Pitches counted? Pitchers coddled? Not in Texas, where a Hall of Famer is molding a staff in his own old school image
This is an article from the May 24, 2010 issue
Half an hour to first pitch at the Ballpark in Arlington, and here is Nolan Ryan, the most irascible and feared pitcher in Rangers history, in a suit and tie, sitting at a table in the press box dining room. Now the team president and the leader of a group that is close to buying the franchise, Ryan—63, silver-haired, thicker than he was as a player—doesn't look quite right as a buttoned-up executive, nor does he look particularly comfortable dressed up as one. He tugs his sleeves, adjusts his pant leg and pulls on his tie before he leans in and tells you everything that's wrong with pitchers today.
"For one thing, they don't learn to think for themselves anymore," he growls. "Coaches started calling all the pitches in high schools and colleges. How do they know, sitting on the bench, what the guy on the mound has confidence in? That's like going out there and telling the pitcher, 'Don't hang this curveball.' I call it robot baseball, and it drives me crazy."
Ryan leans back in his seat and stretches out his right leg above the floor, as if his body is still attuned to the rhythms of game day and it's nearing time for him to take the mound. But it's been 17 years since he retired, at age 46. Since then the game has seen many changes that stick in his craw. "Pitchers have been pampered," he says. "I'd go to spring training, and all they'd do was throw on the side. Now how in the world do you learn how a hitter's going to react to your pitches without a hitter in there? I always thought that was crazy." He rattles a plastic cup full of ice and returns to his sermon. "Our expectations of them have been lowered. There's no reason why kids today can't pitch as many innings as people did in my era. Today a quality start is six innings. What's quality about that?"
Nolan Ryan—first-ballot Hall of Famer and the alltime strikeout leader, winner of 324 games and author of a record seven no-hitters—is on a crusade, one that began when he took over the Rangers two years ago. The crusade is about turning a losing franchise into a winner, but it is also about taking the game back. It's about unshackling the modern-day pitcher and turning the clock back to the days before pitch counts and Pitcher Abuse Points and the general coddling of hurlers, who are working less yet being paid more than ever before.
Under the Ryan regime the Rangers are pushing their pitchers to throw deeper into games, to extend their arms further, to rethink the physical limits that they've been told over and over they have. Says Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, "This generation of players has become a creature of the pitch count. Their ceiling has been lowered. It's up to us to jack it back up."
Last season, after allowing the most runs in the American League in 2008, Texas allowed the fourth fewest in the league and had its lowest team ERA (4.38) since the team relocated in 1994 to the launching pad that is the Ballpark. The renaissance has continued this season: The starting staff—anchored by a journeyman who spent the last two seasons pitching for the Hiroshima Carp of Japan's Central League (righthander Colby Lewis) and a former reliever with six career starts entering this season (lefthander C.J. Wilson)—was, at week's end, fifth in the league in starters' ERA (4.00) and fifth in strikeouts. The Rangers were 20--18 and held a two-game lead over the second-place A's in the AL West. "Before it was try to put 10 runs on the board every game and hope for a win," says righthander Scott Feldman, another former reliever, who won 17 games last season, his fifth with Texas and second as a starter. "I think we're showing there can be another way to win games."
Rangers starters saw their innings per start rise from a league-low 5.4 in 2008 to 5.9 last season, tied for fourth in the AL. This year—with a rotation of Lewis, Wilson, Feldman, righthander Rich Harden, lefty Matt Harrison and, since his callup from the minors on May 12, lefthander Derek Holland—the Rangers were getting an average of 5.9 innings per start at week's end, and only the Red Sox' starters (104.8) had logged more pitches per game than the Rangers' (103.3). Texas hurlers have embraced Ryan's challenge to raise their expectations and take ownership over their starts. And yet Ryan still hears from critics who say the Rangers are pushing pitchers too far, that today's game has changed too much—the lineups are deeper, the ballparks and the strike zone smaller—for hurlers to be handled the way they were in Ryan's era. "You're always going to have people against you, and anytime you do something different, you're going to be criticized," says Ryan. "I know there are people out there waiting for one of our guys to come down with an arm injury and throw everything back at our face. But I know what we're doing here is the right thing."
Here's how far the ceiling has been lowered: In 2000 a manager allowed a pitcher to throw 120 pitches or more in a regular-season game 466 times. In 2004 that number was 186. Last season it was 92. Sometime in the last decade managers became programmed to pull their pitchers after they reached the 100-pitch limit. But why? In 2000 Baseball Prospectus authors Keith Woolner and Rany Jazayerli released what was, in sabermetric circles, a groundbreaking study. It analyzed Pitcher Abuse Points (which scores a pitcher's health risk based on his pitch counts) and concluded that "repeated outings that go beyond 100 pitches can, over time, cause the kind of chronic overuse injury which may render the pitcher incapacitated or ineffective." But there is far from a consensus on the topic. In the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, published in 2004, sabermetric guru Bill James argues, "Backing away from the pitcher's limits too far doesn't make a pitcher less vulnerable; it makes him more vulnerable. And pushing the envelope, while it may lead to a catastrophic event, is more likely to enhance the pitcher's durability than to destroy it."
