Tuesday, July 10, 2012
FORGET ALL THAT NONSENSE ABOUT PITCH COUNTS. WITH NOLAN RYAN IN CHARGE, TEXAS IS RELYING ON ITS ARMS TO GET TO THE PLAYOFFS AND BEYOND. TALK ABOUT RADICAL THINKING.
By TIM KEOWN
C.J. WILSON SITS IN FRONT OF HIS LOCKER, a sock halfway up his right foot, and wrestles with a dilemma: How would he summarize, concisely if possible, the difference between the Rangers pitching staff seasons? Wilson is quirky in a New Age kind of way. He fought, and won, a battle to bring organic food into the clubhouse. A generation ago, his articulate, slightly off-center demeanor (think straight edge , thrash-metal Barry Zito) would have earned him the label of flaky lefty. He ponders his assignment for a moment before launching into a hypothetical story about a group of hikers who come across a bear in a forest.
"There's a question each of the hikers has to ask himself," Wilson says. "How fast do I have to be to survive?" The answer, of course, is simple: Each needs only to be faster than the slowest member of the group. And that adage, according to Wilson, summarizes the traditional futility of Rangers pitching. Past staffs operated under the principle that mere survival was good enough. There were built-in excuses: It was too hot over the course of a Texas summer; the team was built for offense; the ballpark was a pitchers' graveyard. Bad pitching had become the lovable quirk of the only major league franchise that has never won a postseason series. Incompetence was almost expected. You just shrugged and stayed a step ahead of the slowest guy.
Cultures develop within institutions, whether the institution is as broad as a society, as specific as a family or as diverse and itinerant as a big league baseball team. The culture of the Rangers included the routine underperformance of pitching staff. It had become a systemic infection. Even the uneducated could come up with the diagnosis, but treatment remained a mystery.
When Nolan Ryan took over as team president, this year and those of previous in February 2008, he promised a new approach. The team couldn't keep doing the same things and expect a different result, so the greatest Texas pitching legend let it be known that mere survival would no longer be good enough. Excuses would be replaced by expectations. It all sounded good, but how would it work?
NOLAN RYAN in a dress shirt and tie seems heretical-similar to, say, 50 Cent in Wranglers and a bolo-but here he is, the most ornery and fearsome man ever to throw a pitch, looking like the CEO-level businessman that he is. Ryan, sitting in the Rangers' press-box dining room with his outsize hands punctuating each point, is jocular with a crusty edge. It is not surprising that his tenure has been marked by an outright refusal to be held captive to trends, fads or anything that other people think. ("I'm pretty good at not paying attention to what anybody else is doing," he says.) He adopted a holistic approach to healing the Rangers' mound woes, and the team's emergence as a legitimate contender in the American League playoff picture is surprising for its primary sources: pitching and defense.
"I want to build a well-rounded ball club, not one based on just hitting," Ryan says. After allowing the most runs in the majors last year, the Rangers have allowed the fewest in the AL this year, through mid-August. After finishing with the worst ERA in the majors last year (5.37), they've jumped to fourth in the AL and ninth in all of baseball. And how's this for role reversal? Ryan's quest for balance will have to wait for the offense to catch up: After leading the league last year in runs scored, Texas now falls in the middle of the pack-mainly because of Josh Hamilton's injury-riddled season-and ranks among the bottom-feeders in batting average.
Despite their suddenly mediocre offense, the Rangers so far have avoided their customary late-summer wilt. The comet-like appearance of 21-year-old reliever Neftali Feliz (the first Texas pitcher to strike out seven straight hitters since Ryan did it, 18 years ago) and the accelerated development of young starters Derek Holland and Tommy Hunter could provide the kind of boost normally associated with a major deadline trade. An examination of the past decade of Texas pitching indicates something more profound than a simple turnaround; it's akin to the discovery of a new species. The Rangers were dead last in ERA in the AL in four of the past 10 years, and they cracked the top half just once. This year, starters are pitching deeper into games, allowing manager Ron Washington to define the roles of his relievers and stick to them. Hits have become outs with the help of acrobatic rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus and an athletic outfield. And on Aug. 18, Texas reacquired 10-time Gold Glove catcher Ivan Rodriguez to help steer the staff down the stretch.
