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There’s a big difference between the A’s trio and other talented young pitchers, such as Ryan Dempster, A.J. Burnett and Brad Penny of the Marlins. Oakland’s triumvirate was put through some daunting challenges as the A’s won the A.L. West last season. Sometimes they were successful; sometimes they failed. But the heat of those battles has forged a set of pitchers as mentally tough as it is talented.
“You go through things and you just kind of go through them,” Mulder says. “You don’t even realize as it happens that it is important or that you are growing up a little. You realize it later, that there were all kinds of moments like that, and you’re like, `Hey, what’d I just do?’”
Take a closer look at those moments from last season, and you can see a nucleus of pitchers that has grown into the foundation for what could be the A.L.’s best starting rotation outside the Bronx. The three, who are joined in the rotation by Gil Heredia and Omar Olivares, have always had talent. They have added guts.
“It’s one thing to see them throw 95 miles per hour,” Howe says. “But these guys have something inside, too. Call it intestinal fortitude.”
July 22, 2000 Network Associates Coliseum
Zito’s moment came during his first big-league start, against the Angels. The A’s had held off on calling him up because the team spent most of the first two weeks of July on the road and felt it would be better for Zito to debut at home. But while they waited, the A’s lost seven of 10 games, putting the team five games behind the Mariners and a game behind the Angels. Some circumstances for a debut.
His first four innings were shaky. Zito walked four and hit a batter but managed to get to the fifth inning with a 7-1 lead. Then he nearly had a meltdown. Zito loaded the bases in the fifth on two walks and a single. There were no outs, and the Angels had the middle of their order–Mo Vaughn, Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson–coming up.
“That inning, I was trying not to blow it,” Zito says. “You can’t pitch that way. I had to remind myself of that.”
Zito struck out Vaughn with a looping curveball. He buzzed a high fastball past Salmon for strike three. He got Anderson to chase a curve in the dirt, the third strikeout of the inning.
“You expect to score in that situation,” Vaughn said after the game. “That kid has good stuff, and he showed a lot of poise out there.”
Zito describes his repertoire of pitches as “typical lefty stuff”–a high-80s fastball that rides in on righthanders, a changeup that tails away and a curve that Vaughn calls, “one of the best I have seen.” But he is less concerned about his stuff than about his poise and the ways he can use his mind to gain poise. Zito is a disciple of psychologist Harvey Dorfman, author of The Mental ABCs of Pitching and The Mental Game of Baseball. He is also a dabbler in Taoism. He conducts breathing and visualization exercises before he pitches and uses aromatherapy candles on the road to soften the atmosphere in hotel rooms.
“You have to create a scenario in your head where you know these guys are not going to hit you,” Zito says. “The thing is, you really have to believe it, and I was not believing it. But all right, they load the bases. Now I am saying to myself, `Dude, f— these hitters. I am going to dominate these guys.’”
When Vaughn stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out, Zito did not see a 268-pound former MVP but just another hitter, not much different from the minor league hacks he had been facing just a week earlier.
That fifth-inning revelation in his debut spurred Zito to a 7-4 record and 2.72 ERA.
“They’re just hitters, no matter where you are,” Zito says. “It’s the same game, just a different deal.”
This season could be a different deal as well. Zito is no longer a rookie. Opponents will be better prepared for him, as they were for Hudson in the early part of last season, his second year in the big leagues. But Zito doesn’t accept that sort of thinking.
“If you are going to talk about a sophomore slump, why not a junior slump? Or senior slump? People say the hitters know me now, but as much as they know me, I know them, too. So who has the advantage?”
September 13, 2000 A’s training room
Mark Mulder was lifting weights, just finishing his final set of squats, with 365 pounds on the bar. He had squatted 400 pounds a week earlier, so 365 was nothing unusual. On his final rep, he bent at the knees, the weight digging into his shoulders, but when he tried to come up again … nothing. Only pain.
Stuck in a squat, in too much shock to scream, Mulder hitched the barbell to the safety bar and rolled to the floor for what seemed like 10 minutes but was more like 10 seconds. A’s third baseman Eric Chavez entered the training room, saw the 6-6 Mulder sprawled on his stomach under the squat machine and laughed.
“What are you doing, man?” Chavez said.
