Big News in Baltimore
June 26, 2004

Tired of watching their youngsters flounder in the rotation, the Orioles once more made Ray Miller their pitching coach in Baltimore.  I'm not sure exactly how much the O's staff overall will improve under his guidance, but it seems likely that their three young starters - Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Matt Riley - will all improve significantly. 

He's not a miracle worker, by any means.  And he hasn't been one to pay very close attention to pitch counts, which for some might become an issue.  Sidney Ponson is the elder statesman of the staff and he's only 28, so it'll be interesting to see how far he lets them go in games.  However, if anything the O's have possibly been guilty of over-protection thus far as they average around 90 pitches per start yet none of the starters are so young that topping 110-120 occasionally should be a great major concern.

"Work fast. Throw strikes. Change speeds."  That is Miller's mantra, and for the most part is has worked extremely well in his career.  He first became the O's pitching coach in 1979, inheriting a largely young but talented staff, including a 24-year old Dennis Martinez, 27-year old lefty Mike Flanagan and 25-year old lefty Scott McGregor.  Flanagan improved by more than a run in ERA on his way to winning 23 games that year.  McGregor improved as well relative to the league in ERA and his win total dropped by only two despite 9 fewer starts.  In 1980, McGregor went on to win 20, but finished 6th in the Cy Young voting to fellow teammate, journeyman Steve Stone, who won 25.  Martinez followed by leading the American League in wins during the strike-shortened 1981 season. 

After a brief stint as the manager of the Twins, Miller caught on as the pitching coach of the woeful Pirates in the mid-80s.  Like Baltimore, they had a young but talented staff, including a 24-year old Doug Drabek and a 22-year old John Smiley.  Although it took Miller a little longer than it had in Baltimore, he succeeded in turning both pitchers into 20-game winners.  However, his success in Pittsburgh was not as complete.  Several young pitchers failed to develop during his tenure there, including Brian Fischer, Mike Dunne, Randy Tomlin, Bob Kipper, Mike Bielecki and Jose DeLeon.  A couple were rushed to soon to the majors.  Others just weren't that talented and were there because the desolate Pirate system didn't have anyone better to offer.  But guys like Dunne and Fischer were generally regarded as good prospects so their failure to develop has to be regarded as a mark against him.  In his defense, with the exceptions of DeLeon and Bielecki, none of them did any better with anyone else.

However, his story is not finished.  Baltimore came calling once again in 1997, and while this staff didn't have many young pitchers, both 28-year old Mike Mussina and 29-year old Scott Erickson enjoyed significant improvement in their performance under Miller.  The following year he was hired as the teams' manager but just as in Minnesota a decade earlier, the stint did not go particularly well.

Here's what we can glean from my little history lecture: 1) Miller is not a particularly good manager, but 2) has had good success as a pitching coach getting talented young pitchers to realize their full potential.  The million dollar question then is can he work his magic for the Orioles one more time?   It's certainly possible. 

Only Daniel Cabrera regularly follows Miller's axioms.  Bedard could use help in working a little more quickly.  If Sunday's start is any indication, Riley will be the one who benefits the most.  He still paid too much attention to baserunners when there were two outs, but he worked much more quickly than usual, threw strikes with 59 of his 89 pitches and did a fine job of changing speeds on his fastball, ranging from 89 to 94 mph.  He tired visibly after completing the 6th inning (at the 79 pitch mark), but that was mostly due to lack of work as anything else.  The most important aspect of his start was that he kept his composure when he ran into trouble.  As good as his line score looked - 6+ innings, 7 hits, 1 run, 1 walk, 7 strikeouts -  there were plenty of opportunities for him to melt down in the first four innings.  The real test of Miller's effectiveness with Riley will be his next two starts in which he faces Philly at their new homer-friendly park, and then red-hot Tampa back home. 

As a side note, one other factor working in Riley's favor is that Robert Machado was behind the plate on Sunday, and should get another chance there next time out.  Should that battery again yield good results, Riley could be a pitcher to keep an eye on in the second half.  I know it was less than a week ago that I said that I didn't have high hopes for him, but that was before the O's brought in a guy with a good track record of helping pitchers just like Riley.