At the age of 31, while pitching for his sixth organization, and after making 275 major league starts, Brad Penny found religion when it comes to throwing ground balls to get hitters out. What was the source of such inspiration after all these years? He met the high priest of the low pitch, St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan.
Penny, who signed a $7.5 million contract with St. Louis last December, has abandoned his typical four-seam fastball/curveball combo for Duncan's almighty sinker. The results, as they often are for the lost pitching souls who come to St. Louis, have been remarkable. Penny is getting grounders at about twice the rate he used to and, after a win on Monday night in Arizona, is now 2-0 with a sparkling 1.29 ERA. After giving up 22 homers last year with Boston and San Francisco, Penny has not allowed a ball to leave the yard in his three starts for St. Louis.
Duncan, who has worked a record 31 years as a major league pitching coach, has turned around so many pitchers that one GM had to ask one of his former players, a Duncan disciple, what it was about Duncan that was so special. The pitcher said that Duncan armed his pitchers with so much information and confidence that "you absolutely believe everything that he tells you is going to work."
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But there is a practical side to Duncan's magic. He almost always teaches his pitchers to sink the ball -- pitch to contact while keeping the ball low. That is how he turned around Penny, Joel Pineiro, Kyle Lohse, Jason Marquis, Brett Tomko, Woody Williams and Chris Carpenter; all of them improved their ground ball/fly ball rate when they got to St. Louis. Not all pitchers bought in entirely (Kip Wells, Braden Looper, Marquis eventually).
It is difficult to argue with Duncan's success. His pitching staffs annually strike out far fewer batters than the league average, and yet they win games consistently. Beginning with the 2001 season, here is where the Cardinals have ranked in the National League in strikeouts: 11, 12, 12, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16, 13. Not impressed? Now here is where the Cardinals rank in wins in the league over those nine years combined: 1.
You would think that the teams that strike out the most batters -- a shorthand version of measuring "stuff" -- would often wind up in the World Series. Not so. None of the last 13 NL team strikeout leaders has won the pennant. Eight of the 13 never even made the playoffs and another four never made it out of the first round. (The 2003 Cubs are the only team in the past 13 years to lead the league in whiffs and win a playoff series.) But Duncan has figured out that something that sounds counterintuitive -- don't try for the strikeouts -- is the best way for a pitcher to succeed. It's difficult to argue with his results.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa trusts Duncan to run his staff the way a football head coach might turn over his defense to a coordinator, and why not? La Russa and Duncan go all the way back together to 1963, when they were prospects and roommates in the farm system of the Kansas City Athletics. It has been a winning combination, particularly when it comes to giving new life to the careers of veteran pitchers.
• So you think getting the ball over the plate is easy? Keep in mind that the average big league pitcher throws strikes with 62 percent of his pitches. When position players Felipe Lopez and Joe Mather pitched Saturday for St. Louis, they threw strikes on just 44 percent of their pitches.
• Check back on Cardinals workhorse catcher Yadier Molina in about August. Not only did Molina catch all 20 innings of that marathon on Saturday, he came back to catch all nine innings the next night (and 557 pitches in the three games against the Mets) and has caught every inning but 13 this year, or 89 percent.
• Atlanta's Jason Heyward reached base 12 times in his first 15 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. And his plate discipline (nine walks in 12 games) is uncanny for a 20-year-old. Only three players ever drew 80 walks at age 20, and all of them are in the Hall of Fame: Mel Ott, Ted Williams and Al Kaline.
• You think things are tough for 2-12 Baltimore? Just wait. After this series in Seattle, the Orioles play 16 straight games against the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins -- and all but six of them are on the road.
• The Rays are a nightmare matchup for the Red Sox. Boston is vulnerable to right-handed pitching and speed, and Tampa Bay has plenty of both. The Rays swept four games in Boston by using right-handers to get all but two outs in the series and by out-stealing the Red Sox, 10-0. The Red Sox need exceptional starting pitching to be a playoff team -- and that's certainly still possible. But the awful starts from David Ortiz and J.D. Drew (.152 combined, one home run in 79 at-bats) have accentuated their problems against right-handers.
• Two years ago Rockies right-hander Aaron Cook owned a 91-mph power sinker. Last year he lost a tick off his velocity. This year, after scuffling with his sinker in spring training, he is down to 88 mph with less sink and has had to resort to flipping up more breaking balls. Cook, who lost 20 pounds over the winter, has a 7.53 ERA after three starts and quite simply does not look like the same pitcher. Colorado has some issues right now with its rotation after Ubaldo Jimenez.
• Bud Selig's 14-man committee for "on-field matters" convened by conference call Monday, its third such meeting after one in-person meeting. Word is there has been little enthusiasm for expanding the use of instant replay, which is hardly surprising given the number of traditional baseball types on the committee.