Mulder couldn’t speak. “To be honest, it felt like someone shot me right above the ass,” he recalls now. In more technical terms, Mulder suffered a herniated disk in his back, and it could not have come at a worse time. He had been the A’s gem prospect, a lefty drafted out of Michigan State with the second overall pick in 1998 and given a club-record $3.2 million signing bonus. He had zipped through the minors, making only 24 starts, all at Class AAA, before reaching the majors in April. After a decent start (5-2, 4.94 ERA), Mulder had gone into a 2-8 tailspin, putting his hold on a rotation spot in doubt. But he had begun to turn things around, going 2-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three September starts. He had been scheduled for three more starts before season’s end. The worst physical problem he had dealt with was pitching through mononucleosis while a senior at Thornwood High in Chicago.
“I had finally gotten on a little bit of a roll,” Mulder says. “I was looking forward to those last three starts. But it was a freak thing. I mean, I had never gotten hurt. When I think about it now, I don’t know. It might not be that bad.”
In the beginning, it was bad. The injury came the day before the/X/s went on an 11-day road trip, so Mulder was left in California to meet with doctors and get started on therapy. It was a lonely time. He watched the A’s on television in his apartment, alternating between sitting and pacing–he could do neither for long because of the pain. Almost two weeks later, team doctors confirmed what the pain had been telling Mulder all along: He was done for the season, including the playoffs. However, the break from the team gave Mulder time to think.
The injury, indeed, was not that bad, but he had finished his rookie year with a 9-10 record and a 5.44 ERA. Mulder knew he could do better, so he would spend the winter working out, getting stronger.
“If you look at where Mark (was) evaluated last season and where he thought he should be, they were very far apart,” says A’s pitching coach Rick Peterson. “Not being able to pitch in the playoffs only added to it.”
“Sitting, watching the playoffs, that made a light bulb flash over my head,” Mulder says. “I want us to get back (to the playoffs), and I want to be one of the guys who is the reason we are there. Right now, I feel great I feel stronger than I have ever been.”
October 6, 2000, Game 3 A.L. Division Series, Yankee Stadium
There was little Tim Hudson had not done coming into this game. He had whipped through the minors with a 24-10 record. He had gone 11-2 as a rookie in 1999. He had pitched in the 2000 All-Star Game and was one of four pitchers to win 20 games for the year.
Hudson, a 160-pound package of stiff-lipped intensity, had taken over the duties of staff ace, going 7-0 during the team’s stretch run. He had beaten Seattle in a pivotal road game September 21, lifting the A’s to three straight wins over the division-leading Mariners. He had thrown eight shutout innings in the season finale to clinch Oakland’s A.L. West championship. Now, after the A’s had split the first two games of the opening playoff round in Oakland against the Yankees, Hudson was starting Game 3.
“You don’t want to get too far ahead, where you expect things from a guy,” Fasano, the catcher, says. “But I think by the end of last year, we expected him to win.”
With Oakland leading, 1-0, and runners on first and third with no outs in the second inning, Hudson got Glenallen Hill to hit a hard chopper in front of the plate. Bernie Williams, on third, raced home. Hudson went to field the ball but saw Williams and thought, “I can get him.”
He laughs at that recollection. “I pretty much had no chance at him,” he says now. “But I guess I am stubborn.”
Hudson threw to catcher Ramon Hernandez and, as he says, was not even close–Hernandez did not attempt a tag on Williams. Now the Yankees had two on and nobody out. Hudson gave up a walk and an infield hit, helping the Yankees to a 2-1 lead with momentum: New York wound up with a 4-2 win and eventually won the series. Hudson wound up with a valuable lesson.
“You can’t do too much,” he says. “I actually thought I pitched pretty well. I just made a bad decision. It was a mistake. You hope you learn from mistakes.”
Hudson has learned enough to be the A’s opening day starter and staff ace. Of course, being an opening day starter for the A’s in recent years is not much of an accomplishment–they have frequently been chosen by default. This is the ninth consecutive season Oakland has used a different opening day pitcher, and in that group are such forgettables as Carlos Reyes, Bobby Witt and, yes, Ariel Prieto. But Hudson is different. He will pitch opening day because he is a true ace, the best of a good group. And, at 25, he could hold on to the job for awhile.
