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For now, slow pitch
George Allen, the late, legendary coach of the Washington Redskins, is famously known for the quote, “The future is now,” which encapsulated his philosophy of building a winner: Eschew youth, trade as many draft picks as possible and load up on wizened, savvy veterans.
Allen was a big baseball fan who came to the District the same year the Senators left, 1971. But wherever he is now, he might not appreciate or even understand the Washington Nationals’ plan for lasting success. For the Nationals as a whole and the organization’s young pitchers specifically, the future is … the future.
“The bottom line is that we’re trying to slow the process down,” said Spin Williams, who is serving his first season as the Nationals‘ minor league pitching coordinator. “We’re trying to give our pitchers the opportunity to succeed, number one, but also to get seasoning in the minor leagues and to make sure they can move to the next level. Not just from a physical standpoint but from a mental standpoint to make sure they understand what it takes to succeed.”
Patience is the cornerstone of the Nationals‘ philosophy of organization-building, and exhibit A is the handling of the pitching. Many young pitchers are fragile in both arm and psyche. Although exceptions occur, the concept of rushing a pitcher to the big leagues is antithetical to the common thinking in baseball. The Nationals espouse such thinking as much as, if not more than, most other clubs.
“We try to be cautious,” said assistant general manager Bob Boone who, along with Williams and director of player development Bobby Williams (no relation), has put together the master plan for bringing along young pitchers. “We’ve been very conservative.”
Hiring Spin Williams, who spent 27 years in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, including five as the Pirates” pitching coach, was a key part of the plan. “Spin has tremendous control of our pitching staff,” Boone said.
Allowed to lie fallow when the club resided in Montreal, the Nationals‘ farm system is improving, the recipient of more and better draft picks.
“You’ve got to have talented pitchers, and you’ve got to be able to sign them,” Williams said. “Scouting is the most important thing. You’ve got to have good scouts who understand what it takes to make a major league pitcher.”
“If there’s any excitement in Washington, D.C., it should be about the young pitchers and the lower levels,” Williams said.
Said Boone: “With our last couple of drafts, we’ve really improved the quality of players in the organization. We have some kids that we just signed that could probably be playing higher up, quite a few that are at Vermont, but we’re not gonna rush those kids. In a year, we might push them. We’re gonna give them this year to have success.”
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This is not to say the Nationals‘ won’t expedite a pitcher through the organization if he’s ready. Left-hander John Lannan, a mature 22-year-old, was an 11th-round pick in 2005 out of Siena College in New York who started the season at Potomac. He quickly advanced to Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Columbus before joining the big club last week in Philadelphia.
“A big-time, aggressive push,” Boone said.
Lannan allowed four runs in his Nationals debut before getting ejected in the fifth inning after hitting two batters. But on Wednesday, he beat the Cincinnati Reds for his first big league victory to justify, at least for now, the faith of the organization.
“Not only did we feel he was ready, we felt that mentally he could handle situations that aren’t favorable to his performance, that he would be able to rebound and come back and go out and not press,” Williams said.
Following closer Chad Cordero and injured starters Jason Bergmann and Shawn Hill, Lannan is homegrown — drafted and developed by the organization and part of a bumper crop of pitchers who began the year in the minors. Next to arrive might be 21-year-old right-hander Collin Balester, who is at Columbus. Williams, though, said he is “a little ways away.” But there are several other prospects, including Colton Willems, Adam Carr, Adrian Alaniz, Glenn Gibson, Cory VanAllen and this year’s No. 1 draft pick, Ross Detwiler. All will be brought along at their own pace.
“We have a chance to groom them a little bit, hold them back and build their confidence,” Columbus pitching coach Steve McCatty said.
The Nationals make no claim of inventing the art of developing pitchers, but there are some basic embedded principles applied at all levels. Boone said it starts with the basic delivery, getting pitchers to throw “off their backsides,” putting them into “a power position and throwing downhill.” From there, “we get into other things, and Spin is right there with that. Spin does a terrific job with the mechanics.”
Williams‘ top priority is the fastball, thrown over the heart of the plate and down, way down, at the “hollow” of the knee, over and over again, and then offset by the straight change-up. During a special program known as Accelerated Spring Training for about 45 prospects at the team’s Florida headquarters, Williams issued a simple edict: no breaking pitches.
