Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Twins' arms make a point to be on target
By Jerry Crasnick
Joe Mauer might be the perfect Minnesota Twin, but he's also a freak of nature -- at least until polite, humble, 6-foot-5, .330-hitting catchers with great sideburns start coming along more than once a century.
If you're looking for a player who better embodies the franchise's core philosophy, think more along the lines of a pitcher with an even temperament, middling velocity and the ability to decapitate a fly from a distance of 60 feet, 6 inches.
Think Brad Radke.
The old Carl Pohlad Twins have gone through a transitional period in recent years. Torii Hunter and Johan Santana left town. The Twins finally ditched their domed stadium, and their Opening Day payroll of $97.5 million ranked 11th among the 30 big league clubs -- ahead of the Dodgers, Cardinals and Braves.
But some things never change in Minnesota, regardless of payroll size or ballpark environs. The Twins play fundamentally sound defense, run the bases with aplomb, believe in old-fashioned concepts like "teamwork'' and "accountability'' and place tremendous stock in continuity.
And if the pitching staff ever walks two batters in a row, it's time for manager Ron Gardenhire to call a team meeting.
Through 38 games this season, Minnesota's pitchers have allowed 90 walks -- easily the fewest in the majors. In contrast to the New York Mets, who've walked a staggering 175 batters, the Twins live in a world where the pace is brisk, umpire Joe West has time to catch a late meal, and defenders are always on their toes.
If there's a team well-suited to play its home games at Target Field, it's this one.
"It's funny,'' said right fielder Michael Cuddyer. "If you're in the field and one of our pitchers loses a little bit of control, you start getting frustrated. You realize how spoiled we are with guys throwing strikes and not walking people. When we have 3½-hour games, we're dog tired, because we're not used to it.''
You have to go back to the 1996 Twins staff, which had Rich Robertson and Frankie Rodriguez in the starting rotation, to find a Minnesota team that didn't rank among the game's top five in fewest walks allowed. In nine of the past 13 seasons, the Twins have ranked first or second in that category.
The phenomenon has encompassed Eric Milton, Mark Redman, Joe Mays, Rick Reed, Santana and Carlos Silva, through the current rotation of Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Carl Pavano, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn. Bob Tewksbury dropped in for a cameo, and LaTroy Hawkins displayed fine control as both a starter and a reliever.
And of course, there's Radke, whose ratio of 1.63 walks per nine innings ranks 32nd in baseball history. For sake of comparison, Robin Roberts is 45th, Old Hoss Radbourn is 46th and Greg Maddux ranks 50th.
"He's sort of the godfather of our pitching approach,'' said Mike Radcliff, Minnesota's longtime scouting director.
The strike-throwing culture permeates every level of the Minnesota organization. It begins with the team's amateur scouts, who are instructed to look for the attributes that foster good control, and continues in the minor leagues, where pitching to contact is repeatedly encouraged.
"As soon as you put on a Twins uniform as a pitcher or a catcher, you go after hitters,'' Mauer said. "Try to throw strikes and use your defense. That's instilled in you right when you step in a minor league clubhouse.''
It's not easy to project how an 18-year-old high school senior's control will look when he's 24, but Twins scouts focus on the traits that will give a prospect a head start. The pitcher who maintains the same arm slot, breaks his hands at the same place and drops his landing foot in the same spot after each throw has an edge over someone with an inconsistent delivery. Similarly, a pitcher with the self-assurance to pitch to contact and the demeanor to shrug off a bad-hop single or adjust to a tight strike zone is a better fit for the organizational approach. Makeup is just as important as mechanics or stuff.
"We emphasize it at the acquisition level,'' Radcliff said. "It stems from a manifesto we put together way back in the day: As a small-market club, how are you going to get an edge? We believe that command and control and makeup are true separators in the pitching category.
"We put stock in it and believe that it matters. It's a part of our DNA now at every level -- from scouting through our player development to the big leagues.''
No one embodies Twins-think more than Slowey, one of the game's more cerebral pitchers. Slowey scored a 1420 on his SATs at Upper St. Clair High School in Pennsylvania, but topped out at 84 mph on the radar gun and didn't emerge as a prospect until gaining arm strength as a sophomore and junior at Winthrop University. The Twins picked Slowey in the second round of the 2005 draft, and he posted a strikeout-walk ratio of 361-52 in the minors before graduating to the big club.
