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Tuesday, May 25, 2004
Reds become contact pitchers

By Buster Olney
ESPN The Magazine

The Cincinnati Reds haven't developed anyone like Kerry Wood or Mark Prior, and during the offseason, they didn't sign future Hall of Famers like Roger Clemens or Greg Maddux. They knew last fall that their rotation would generally be comprised of journeymen, pitchers who have bounced from team to team.

Don Gullett
Todd Van Poppel, left, has been a beneficiary of Don Gullett's pitching wisdom.

But the Cincinnati pitchers have adhered to a philosophy implemented during the offseason, and the Reds are faring much better than anyone expected. With a 7-5 victory over Houston on Monday, the Reds completed a four-game sweep of the Astros, extended their own winning streak to six games, and moved into sole possession of first place in the National League Central -- ahead of the Kerry Woods and Andy Pettittes.

The Reds' pitchers ranked 14th in the NL in walks last year, racking up 590. Their starting pitchers, in particular, hemorrhaged walks and runs, accumulating a 5.77 ERA, allowing 1.57 hits and walks per inning. Jimmy Haynes surrendered 57 walks in 94 1/3 innings, Ryan Dempster issued 70 walks in 115 2/3 innings.

The best solution, of course, would have been to sign two or three of the dominant pitchers on the market -- an option not available for Reds general manager Dan O'Brien. What Cincinnati altered, in offseason meetings between the executives and members of the coaching staff, was its approach to pitching. It was decided that the Reds pitchers would pitch to create contact in 2004, rather than trying to miss the bats of opposing hitters. "We decided we would try to get to contact as early as we could in the (ball-strike) count," O'Brien recalled Monday.

Focus on throwing strikes. Focus on prompting opposing hitters to put the ball in play, and trusting the Reds' defense to make plays. Focus on decreasing pitch counts from inning to inning, enabling the starters to work deeper into games. The best pitchers on the staff, then, would throw more innings, while the middle relievers -- usually the soft underbelly of most pitching staffs -- would have a lightened workload.

This was a new theory for the Reds, and a matter of practicality, because of the makeup of Cincinnati's staff. Paul Wilson is not a dominant flamethrower, but he can be efficient; the same is true for Cory Lidle, a free agent targeted by O'Brien during the offseason because, in part, he threw strikes. "I felt like we had to be realistic in assessing the talents of our pitching staff," said O'Brien.

Reds pitching coach Don Gullett presented the new expectations to the Cincinnati staff in spring training, indicating that those who did not throw strikes and pitch for contact would be bypassed. "We laid out in group meetings and in individual meetings, from Day 1, that we were going to make hitters swing the bats, and that we are not going to beat ourselves," said Gullett. "We want to stay away from deep counts."

Mike Flanagan, the Orioles' executive, believes that the pitching philosophy in baseball has shifted radically over the last 30 years. Once upon a time, pitchers would get ahead in the count and then try to get hitters out quickly by finishing them off with tough pitches in the strike zone. In time, however, pitchers developed a habit of trying to trick hitters with pitches out of the strike zone after getting ahead in the count. When the count was 1-2 or 0-2, they started throwing two or perhaps three pitches out of the zone in an effort to get the hitters to chase. Pitch counts have swollen.

Gullett has encouraged catchers and pitchers to look for ways to finish off hitters quickly. "My belief is that you can take one or possibly two pitches to get the hitter to go after a bad pitch," said Gullett. "But if you go more than that, that's how you start to run full counts, throw seven or eight pitches in an at-bat. From a starting pitcher standpoint, that's not going to help you throw deeper in games."

In Control
How the five starting pitchers in the Reds' current rotation have fared this season:
Pitcher GS IP BB
C. Lidle 10 65.2 13
P. Wilson 9 57.2 14
J. Acevedo 9 53.2 12
A. Harang 9 50.1 20
T. Van Poppel 3 15.2 3

The Reds have jumped from 14th to second in the NL in allowing walks, and while Cincinnati is 13th in the NL in ERA, at 4.52, the team has cut its overall ERA by half a run, and the starters' ERA is 4.63 -- more than a run per game lower than in 2003.

Lidle has issued only 13 walks in 65 2/3 innings; Wilson, 14 walks in 57 2/3 innings;

Aaron Harang 20 walks in 50.1 innings; Todd Van Poppel, recently inserted into the rotation, seven walks in 27 2/3 innings.

Lidle pitched a game against San Diego earlier this year that is being used as a model within the organization -- 85 pitches, 67 strikes, eight innings, in a 2-1 loss. "He's been the perfect example of what we were looking for," said O'Brien.

The Cincinnati defense has not played as well as O'Brien believes it will eventually, but the Reds have performed better in the field, handling the increased burden; after finishing last in the NL in fielding percentage last year, the Reds are in the middle of the pack. Shortstop Barry Larkin's first error of the season came in Monday's victory over the Astros.

The Reds' hitters are utilizing a general approach, as well -- don't let the pitcher beat you out of the strike zone -- and have accumulated a .345 on-base percentage, tied for second-best in the league. Sean Casey is hitting .386, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns are all finally healthy and playing together.

Eventually, O'Brien wants the Reds to draft and develop their own Kerry Woods. But now they are winning with pitchers who pound the strike zone.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released later this summer, and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.