“He focused on keeping the ball down and having control of your fastball,” Lannan said. “He didn’t let us throw anything but fastballs coming into camp, and it made you appreciate your other pitches because when you’re only throwing your fastball, you really have to spot up; you really have to control it to get outs. If you control your fastball and mix in your other pitches, you’ll get outs.”
Williams said he wanted to “make a statement” about what was important.
“Not that the breaking ball is not important, but we wanted to emphasize command of the fastball and the straight change,” he said. “Obviously as a starting pitcher you’ve got to have three or four pitches, but we really want to make them understand what’s gonna take them to each level.”
Said Vermont pitching coach Rusty Meacham: “We stress to our pitchers to attack, to throw it right down the middle early and when you get ahead, extend the zone.”
The philosophy applies long past spring training.
“What we want to do, especially at the lower levels, is get kids to throw strikes and be aggressive and command their fastballs,” McCatty said. “That’s Spin’s philosophy from the start. You’re gonna pound the strike zone and command your fastball. Start with a good, low fastball anywhere across the plate. We don’t want them to be a nibbler.”
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As they progress, work steps up on developing other pitches, learning new ones or refining what they already can throw and grasping the mental aspect. Knowing how to pitch is “gigantic,” said Boone, and the minors are where most of that is learned.
“You can go out and watch a high school kid and say, ‘That’s a perfect delivery,’ ” he said. “OK, now let’s go between the white lines and put Barry Bonds at the plate and let’s see if you can repeat that. That’s the lesson you’re learning. So you can repeat it from a habit, then learn the things you have to learn to know where to put it, when to put it there, when to add velocity, when to subtract velocity.”
Willems, the Nationals‘ second first-round pick in 2006, is a hard-throwing right-hander who turned 19 on Monday. He’s 3-0 with a 2.36 ERA in seven starts for Vermont but still had to make adjustments.
“It’s totally different than it was in high school,” he said. “In high school you can just throw 95 miles an hour to get guys out. Now you’ve got to go fast and slow, in and out, up and down.”
A case in point would be Balester, who was rated by Baseball America before the season as the Nationals‘ top prospect. Promoted from Harrisburg to Columbus last month, Balester has had some shaky outings, including his most recent, in which he played second-banana to Curt Schilling’s rehab start for Pawtucket on Tuesday.
Williams happened to be there.
“He’s still kind of feeling his way through,” he said of Balester. “This is the first time he moved [this early] during the season, and it’s a little bit of an adjustment. … With his stuff, he sure could play at the major league level, but I’m not sure he’s got a feel for what it takes yet.”
No matter how long it takes for that to happen, with Balester or any other pitcher, no one will be overly extended. Developing pitchers means protecting investments, “pampering” or “babying” them if necessary, even with increased strength and conditioning programs. In the low minors, for example, there are six-man staffs, and starters are limited to 85 pitches. If a reliever pitches one inning, he gets one day off. Two innings and it’s two days off.
“The game has changed because of the money involved,” said McCatty, who played for the Oakland A’s from 1977 to 1985 and once pitched 16 complete games in a season when Billy Martin was the manager (and was never the same after that). “You’ve got to take precautionary measures. The money values are astronomical. Why would you want to take a chance?”
One common technique Williams uses to enhance the health of pitchers is the long-toss program. Between starts, pitchers start off throwing (not pitching) from distances starting at 30 feet, then 60 feet, 90 feet and finally 120 feet. Beyond 90 feet, they are to throw with a “hump,” that is, not on a straight line.
“A lot of people preach throwing on a line,” Williams said. “But my feeling is it puts more effort on the throw. You might as well get on the mound and throw to a catcher. I like our pitchers to throw a relaxed throw.”
Straight or humped, relaxed or not, it’s all part of a process.
“It’s something that takes time,” Williams said. “If you do it the right way and build your foundation, time will go quicker than you think. But you’ve got to be patient. You can’t rush guys. Once you get that foundation you have to keep adding to it with guys who have talent. I tell my pitchers it’s like building a house.”
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