The overhaul began with Ryan's belief pitchers over the past 15 to 20 years have been babied. Many causes and culprits-long-term contracts for veterans, large bonuses for top draft picks, increased influence from agents and orthopedists-combined to shift the emphasis from production to protection. Nobody wants to be blamed when the Next Big Thing blows out his arm from perceived overuse, a la Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. As a result, pitching coaches and managers have become slaves to the pitch count, a stat that wasn't even included in box scores until the tail end of Ryan's 27-year career. From his perspective, the game should dictate the number, not the other way around. "All this outside crap came into play," Ryan says. "All of a sudden you have people who haven't pitched and haven't played and don't understand baseball driving the front offices to come up with a number. 'Oh, he's at 100 pitches. I need to take him out.' No, he should be getting one more out to get out of the inning."
Arms have been coddled to the point where nearly every big league team imposes a maximum of 120 feet for long-toss programs. Ryan believes the coddling has a paradoxical effect: The exertion needed to throw an average big league fastball is greater than when playing catch from 120 feet, which is roughly the length from home plate to second base. In practical terms, this means the strain on a pitcher's arm when he takes the mound far exceeds his preparation-and that can lead to injuries. "We're not doing pitchers any favors," Ryan says gruffly.
To implement his changes, he hired pitching coach Mike Maddux from the Brewers to work with Washington. (Maddux and Ryan developed a kinship while Maddux was coaching for the minor league Round Rock Express, which is owned by Ryan.) The Rangers had organizational meetings in which Ryan and GM Jon Daniels outlined the new philosophy. Daniels brought in other prominent thinkers, including nontraditional ones such as independent pitching guru and yoga/long-toss devotee Alan Jaeger, to offer expertise.
One of the first orders of business was To eliminate the strict reliance on pitch counts at the big league level. On the first day of spring training this year, Maddux told his charges, "A pitch count is a limit. You have no limits." (Pitch counts are still in effect in the farm system, increasing at each level.) Veteran Rangers relievers joke about sitting in the bullpen in years past and watching the count on the scoreboard. Someone would point to the phone and predict the "80-pitch call." Invariably, it rang on cue.
Now the phone rings when a reliever is deemed a better choice to get hitters out. And whenever possible, the starters are given the opportunity to finish an inning, partly as a vote of confidence and partly as a means of retaining camaraderie among the staff. The atmosphere is far more collegial when a starter is allowed to clean up his own mess than when he is stewing in the dugout while a reliever allows inherited runners to score. In a game against the Angels during the last week of June, on a sweltering night in Arlington, Scott Feldman wobbled in a 35-pitch second inning but made it through and retired 13 of 14 batters during one stretch. He finished six innings, allowed three runs and threw 116 pitches, turning an ugly start into a quality start and a win.
What Maddux and Washington saw from the dugout was this: None of Feldman's pitches after the second inning was "stressful." Paying particular attention to stress pitches-loosely defined as those with fewer than two outs and runners on base-is a vital aspect of the new philosophy. In other words, a starter whose 110-pitch outing includes a 32-pitch stress inning is on a shorter leash than a starter who never tops 20 pitches. "If you throw 10 pitches an inning, you can throw 15 innings," Maddux says. "But a 10-pitch inning when you give up a two-out double is a lot different from a 10-pitch inning when you give up a leadoff double. We've had to reeducate guys to understand a perfect inning isn't nine pitches and three strikeouts; it's three pitches and three outs."
In the year and a half since Ryan took over, pitchers who didn't buy into the program have been cut loose. One starter was released midway through last season after he told strength coach Jose Vazquez, "Lifting weights makes me tired." Ryan empowered Vazquez to improve the staff's conditioning. In order to throw more, the pitchers first needed to run and lift more, starting in spring training. "We ran a lot," Feldman says. The 26-year-old righthander, who leads Texas in wins (12 through Aug. 19), has kept it up. The day after his start against the Angels, Feldman-soaked in sweat with the heat hitting 102-ran the stairs of each section of the lower bowl at Rangers Ballpark.
All the extra conditioning is paying off: The team's average innings per start has improved from 5.37 a year ago (30th in MLB) to 5.96 (11th) this season. "These guys weren't conditioned to go deep into games," Ryan says. "They had to change their mind-set. We had to get them in shape, make them throw more. Once they bought into it, they realized we weren't asking them to do something they couldn't do. They got tougher. They realized mental toughness is a result of physical toughness." Soon a competition developed. A group of younger pitchers-Feldman, Wilson, Holland, closer Frank Francisco-turned every sprint into a race. "For the first time, it was cool to be fast and to try," says Wilson, in his fifth year with the team. "It was cool to care."