And the damage was done. It takes a special team chemistry to tolerate the line through the clubhouse that Wells drew with his comments and that Thomas highlighted with his response. While it’s worth noting the convergence between the ill-considered slam on Thomas and some improved White Sox play–after a dreadful 8-18 start, they went 6-3 after Wells went public, as if something finally lit their fire, before going into another tailspin–it just isn’t standard operating procedure for a player to dis a teammate like that.
So Ash, from the remove of Toronto, admits to a sense of relief that Wells, good heart or not, is no longer his problem. “You’ve got to have everybody on the same page, pointing in the same direction,” he says. “And even though you can say, `Oh, that’s just David’ and kind of laugh it off or slough it off, it has maybe an unconscious impact. That’s especially true for younger guys. They say, `He’s been around for a long time. He’s been in the majors for 15 years. He must know.’”
Now, one spring training and a couple of months into his new life in Chicago, it’s possible the White Sox are feeling the urge, even with Wells’ team-leading three victories and 3.97 ERA, to insert another move in his future. Certainly, his past suggests as much.
* At the trading deadline in 1995, the Tigers dealt him to Cincinnati despite a 10-3 record and a 3.04 earned run average.
* In December of that year, the Reds traded him to Baltimore despite a 6-5 record and a 3.59 ERA during his two months with Cincinnati.
* A season later, the Orioles let him go to the Yankees as a free agent. From Baltimore’s perspective, that decision might be regrettable only in hindsight: At 11-14 with a 5.14 ERA for the O’s in ’96, Wells had his only losing season since 1994.
* In March of ’99, the Yankees traded him to Toronto, despite a 34-14 record and a perfect game (vs. Minnesota on May 17, 1998) during his two-year tenure in New York.
* And in January of this year, the Blue Jays sent him packing to Chicago. All he did for Toronto was win 37 games over two seasons, including a 20-8 record and a 4.11 ERA last year, when he also started for the American League in the All-Star Game, led the league in complete games (nine) and finished third in Cy Young voting.
The impulse for the White Sox to deal Wells surely will grow stronger as the trading deadline approaches, especially if Chicago doesn’t shimmy out of the hole into which it played itself the first five weeks of the season.
“I’ll look at every option, if that nightmare should occur,” general manager Ken Williams says. “But it should not be assumed that David will be moved.”
Williams and Wells have known each other since they were teammates in Toronto in the early ’90s. That’s a bond Wells never has enjoyed with a general manager until now, but logic leads to the possibility they’ll be separated again. Could Wells wind up with the Mets? They were interested last winter when the Blue Jays peddled him, and they certainly ought to be interested again if he is back on the block. Al Leiter’s elbow has cost him more than a month of the season, and the Mets, who entered the season expecting to make a run at a return trip to the World Series, are floundering and desperate for help.
Wells made his interest in the Mets known before Toronto completed the trade with the White Sox. Wouldn’t the Mets still be an attractive alternative?
“I don’t want to get traded anymore,” Wells says, sitting in the stands behind the White Sox dugout on a sunny afternoon in Chicago. “I’m happy. I like it here. I don’t want to go anywhere else. In fact, I’d have picked here if I had my choice between Chicago and the Mets. I don’t like Bobby Valentine. I don’t think it would’ve ever worked with him. I just don’t like the way I’ve seen him treat people. I know a lot of people can’t stand him who played for him. So with my personality and the way I talk and the things he does, it just wouldn’t work.”
What are the chances Wells would get off on the fight foot with the Mets after that? Nonetheless, the teams in playoff contention–including the Mets–surely will leap and nip in pursuit of Wells’ left arm like mongrels at a butcher’s handout if the White Sox dangle him.
Chicago has a $9 million club option on Wells’ contract next season, but he’s more marketable now at 38 years old than he is likely to be in the summer of 2002.
Apart from the waters he roils with his outspokenness, Wells would be invaluable to a contending team looking for a rent-a-pitcher for August and September. Not only can he win–and win often and win without a lot of strain on the bullpen–but he also can be a positive, if not always a diplomatic, influence for any young pitcher willing to pay attention. Last season with the Blue Jays, he pulled closer Billy Koch over during batting practice a day after Koch gave up back-to-back home runs in the ninth inning of an interleague game against the Marlins. The conversation was about mixing pitches, changing speeds, working both sides of the plate and pitching up and down in the zone.
