Pitching at its highest level
October is an exciting time of year for baseball fans and I am a fan as well as a former player and now, a member of the MLB Network announcing team. So I thought I would revive Kaat’s Korner and blog some of my thoughts. I started Kaat’s Korner in the late ’80s as a pregame segment on the Minnesota Twins Cable Network when I was announcing their games. I also did some blogging for YES while a member of the Yankees’ announcing team. Of course, the original K-Korner will and always should be credited to my friend Ralph Kiner, who had his show called “Kiner’s Korner” since the early 1960s on Mets telecasts. That title itself was based on his old “Kiner’s Korner” section of home run seats in left field at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field in the 1940s, replacing Hank Greenberg’s “Greenberg’s Gardens” there.
Those slugging roots notwithstanding, I am going to start with my favorite topic: pitching. The real “money” ball players, as I have often good-naturedly chided “Moneyball” central figure Billy Beane, are pitchers. No disrepect to the likes of Ryan Braun and Albert Pujols, but it is still about which team pitches best usually wins. Oakland had Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder as their starters when “Moneyball” became a term that some experts glommed onto as the reason for a team’s success. They were hard to find in the movie. I guess Yogi Berra and Kirby Puckett could not have played for a team that operated on the “Moneyball” theory. They seldom walked or struck out or took a lot of pitches!
OK, back to pitching. I think the classic duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the National League Division Series should be required watching for every pitcher — amateur, Minor or Major Leaguer. Watch the videos on MLB.com and study how Carpenter and Halladay went about their business. Pay attention to the pace with which they worked, the methodical, rhythmic, consistent time between pitches. There was not much hesitation. They never seemed to have any doubt about what they wanted to do with the next pitch. They pitched like the hitter was just someone standing in their way. They seemed to say: “I challenge you to hit this pitch, I’m not afraid you’re going to hit it.” They had no apparent fear of contact and pitched their pitches with conviction. I refuse to say “threw their pitches” because these two are not “brain-dead heavers.” That’s a term pitchers in the past 10 to 15 years have coined for those who are infatuated with how fast their fastballs are clocked. They are throwers, not pitchers. Justin Verlander was a thrower as were most of us in our early days in the Majors, but he has become a “pitcher.” Look at the results this year.
Listen carefully to what Carpenter said after the game when asked how he produced so many groundball outs in a ballpark that rewards flyballs. He made it sound so simple and other pitchers should take note: “Yeah, keeping the ball down in the strike zone, sinking the ball down with my fastball, keeping my breaking ball down, staying ahead in the count. And when you do that, you get those guys who obviously are a fabulous hitting ballclub, you get them in swing mode. If you’re aggressive and they know that, if they don’t swing, you’re going to be 1-2, 0-2, whatever it is early in the count or behind in the count, they’re going to start swinging and that’s when you can start expanding the strike zone and getting the ball down and getting them to swing at stuff you want them to swing at and producing good results.”
Those Game 5 results took me back to the World Series games between the Yankees and Braves in the 1950s when Lew Burdette, Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford and Bob Turley were hooking up in similar pitching duels. I didn’t miss a pitch. That was pitching at its highest level, like Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. I smiled as I read comments about how some players on other teams do not like Carpenter. He seems to be mean or brusque or unfriendly. Good on ya’, Chris. That’s the way it should be! Not many liked Gibson, either. I wish more hitters would have hated me. My problem was the opposite. They sent a limo for me on the day I pitched so I’d get to the park safely and they could run up to the plate and swing. I wish I’d have known Chris Carpenter back then.
For me, other pitchers this postseason who are enjoyable to watch, whether they won or not, have been Cliff Lee, Ian Kennedy, Yovani Gallardo, most of the Texas staff. They give you the impression they are in control of the game and are going to dictate the pace. I wish there were more of them. I announced some Red Sox games in September and, living in Vermont in the summer, I watched a lot of them as well. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett are high-quality pitchers, but — and I mentioned this to my friend Terry Francona on more than one occasion — they began to pitch like they were stuck in quicksand in September. No energy, no pace. They appeared to have scouting-reportitis. That’s a disease pitchers suffer when they have studied hitters’ weaknesses to the point where they do not “trust their stuff” and worry about the hitter making contact.
I look forward to seeing more performances like I saw from Chris and Roy. There are too few of them these days.