August 23, 2014

Medina
Mostly cloudy
69°F

Indians pitchers hit stride with fewer walks

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The tendency might not continue into the season but so far, manager Terry Francona’s insistence on Indians pitchers throwing strikes is paying off.

Thirty-one pitchers who have thrown at least one inning in spring exhibition games have combined to average 2.54 walks per nine innings. But that does not tell the real story.

The seven starters most likely to win spots in the rotation are averaging 2.04 walks per nine innings. That includes the four who have jobs locked up — Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach McAllister and Brett Myers — plus Carlos Carrasco, Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The nine relievers most likely to snag one of the seven positions in the bullpen are averaging 2.16 walks per nine innings. Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith have the club made; Matt Albers, Cody Allen, Matt Capps, Nick Hagadone and Bryan Shaw have a fighting chance to leave camp with a roster spot. Frank Herrmann did, too, until he was sidelined by an elbow injury.

“We’ve challenged them to attack the strike zone,” Francona said Thursday. “And there’s a difference in mindset between not trying to throw balls and attacking the zone.”

Francona isn’t the primary person to deliver the message. That honor goes to pitching coach Mickey Callaway.

“Mickey’s personality is his personality,” Francona said. “I don’t know much about pitching and I don’t want to. When we hired pitching coaches, we made sure they could coach, and Mickey hit the ground running.”

Managers and coaches can preach pounding the strike zone all they want — it doesn’t always work. When it doesn’t the pitcher and, yes, the catcher hear about it.

“When I’m in the bullpen, I just focus on my delivery,” Carrasco said. “But when I’m in the game, I see the hitter differently. I think about the hitter and the catcher and seeing the glove.”

Helping a pitcher throw strikes is one of the jobs of a catcher.

“The first thing they talked about when we came to camp was pounding the strike zone and getting ahead in the count,” catcher Lou Marson said.

Catchers have certain techniques for getting pitchers back on track when they stray.

“For instance, if a left-handed pitcher keeps missing on his arm side, you set up different — for a guy like Hagadone,” Marson said.

Hagadone’s pitches move so sharply that all he has to do is throw the ball down the middle of the plate (or hit the catcher’ glove) and the ball will move to one side or the other but stay on the plate.

“If Justin takes it down the middle, he’ll stay on the plate,” Marson said. “He just needs to let the ball work.”

Sometimes the catcher will call for a pitch other than a fastball when the pitcher is having trouble throwing strikes.

“At times, if a guy throws a change-up or a slider it will get him back in the zone,” Marson said. “When you throw those pitches, you get great extension.”

It also is important for a catcher to establish good rapport with his staff so he can speak freely, particularly when a catcher walks to the mound for a face-to-face meeting.

“It’s important to have a relationship with each pitcher,” Marson said. “Then you know how to get on a guy and be able to handle him.”

There are many reasons why a catcher goes to the mound, and one of them is to interrupt the routine of a pitcher who has lost the strike zone. It doesn’t much matter what the catcher says, as long as the pitcher stops what he’s been doing.

“You can say anything,” Marson said. “When I go out to talk to Joe, we go at it pretty good. Swearing and stuff like that. Sometimes he tries to throw a really nasty pitch or pinpoint it. With his stuff, he doesn’t have to.

“Vinnie likes to get yelled at. It wakes him up. Chris Perez hates it when you go out there. I think it’s kind of an ego thing. But sometimes you need to go to the mound. What are you going to do?”