“After that,” Koch says, “I went almost two months without giving up a mn, and I attribute a lot of my success last year just to that talk. It made me see him in a different light. He was a pretty good team player. He had his little `Boomer’ side to him, but it was fine.”
Williams and manager Jerry Manuel certainly don’t object to Wells’ toughening-up bull sessions with 25-year-old Jim Parque and the team’s other young pitchers, although they’d no doubt prefer he keep some of his opinions–his “little Boomer side”–to himself.
Parque struggled early this year and finally went on the disabled list at the start of May after a series of rough outings. He likely won’t pitch again this year. Wells had been talking to him, coaching him, trying to teach him how to be a nine-inning pitcher.
“He’s got a great arm, but I don’t think his mental approach is there,” Wells says, without knowing the extent of Parque’s injury. “He’s always worrying about something because he’s been stereotyped as a five-inning type of guy. He’s trying so hard not to live by those standards, but it isn’t working. He’s living by them. He gets to that phase, and now he’s not worrying about the game anymore. He’s thinking, `God, am I going to get through this?’ He’s got to get over that.
“I’ve talked to him. I’ve talked to him plenty. But does it sink in? Hey, I can only talk. Advice is free. To actually go out and get the job done, that’s up to the individual.”
While the complete game has all but disappeared from the major league landscape, Wells continues to pitch into the late innings with regularity. Three weeks into May, he had more than half again as many innings pitched as any other White Sox starter. A tape of his outing in Detroit on April 19–a complete-game, 3-1 victory in which 81 of the 100 pitches he threw were strikes–ought to be mass-produced and distributed to any young pitcher still nibbling through his first few big-league seasons.
As usual, Wells is among the league leaders in innings pitched. And he does it with, arguably, the worst back in baseball. He must submit to almost-daily chiropractic care, but that’s another way in which he can be a model baseball citizen for a team looking for leadership. Then again, Wells’ back also provides him with a doctor’s note excusing him from lifting sessions and running drills. So as role models go, Wells is a tangle of contradictions: Do as he pitches, not as he works out.
That’s sometimes a difficult distinction for others to make, especially, as Ash points out, younger players. “He’s a role model for me,” says the A’s Barry Zito, whose dyed-blue hair would probably win Wells’ seal of approval for individualism. “I love the way he comes after hitters. You always know he’s going to throw a strike. And I also love his whole thing about not getting caught up in all the off-the-mound crap they want you to do. I mean, it’s good to run and lift and everything, but sometimes guys put way too much importance on that stuff.
“Most guys, the night before they pitch, would stay in their hotel room. He knows he can go out, and he doesn’t care. He’s still got the confidence, and nothing is going to change that.”
The going-out thing … that may be changing. Wells got married during the offseason. To anybody familiar with his image as a connoisseur of the nightlife, that’s a bombshell, but he did it. Which means that maybe, at the age of 38, Wells finally is settling down.
“A lot more than when I was single,” he agrees. “I was pretty wild. But I’ve had my time by now. I don’t need to act like a 22-year-old, 23-year-old anymore. I’ve got responsibilities now, priorities.”
He’s still Boomer Wells, though, still the freest spirit in baseball. It was his idea, for example, to have the portrait accompanying this story taken with him on the Indian Chief motorcycle, lent to him by a Chicago dealership. (His own Chief, as well as his Harley and several other Indians, are back home in San Diego.) In the world according to Wells, there’s the perfect marriage, fight there in that photograph.
So, blissfully wed or not, this is still Boomer, who is quick to note that there’s nothing wrong, even in this phase of life, with dropping in occasionally on one of those adult-beverage establishments where the female employees are known to shed an article of clothing or two (our phrasing, not his). “You know, just to pinch yourself and say, `Yeah, it’s still out there’” (his phrasing, not ours).
Yep, Boomer might be getting in before the dawn’s early light these days, but the bombs are still bursting in air all around him.
Surprised? Shouldn’t be.
Only a Pollyanna would say baseball isn’t lurching toward another impasse. These foolish, stubborn men are more interested in battling each other than preserving the grand old game, which explains why it’s now the national past-its-time. “I can’t say that I’m optimistic.” says Fay Vincent, the last independent commissioner, ousted back when the sport was much better. And if a tense off-season follows previous form–a lockout that leads to a work stoppage next season, the ninth in three decades–you know what that spells.