Long-toss-even long-long-toss-was required. Maddux removed the 120-foot limit and told his pitchers to trust their arms. Some Rangers worked up to 250 feet and beyond. "At first, I didn't know if my arm was going to hold up," Feldman says. "Now, more than halfway through the season, I can see where it helped." Jaeger, whose clients routinely throw 300-foot long-toss, watched a spring training session in which Rangers prospects played catch at least 200 feet apart. "It brought a tear to my eye," he says.
Ryan didn't stop there. When he was playing, it was routine for pitchers to throw live batting practice during training camp. "That's how you learned to read hitters," he says. "That's how you learned what works and what doesn't." None of the current Rangers had ever heard of such a thing, but once they started, they didn't want to stop. During one epic session, Kevin Millwood, a 13-year veteran who'd never been asked to throw BP before, stayed on the mound for 50 minutes. (The norm was 10 to 15.) "I was working on some things and just felt good," he says. "I lost track of time. And I was getting so much out of it, I just kept throwing."
The sessions, like the sprints, spurred competition. Maddux told hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo to bring a lot of bats, because his pitchers planned on breaking some. Jaramillo told Maddux to make sure he had a lot of baseballs, because his hitters planned on losing some. Millwood was the first to get rid of the L screen, and others followed. Pitchers learned they didn't have to live on the black; hitters offered tips on which pitches caused them trouble and which ones should be shelved. Vicente Padilla, an infamous headhunter who's since been released, even drilled somebody. Ryan stood back and smiled, surprised by none of it.
Maddux noticed an unexpected benefit: His pitchers were being forced to concentrate far more than during a typical bullpen session. "We talk about concentration being one of the most important parts of the game, but we never practice it," he says. "You almost have to concentrate to concentrate. Well, here we were, practicing concentration without even realizing it."
The innovative Maddux also invented a job: utility pitcher. Jason Jennings is the first Ranger to hold the unofficial title, a distinction he describes by saying, "If the starter pulls a hamstring after one pitch, I'm the guy. And if a game goes 14 innings, I'm the guy." Jennings, a former Rookie of the Year and 16-game winner, is now human spackle, filling in the holes between the starters and the late-inning crew of Feliz, Wilson and Francisco. "The only 'utility' I'd heard Of in baseball was 'utility infielder,' " says the 31-year-old Jennings. "But I'm glad to have the job. It's kept me in the big leagues."
Logically, the Rangers couldn't change the culture by concentrating solely on what they can get out of their bodies; they also had to address what they put into them. Wilson crusaded to improve the nutritional content of the food in the clubhouse, arguing that the traditional pre- and post-game fare of barbecue and Tex-Mex hampered the players' ability to stay strong and healthy during the oppressive summer months. He contended that if better food could translate into a 2% improvement on the field, it could be the difference between a non-playoff and a playoff team. "Those carcinogens are terrible for you," he says, "especially in the heat." The team listened, and now tailors diets to individual players based on Vazquez's recommendations. (Outfielder David Murphy, for example, struggles to maintain weight in the heat, while barrel-chested reliever Eddie Guardado doesn't have that problem.) "There's nothing bad in there," Millwood says. "And surprisingly, it all tastes pretty good."
It hasn't all been perfect. Three of the five season-opening starters-Brandon McCarthy, Matt Harrison and the departed Padilla-have spent time on the disabled list, as has Francisco. But it's not like the Rangers have suffered a rash of injuries: They've used 22 pitchers this year, which matches the major league average. And while nobody said changing an entire culture would be easy, the results have been more than impressive. "One thing we knew for sure," Ryan says. "We couldn't keep doing what we were doing."
To return to Wilson's adage, the Rangers are closer to having a dozen pitchers running shoulder to shoulder away from the bear. He might get any one of them, or they all might get away.
ONLY THE LONELY
They say everything's bigger in Texas-except when it comes to the World Series. The Rangers and Astros haven't won a title in a combined 84 years of existence. Why is that? We asked the Nation to chime in.
WHY HAS NO TEXAS TEAM EVER WON A WORLD SERIES?
The randomness of life and thus baseball 49%
Poor leadership 30%
Fans don't deserve it 13%
Must be some curse 8%
WHO IS THE BEST MLBER TO HAVE PLAYED IN TEXAS?*
Alex Rodriguez 17%
Roger Clemens 6%
Craig Biggio 5%
Jeff Bagwell 3%
Nolan Ryan 69%
*Minimum three seasons
WHICH PRO SPORTS TROPHY WILL END UP IN TEXAS NEXT?
Lombardi Trophy 41%
O'Brien Trophy 26%
Commissioner's Trophy 19%
Stanley Cup 14%
WHICH TEAM WILL WIN A WORLD SERIES FIRST?