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
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
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
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.