Simply, baseball’s role in America would slow to a crawl. Any remaining smidgen of consumer trust would vanish. There’s an adage that the game’s recovery powers are almighty, that the scab always heals no matter the wound.
Not this time, not after so much bleeding and heartache. The public has come to view the owners, players and negotiators with zero tolerance and considerable disdain. Either the parties figure out how to divide a caviar pie, or we’ll start finding something better to do between April and October. It took three long years for folks to rediscover the game after the last labor ruckus–and only after a precious home run race that overlooked Mark McGwire’s use of androstenedione and a suspiciously lively ball. To expect another forgive-and forget favor would be laughably wrong.
The biggest fib going is Selig’s concept that baseball is in a sparkling “renaissance.” In truth, baseball is in a delicate holding pattern between crises. The most perilous predicament is ahead, with an onus on the owners to maintain their poise and finally convince the players that the economic system needs significant reform. Last time, the owners approached the union like so many army generals. This time, at least the climate is calmer after Selig’s gag order. Instead of blustery loudmouths pounding chests, the owners are represented by a bread breaker like Paul Beeston. Yet when Selig talks of eliminating at least two franchises, it doesn’t remind anyone of Geneva.
Besides, a more workable mood hardly means a deal will be struck. When I asked Players Association chief Don Fehr when serious talks might start, he suggested I call Selig and ask him. Some have said Selig will ask to extend the current agreement for a year. But that only would delay the inevitable, giving owners more time to prepare their case for massive change. And why would the fat-cat union, which owns all the leverage after repeated labor successes, agree to an extension or massive change? Cautions Vincent: “You have to work with the union, and I think baseball continues to think there can be gains by fighting with them. You can’t win that way. The union is like Rocky Marciano. It’s 49-0, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be 50-0.”
The key is whether Fehr is receptive enough to listen to Selig, who aches to close the disparity between big-revenue and small-revenue teams with solutions ranging from revenue sharing to reducing the number of teams. The players don’t seem in the mood to bargain, especially as Selig extols the game’s good health. Before real negotiations can begin, big-revenue and small-revenue owners must agree on common strategy. It was a glaring failure in 1994. “It’s up to them to be on the same page,” Fehr says.
Selig understands the importance of avoiding another work stoppage. But he says he can’t accept the status quo, either. The man is 67. Is it wise to brawl with Marciano again? “I can’t do what has been done so often in the past.” he says. “I don’t want to say, `Well, we fixed it,’ when I know in my heart and mind we really didn’t. So there’s got to be real change.”
Someone tried to talk me out of writing this column. His argument: No one wants to read about labor now, not with so much joy in baseball. He doesn’t understand.
If the labor mess isn’t resolved–right here, right now–baseball as we’ve known it is dead. There is no joy in Budville.
Bobby Cox, going for his 10th straight division title as Braves manager, was nearly as distraught as Bowa as he tried to fix his team’s woeful offense. After putting 43-year-old Julio Franco at first, Cox stuck Chipper Jones in left so that Ken Caminiti’s bat could be in the lineup. This was the same Caminiti who had one hit over a recent nine-game stretch and was batting .225 as a Brave. Moving its best player to a new position in September does not seem like a move a team thinking about the World Series would want to make. But Jones told Cox he was willing to try and with Glove Glove winner Andruw Jones in center, Chipper promised “to man that hundred-foot area from the foul line to straightaway medium left field. I’ll let him have the rest.”
The Diamondbacks have the edge
The way Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson have pitched, the Diamondbacks are not likely to suffer any kind of tailspin. Schilling is 12-1 after Diamondbacks losses and Johnson entered the week with one loss since the All-Star break.
While the rest of the West spends the final two weeks playing inside the division, Arizona should benefit from the unbalanced schedule. After not facing the Brewers all season, the Diamondbacks catch the disappointing Brew Crew six times in the next two weeks.
The Central will provide the wild card
The Giants and Dodgers still meet six more times, but the Cubs and the Cardinals have finished their head-to-head games. Both, however, have at least seven dates against division opponents they have dominated this season. The Cubs won eight of their first 10 against both the Pirates and the Reds, and they will play those clubs in 10 of their last 17 games. The Cardinals have won eight of 10 against the Pirates, with seven more remaining. The teams in the West, meanwhile, have battled on more even terms. The Dodgers, for example, entered the week 21-17 against their remaining opponents: 6-6 vs. the Diamondbacks, 7-6 vs. the Padres and 8-5 vs. the Giants. “The teams in the West will kill one another (in head-to-head competition),” predicts Padres general manager Kevin Towers. “Watch for the Cubs, or maybe the Cardinals, to slide in while the Giants and Dodgers bang heads.”