Last year the Giants led the majors with 11 complete games. In his career Ryan surpassed that total by himself seven times. Ryan first heard of pitch counts in the late 1980s, around the time Stats Inc. began counting pitches and a few years before newspapers regularly published the totals in box scores. "I was put on a pitch count with the Astros when I had an arm problem in ['87]—and I hated it," Ryan says. "I'd get to that pitch count, they'd take me out with guys on base, but in my mind I knew I could get this out."
Ryan found a kindred spirit in Maddux, who pitched for 15 seasons before retiring in 2000. Ryan got to know Maddux that year, when Maddux took a job as pitching coach for the Round Rock (Texas) Express, a Triple A team owned by the Hall of Famer. Ryan wooed Maddux from the Brewers after the '08 season, and on the first day of spring training last year Maddux stood in front of his pitchers and said, "Pitch counts are limits. You have no limits." Contrary to some reports the Rangers aren't totally doing away with pitch counts, which they still have in place in the minor leagues (though with more liberal limits than most other organizations have). The Rangers instead believe that not all 100-pitch games are created equal. Some are more stressful on the arm than others, and if a pitcher is cruising late in a game, there's no reason to give him the hook. "What we're trying to get rid of is that thing in pitchers' heads of how many pitches they have," says Maddux. "I'd be out there asking how they feel, and they'd say, 'Well, how many pitches do I have?' And I'd say, 'Doesn't matter—how do you feel?'"
"Strategically, you want to throw as few pitches as possible," says Wilson, who was 3--1 with a 1.48 ERA through Sunday and had thrown more than 100 pitches in six of his seven starts. "It's not like we want to go out there, flex our muscles and be like, 'Yeah, look at me, I threw 130 pitches.' What Nolan wants us to be is built to throw 130 pitches."
To that end, Ryan has revamped the way his pitchers were prepared to pitch. (He was a notorious workout freak as a player; in the words of Texas general manager Jon Daniels, Ryan was "well ahead of his time—players, and certainly not pitchers, back then didn't condition like he did.") Jose Vazquez, the Rangers' conditioning coach, added more sprints and lower-leg work to the team's training regimen. Ryan ordered that pitchers throw live batting practice to hitters from Day One of spring training—a routine almost unheard of in big league camps but one that the Rangers have used for the past two springs to build arms up before the season. It didn't take long for Ryan to hear from critics of the BP tactics. "Last summer [starter] Brandon McCarthy came up tender in his shoulder," says Ryan, "and one of the reporters came up to me and said, 'Do you think it was batting practice?' He hadn't thrown batting practice in two months!"
The Rangers are also questioning baseball convention when it comes to the long-toss drills that are a part of every team's pregame routine. Before the 2009 season coaches and officials met with Alan Jaeger, an independent coach who has worked with the Giants' Barry Zito and the Diamondbacks' Dan Haren (All-Stars who have never missed a start because of an arm injury) and advocates that pitchers long toss at distances well beyond the norm in baseball today. Jaeger says that over the last 15 years the vast majority of clubs began capping their pitchers at 120 feet because "teams have become so paranoid about injuries." But Jaeger argues that limiting long-toss ranges keeps pitchers from building up the arm strength that can keep them healthy. "There's nothing that's even a close second for why we have arm problems than the 120-feet limit," he says.
Last spring Texas pitchers began throwing on a daily basis at distances from 225 to 300 feet—a range that Jaeger says better correlates with the effort of throwing a 90-mph fastball off a mound. "For me to see an entire field [of players] throwing at 250, 280 feet was mind-blowing," says Jaeger, who spent a week working with prospects at the Rangers' Dominican Republic academy last month. "I've been going to spring training 15 straight years, and the only other time I'd seen it was with Oakland under Rick Peterson [the A's pitching coach in the early 2000s]."
Says Feldman, "Last year during spring training early on, my arm felt tired, and I was going to take a day off. [Maddux] said, 'Why don't you just try to long toss and stretch it out?' So I did that, and I got into the habit of long tossing more, and my arm felt dramatically better after that."
The Texas rotation has become one of the most stable in the American League. Last season Texas starters made three trips to the disabled list. This year the only starters to miss a turn have been Wilson (he had a bout of food poisoning) and Harrison, who went on the DL on May 12 with biceps tendinitis but is expected to recover quickly. According to Jaeger, nearly a dozen other organizations, including the Angels, Tigers and Yankees, have since stretched out their long-toss routines as the Rangers have. "Other teams saw what Texas did and followed suit," says Jaeger. "They were the first team willing to think outside the box, and now they've started a chain reaction."