Slowey has averaged 1.56 walks per nine innings in Minnesota -- out Radke-ing Radke. On June 17, 2007, he walked Milwaukee's Prince Fielder and Bill Hall back-to-back, and found the experience so harrowing that he's yet to repeat it.
The next time Slowey walks a hitter with the bases loaded, it will be a career first. He's so precise with his repertoire, pitching coach Rick Anderson occasionally has to remind him to throw a ball above the letters just to give hitters a different look. Think Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen ever does that with Oliver Perez?
"Slowey is like Radke. He's a freak,'' Radcliff said. "He keeps pounding it in there and guys keep fouling it off, so he has to do different things to mix things up. You can almost see him out there thinking, 'I have to throw a ball here.' That's hard for him to do.''
Slowey and Minnesota's other young starters honed their control with help from Rick Knapp, who spent 12 years as the Twins' minor league pitching coordinator before joining Jim Leyland's staff in Detroit in 2009. Knapp, a patient teacher and innovative thinker, brought a full-length mirror to the park so that pitchers could better monitor their deliveries, and fashioned balance beams and other makeshift tools to help pitchers refine their command. He's applied those same principles to a hard-throwing staff in Detroit, and the Tigers have quickly reduced their walk totals on his watch.
Eric Rasmussen replaced Knapp as Minnesota's minor league coordinator, but the mindset hasn't changed. The Twins keep track of first-pitch strikes and balls thrown to the "four spot,'' down and away to a right-handed hitter. Pitchers who exhibit the best control over the span of a month or a year might get a free dinner as a reward. "There's a carrot out there,'' Radcliff said.
Anderson, Minnesota's pitching coach since 2002, is big on simplicity. He likes the minor league catchers to refrain from moving around a lot so that young pitchers have a stationary target. Minnesota's starters throw off a mound frequently between outings, even for 10-12 pitches, to help stay sharp. Twins pitchers also focus on keeping the ball low and down the middle, with the understanding that natural movement and variations in deliveries will carry it away from the heart of the plate.
"If you try to go right to the corner and just miss, everybody is like, 'Wow, great pitch. Ball 1,''' Anderson said. "If you go to the middle and just miss, it's on the corner. Strike 1. We always say, 'Let the err of the arm and the movement of the ball take it to the corners.'''
|Scott Baker has issued 11 walks in eight starts (49 1/3 innings) so far this season.|
The same rules and expectations apply to both starters and relievers. Anderson has worked with Minnesota's core group for a while now, and if a pitcher's mechanics are slightly out of whack, he'll deliver a reminder before it mushrooms into a bigger problem.
"Talk to any pitcher who's ever had Andy, and they'll tell you, 'He's the best,''' Slowey said. "He knows how we throw, he knows what makes us work, and he's willing to take the time to help us individually. He's out there for hours on end with us.''
Cooperation from the front office is the final piece to the equation. General manager Bill Smith and his predecessor, Terry Ryan, have made a point of acquiring sure-handed defenders, because it's hard to ask a pitcher to induce contact if no one in the field can catch the ball. Four-time Gold Glove second baseman Orlando Hudson and steady shortstop J.J. Hardy are the latest additions to the mix.
If there's a downside to the approach, it's that Minnesota's reliance on command-and-control, finesse pitchers might not work as well in October, when hitters' bats are slower and power pitchers have the advantage. But that's a question for another day.
The Twins' philosophy certainly wears well over a 162-game season. More strikes mean lower pitch counts, which allow starters to go deeper into games and reduce the strain on a bullpen.
Hudson, the irrepressible O-Dog, was asked if it's fun to play behind pitchers who are so adept at throwing strikes. On the spectrum of obvious questions, that's like asking if Joe Mauer can hit.
"Who wants to stand in the field and watch people walk the ballpark?'' Hudson said. "Nobody I know.''
It stems from a manifesto we put together way back in the day: As a small-market club, how are you going to get an edge? We believe that command and control and makeup are true separators in the pitching category.
-- Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.