162 might not be enough
With four teams bunched so tightly for the wild card, there’s always the chance for playoffs. Consider these possibilities:
* If three teams finish tied for the wild card, there will be a two-game playoff. There will be a draw to see which club receives a bye. The winner of the playoff between the other two teams will then meet the bye team the following day. If four teams somehow tie for the wild card, there will be a four-team tournament, with the seedings based on a drawing.
* Here’s a situation that baseball surely hopes to avoid: A three-way tie, with two teams even for a division lead. Let’s say the Diamondbacks, Giants and Cubs all finish with the same record, and the Giants and Diamondbacks are tied for the West lead with Cubs in second place in the Central. The Giants and D-backs would have a one-game playoff for the division title, and the loser would be out, since it then would be a half game behind the Cubs. Though general managers have voted to change that rule, it has not yet passed through all the proper channels.
* And, finally, say those same three teams finish in the same situation and the Cardinals finish tied for second with the Cubs. There would be separate playoffs: The Giants and Diamondbacks would meet for the division, and the Cubs and Cardinals would play for the wild card.
It’s pretty confusing. With so many teams in the race, scoreboard watching becomes more challenging. Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds was watching the Rockies play the Giants recently and found himself cheering for the Giants. Whoops!
When Tony La Russa heard Edmonds rooting on the enemy, the Cardinals manager did not hide his displeasure. Edmonds tried to explain.
“I don’t get too excited about it,” Edmonds says. “If you get all caught up in it, you lose your mind. Until we win four or five in a row, there’s no reason to worry.”
Unless, of course, you lose four or five in a row first.
“In Boston, I would like (Nomar) Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez,” he says. “I think they both have a damn good idea. Our team, I would talk about Edgar (Martinez). He’s a very intelligent hitter. In Cleveland, (Jim) Thome looks (for a particular pitch), and so does Frank Thomas at Chicago. I’m talking about the good ones. (Garret) Anderson over in Anaheim. Troy Glaus is another one.
“I’ll tell you another one–over in Texas, our young shortstop, Alex Rodriguez. Alex has a pretty good idea going up there. (The Dodgers’ Eric) Karros would be classified there, I think, and (Larry) Walker at Colorado certainly has to be. I think (Ken Griffey Jr.) looks, too. Just about every power hitter (does), but some of them are better than others.
“I’m going to tell you another guy that might be the best in the league,” Piniella adds. “Jason Giambi. I think he adjusts really, really well and has a really good thinking process, and he’ll take a base on ball.”
For whatever sophistication guess hitting may require, it’s also a touchy subject. Batters hate being called guess hitters, mostly because they think the term implies that they don’t know what they’re doing.
“Pitchers eat up guys who guess on every pitch,” the Red Sox’s Carl Everett says.
Almost all batters claim they never do it, but most then go on to describe a personal approach that requires some degree of “anticipation.” Other popular euphemisms include “having an idea,” “getting my pitch” and “thinking along with the pitcher.”
Giambi takes a particularly analytical approach, using a technique he learned from ex-teammate Mark McGwire to break down each at-bat. The goal is to hit only strikes and to work your way into a hitter’s count. To do it, the hitter must assess the type of pitches a pitcher favors, the part of the plate he likes to work, whether he throws up or down, the score and the count.
“I usually do zones, and most of the time I’ll sit fastball,” says Giambi, reflecting the compound factors he takes into account. “But if there’s a guy I think will throw me a 2-1 changeup, I’ll sit for that. Or maybe (with) a lefthander who throws sliders, I’ll sit slider. I’ll sit those pitches and kind of let everything go after that.”
After watching Giambi hit .333 with 43 home runs and 137 walks last year, Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price knows how precise Giambi is in his approach and thinks he may be “sitting” as much as 60 percent of the time.
“I think he understands that he’s the huge threat in the offense and that particular pitchers have their way of trying to get him out and don’t stray terribly far from (what they’ve done in the past),” says Price.
