Radar Love
April 23, 2005

They used to say that chicks dig the long ball, and perhaps they still do despite the cloud of steroid abuse that hangs over baseball.  But nothing, and I do mean nothing, makes people smile at the ballpark like the sound of a ball that thunders into the catcher's mitt.  And really, that's how it should be.

What is the sound we most associate with the coming of spring?  Birds chirping?  NBA players whining?  No, it is the sound of the ball hitting the mitt. 

And when you are at the ballpark, nothing turns people's heads like a fastball that makes noise: that short whizz in flight abruptly ending with a thwack in the catcher's mitt.  I remember sitting in the outfield stands next to the bullpen at Dodger Stadium when the Marlins were visiting, and within four pitches there was a crowd peering over into the bullpen where Kevin Brown was warming up.  His first few tosses were loud, but by the third or fourth pitch it sounded like the report of a .45.  And everywhere, people just turned and grinned foolishly at each other.  Yes, there was a time when Brown could hit 97-98.  I remember him dueling Randy Johnson in the Astrodome in the playoffs, matching the Unit pitch for pitch velocity-wise.

There are dozens of tales of batters hearing Nolan Ryan's fastball coming, the laces of the ball buzzing through the air. 

Sure, the long home run is an awesome sight to see.  But it happens so rarely, it's almost like a shooting star.  And the batting practice blasts, while impressive, lose a little luster because they came at the expense of a pitch you and I could have thrown. 

When someone takes the mound throwing 97 and above, people stop and take notice.  And more often than not, they grin just a little.

So why do I bring this up?  Because I'd like to highlight a few guys who could have you grinning (or frowning) depending on your perspective.

The Tigers bullpen has been terrible in the early going and the numbers that Ugueth Urbina and Troy Percival are putting up as the primary set-up man and closer are nothing short of ugly.  Percival's ERA is currently sitting at 4.91 and Urbina's is still trying to take on ballast at 6.48.  It gets worse.  Percival has just two strikeouts in 7.1 innings yet has walked three and allowed two home runs.  Urbina's strikeout rate is excellent with 10 in 8.1 innings, but he's walked four and given up three bombs.  End game relievers who give up that many free baserunners plus home runs don't usually stay at the end game.   Neither pitcher is throwing nearly as hard as they used to.  Both guys used to hit the high 90s routinely in their heyday, but neither has seen the high side of 94 in at least a year and most of their offerings have been around 91-92 so far this season.  If they can't be more decisive in the crucial innings, Alan Trammel may have to find someone else.  But who?  Well, as far fetched as it may sound given his late inning struggles with the Cubs, maybe it's Kyle Farnsworth.  He's struck out 13 in 9.1 innings and allowed just one homer.  on the downside, he's allowed more baserunners than he should and his ERA is only slightly better than Percival's.  But take out one blowout against the Twins on April 14, and his WHIP is 0.9230 and his ERA is 1.04.  Those are closer-worthy numbers.  And his velocity?  In a game I scored in Baltimore on Tuesday he threw 98, 100 and 101 mph on consecutive pitches to strike out Melvin Mora.  According to the Bill James Handbook, last year he threw 30 pitches that topped 100 mph.  The next five best totals in the majors combined for only 28, and no one in baseball other than Farnsworth threw more than 8.  Once he gets more confidence with his slider, Farnsworth should become a great closer.

John Patterson used to throw in the mid-90s, but several injuries, including one that required Tommy John surgery have deprived him of 4-5 mph off his fastball.  So far this season, he's topping out at around 91.  But he's spotting it very well and his change-up has improved vastly.  But the pitch that has hitters shaking their heads is a slider that breaks almost as much as KRod's on a two plane tilt.  Just as importantly, he's commanding both sides of the plate with all three and with Brian Schneider behind the plate - perhaps the best defensive catcher in the majors right now - he's unafraid to throw something in the dirt working the bottom of the zone.  And here's the scary part: recently, Patterson has been quoted as saying that he feels like his arm is coming back to pre-surgery strength, meaning he could be gaining velocity on his fastball as the season progresses.  If he starts hitting 93-95 with his fastball, he could make some noise in the Cy Young race.  As it is, he'll be a good strikeout pitcher with 15-win potential.

There was a slot of noise made about the health of Pedro Martinez' arm this offseason.  Many were predicting that he wouldn't reach 100 innings because he'd be injured by June.  Pedro just kept saying the naysayers would be dining on both feet.  I'm not sure about the best way to prepare feet, but it looks like there are gonna be a lot of people having it soon.  So far he's looking like the Cy Pedro of 1999, getting lots of strikeouts, working deep into games - it's amazing what facing a pitcher a couple of times a game can do to one's pitch counts - and throwing 95 mph again.  What made his change-up so devastating in his peak years was that hitters couldn't wait for it and hope to catch up to his fastball.  The past couple of years, they could look for the offspeed and foul off or get base hits off his fastball because most of the time it was only getting there at 91-92.  He looks 100% again and might be the biggest steal of this offseason.

On the other hand, there are two guys who were throwing mid-90s last year who are no where close this year.  When John Smoltz won his Cy Young, his fastball was routinely 94-96.  When they moved him to the bullpen, he didn't have to pace himself so he continued to throw the ball just as hard past many hitters.  This year, not so much.  His fastball is down around 91 for most of his pitches, and even though he still has the great slider and his control is still good, he can't get away with as many mistakes as he used to.  If he can stay healthy all season - and that's not a given - I expect a performance more similar to 1993-1995 than 1997-1999.

Likewise, Curt Schilling was down at 88-89 with his fastball against the D-Rays, topping out around 91.  Last year, his fastball was routinely 93-94 and there was a time not too long ago he would get it up to 97-98.  Like Smoltz, he has enough savvy to get by with less velocity.  And Schilling's season started late because of surgery so there's still a good chance that he will recover his velocity in the next month or so.  But until he does, look for him to get cuffed around a little more than expected. 

On a final note, it doesn't appear that Juan Cruz' back troubles are affecting his velocity.  Tonight against the Angels, he was throwing 95-96 on just about every pitch.  It was his first outing this season in which he did not surrender a run.  Furthermore, he didn't surrender a baserunner.  He has still lost ground on Huston Street as the A's closer of the future, but his talent is such that he could be moved into the rotation if they don't find answers with Haren and/or Saarloos.  Regardless, he's still one to watch in the AL.