Texas pitchers are even thriving at the Ballpark in Arlington, long regarded as the most hitter-friendly park in the American League. The red-brick stadium that is a shrine to the greatest pitcher in franchise history—a bronze statue of Ryan stands alone in the centerfield plaza of the ballpark, which sits beside Nolan Ryan Expressway—has long been a pitcher's graveyard. But last year Texas pitchers were actually better at home (4.27 ERA) than on the road (4.51 ERA). This season the Rangers were on pace to have their lowest home ERA, by more than half a run, since the opening of the ballpark in 1994 (3.71).
"In reality the reputation was developed because of the Rafael Palmeiros, Ruben Sierras and Juan Gonzalezes—they just had really good hitters there," says Maddux. "When I got here I actually thought, Wow this place has gaps. That's kind of nice. Coming from the National League, this ballpark is much more pitcher friendly than the parks in Houston, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Wrigley Field."
The problem in Texas wasn't the sweltering heat or the alleged jet stream in rightfield. The problem, of course, was the talent. "When Nolan got here in '08, the focus was on fine-tuning our development process and our pitching program," says Daniels. "But first we had to collect the talent."
Included in the haul of prospects the Rangers netted in the 2007 trade that sent first baseman Mark Teixeira to Atlanta was Harrison, 24, and 22-year-old closer Neftali Feliz. Last season the Rangers won 87 games and finished second in the division in part because of contributions from homegrown starters Holland (a lefty drafted in '06) and Tommy Hunter (a righty taken in '07). Holland dominated hitters at Triple A Oklahoma City this season (4--1, 0.93 ERA in six starts) before being called up; he pitched six shutout innings in his first start, a win over Oakland. Hunter is 1--0 with a 0.00 ERA in three starts in Triple A. Also on the way: 23-year-old Tanner Scheppers and Martin Perez, 19, the jewels of a minor league system that Baseball America ranks second only behind Tampa Bay's. Says Mariners G.M. Jack Zduriencik, "The young pitching talent they have there is almost frightening."
Ryan's biggest impact on the Rangers has been, according to Daniels, "changing the mind-set here. People talk about pitch counts, but I think the main thing with Nolan, more than anything else, was raising expectations. From Day One, Nolan's message was, We expect more from you as a Rangers starting pitcher."
Holland recalls a game last year in which he pitched well but failed to cover first base on a ground ball to the right side. "After I was out of the game, I went down to the clubhouse, and there was Nolan waiting for me," he says. "He wanted to make it clear that not covering first was unacceptable."
Ryan's door is open to all his pitchers. Last spring Wilson, coming off a disappointing 2008 season as a closer, went to Ryan with the idea of starting. "It can be really intimidating to go up to a living legend and ask him what he thinks about what you're doing," says Wilson, who read and reread a number of Ryan's books on pitching and fitness while growing up in Southern California. "I went into his office, and it turned into a 1½-hour conversation about my strengths and weaknesses and ultimately my future." Ryan told him while it wasn't going to happen that year, Wilson would be given a chance in spring training 2010 to win a job—which is exactly what he did. Says the 29-year-old lefthander, "Nolan was absolutely the first guy that was in my corner with me being a starting pitcher."
Ryan, who publicly predicted before this season that the Rangers would win 92 games, believes Texas has the pitchers to win its first division crown since 1999. He says "It's important to have people willing to make a commitment," and he believes he has those pitchers in guys like Wilson, who fought his way into the rotation; Feldman, once a struggling reliever who completely revamped his delivery twice in the last three years; and Lewis, who after struggling to stick in the majors for five years has made an astounding comeback after two years in Japan. "You look at a guy like Colby, who's willing to take his family to Japan for two years and to work his way back—that takes tremendous commitment and belief in yourself," says Ryan. "That's the kind of veteran presence we needed."
This kind of ballplayer, to hear Ryan tell it, is a rare breed today. "Baseball got into allowing these kids to not do the work," he says. "Money is the reason and the excuse you get from organizations: that we're protecting our investments. Well, protect the investment [too much], and you may not get the return."
And then he goes silent. It's 10 minutes to first pitch at the Ballpark in Arlington. All the Rangers' president can do now is watch and wait for the returns from his own investment.
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When Nolan Ryan says pitchers can throw more, he speaks from experience: In 1989, at age 42, he threw 166 pitches for Texas in a loss to the Royals. It's the second-highest total by a nonknuckleballer since STATS LLC began tracking pitches in 1988. (Three pitchers have thrown 167.) Here are three other legendarily large pitch counts.
Luis Tiant: 163
Four days after shutting out the Reds in Game 1 of the 1975 World Series, the Red Sox ace hurled another nine-inning gem in Game 4.
Tom Cheney: 228
On Sept. 12, 1962, the Senators righty pitched 16 innings and struck out 21 Orioles—still the single-game major league strikeout record.
As a 27-year-old for the Angels, Ryan pitched an epic 13 innings against Boston in 1974. The Angels won in 15—over Tiant, who had a complete game.