Giambi, who was hitting .348 with 17 homers entering the week, asserts that half of all starting pitchers, especially young ones, work in predictable patterns.
“Veterans go with their best stuff, and they don’t give in,” he says. “When I face the Rocket, he’s going to throw me a forkball on 3-1 or 2-1. And that’s why he wins: because he’s not going to let certain guys in the lineup beat him. Where maybe a younger kid might make a mistake and say, `Well, let’s throw him a fastball here and if I make a mistake I’ll get away with it,’ that’s when you’ve got to sit and study and know your game plan.”
For some hitters, that game plan includes sitting only on specific pitches.
“I’ll probably do it about 10 times (per game), just in certain counts,” says Robin Ventura of the Mets, who doesn’t consider himself a good guesser. “I probably do it more on the breaking ball. Guys that have big discrepancies between (the effectiveness off their pitches, you have to go after one and guess for that and stay away from the other one.
“You go on a hunch. It’s not an all-out guess. You just kind of get a certain feeling about a certain (pitch), and sometimes it pans out, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
For pitchers who specialize in breaking balls and offspeed pitches, a different game plan is required because location is generally the essence of their approach. And it’s important to stick with that plan, the Cardinals’ Ray Lankford says, using finesse pitchers Omar Daal of the Phillies and Tom Glavine of the Braves as examples.
“With guys (like that), I’ll probably sit soft,” Lankford says, “because they’re going to try to finesse you. So you’ve got to sit on location. If you’re going to look for something away, I would stay that way. You can’t look outside and inside on (a finesse pitcher) and try to cover both sides of the plate. You’ve got to just set your sights and just stay there. If it’s away, just look away the whole time. If you get busted, just take it. Certain other pitchers that throw hard, you can set your sights inside and out. But guys like that, they like to try to get you to roll on a pitch (pull something that’s outside), so I’ll look for something soft, middle-away.”
For young pitchers, especially, trying to outthink an accomplished veteran guess hitter can be the route to a migraine on the mound. When the Phillies’ Bruce Chen was with the Braves, he picked the brains of two of Atlanta’s best guess hitters, Bret Boone and Ryan Klesko, the latter of whom had a reputation for sitting on breaking balls. But neither one could help him with the Diamondbacks’ Luis Gonzalez, who confounds pitchers by constantly changing his approach.
“Sometimes he just sits for fastballs in if he wants to pull you. Sometimes if he knows he can hit your breaking ball, he just sits on that and waits for you to throw it,” says Chen.
Sometimes Chen will throw him a fastball away, thinking Gonzalez will go for that. “He takes it, and then you’re like, `What happened?’” Chen says. “And then you’re like, `What am I going to do? Am I going to throw him the same fastball away? What if he’s looking for a fastball?’
“Sometimes for a whole at-bat he’ll look for a curveball. Sometimes he looks curveball first pitch, sometimes fastball in. With guys like that, you’ll throw a pretty good pitch, and they hit it, and you didn’t show them that for a long time. You say to yourself, `How did (he) hit it that good?’”
Veteran pitchers, though, tend to stay with their strengths. The Mariners’ Aaron Sele has grown into the role of staff ace by learning to disregard hitters’ mind games, some of them based on his tendency to rely on his curveball.
“I don’t care if a guy guesses right,” says Sele. “As a pitcher, my mentality is if I locate my pitch anyway, it doesn’t matter. If he’s guessing fastball away, that’s great. If I’m locating my fastball, he’s going to have a hard time hitting it anyway. But if I’m throwing it away, and I don’t get it where I want it, that’s where you’re going to get hurt. That’s where you get in trouble.
“When you’re trying to think what he’s thinking, you’ll mess yourself up .and throw the wrong pitch anyway because all you (should) worry about is location.”
The way batters guess within the strike zone has been changed to some extent by the high strike, which hinders hitters who used to sit low, but the rides are changing constantly, with every at-bat, for this game-within-a-game played by pitcher, catcher and hitter.
“You’ve got to try to pick up certain things on guys,” says Lankford. “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying. That’s the way this game is.”
What they look for
Guessing by any other name smells discreet. Call it sitting on a pitch, anticipating, what have you. It’s really not such a bad thing because it’s anything but a crapshoot. Any denials by hitters are a bunch of bull.