjustments is particularly important to the Pittsburgh staff because these guys aren't going to out-velocity anyone. The Pirates rank last in the majors with 5.39 strikeouts per nine innings, so they'll have to rely on a defense that's been upgraded by the addition of Nyjer Morgan in left field and Andy LaRoche at third base. Pittsburgh ranks first in the majors this year in Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency ratings after finishing 28th in 2008.
With Ryan Doumit out two months because of a broken wrist and Nate McLouth bothered by an oblique injury, the Pirates will have to win their share of 3-2 games to be more than a temporary feel-good story.
"Every year we go to spring training and it seems like there's a new pitching coach telling us how the program is going to go and trying to put his stamp on us,'' Maholm said. "It would be nice to get on a roll and hopefully have Joe around for a good while.''
Continuity in Pittsburgh. What a concept.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.