'Professor Radke' leads by example
The secret of the Minnesota Twins' strike-throwing success is a combination of basic philosophy and some unique individuals.
These 2005 Minnesota Twins apparently aren't Luke Skywalker's kind of team. Or B.B. King's kind of team.
They'd never be caught reading "Ball Four." And they'll never take a stroll down anyone's Walk of Fame.
In a sport where way too many pitchers can't tell the strike zone from a time zone, these 2005 Twins have turned into an entire pitching staff of control freaks.
Any time you find yourself comparing a team to the 1876 Hartford Dark Blues and the 1906 White Sox, you know you're talking about a team that is, officially, from a whole 'nother era.
But that's where these Twins find themselves these days, throwing strikes at a rate that's unheard of in the 21st Century. Here are just some of their highlights so far:
- Through Thursday, nearly 600 innings into their season, this staff was issuing a ridiculous 1.74 walks per nine innings. That would be the lowest walk rate in a full season, since Red Lucas' 1933 Reds (1.71) and the lowest by an American League team since the Doc White's 1906 White Sox (1.67).
- In a sport in which one starting pitcher since 1919 (Bret Saberhagen) has made it through a 150-inning season with more wins than walks, this team went into Friday with two starters with more wins than walks Brad Radke (five wins, four walks) and Carlos Silva (five wins, four walks). If you're wondering, the only team in history that had two starters with more wins than walks was those aforementioned 1876 Dark Blues whose two starters (Tommy Bond and Candy Cummings) were also the only two pitchers on the entire staff.
- Think about this: Through Thursday, Radke and Silva had walked four hitters apiece all season. Eight different pitchers this year have walked four just in one inning and one (Phillies rookie Gavin Floyd) has done that twice.
- With 387 strikeouts and only 113 walks, the Twins are on pace for the greatest strikeout-walk ratio (3.42 K per BB) of any team since 1900. No AL staff in history has ever even finished a season with three times as many whiffs as walks. (Current record-holders: the 2003 Yankees, at 2.98.)
- Speaking of strikeout-walk ratios, this team's ace the great Johan Santana has 121 strikeouts this season and only 13 walks (9.31 K/BB). That would break Pedro Martinez's AL strikeout-to-walk record (8.88 in 2000). And it would approach Curt Schilling's major-league record (9.58 in 2002) for a non-strike season. Only one problem: Radke's ratio (60 strikeouts, four walks, 15.0 K/BB) would break both of those records by an even bigger margin.
- Finally, Twins pitchers rank first (Radke), second (Silva) and fourth (Santana) in the AL in fewest walks per nine innings. And in a full season, no staff has placed three pitchers in the top four in that department since the 1942 Yankees (Tiny Bonham first, Red Ruffing third, Marv Breuer fourth).
"Hell," laughed manager Ron Gardenhire, "we wouldn't get very rich that way."
Well, if it's revenue streams they're after, maybe they ought to release their own video: "How to Find the Strike Zone Without Asking MapQuest for Directions." Or something like that.
"Yeah, we could, I guess," said pitching coach Rick Anderson. "But it would probably be the most boring video ever seen."
OK, so it might be true that strike-throwing isn't quite as spine-tingling as the Home Run Derby. But it sure does work. The Twins are on pace to allow just 648 runs, which would be the team's fewest in any full season since 1970.
So what's their secret? It's a rare combination of basic philosophy and some unique individuals. Let's take a look at each.
The Twins sure didn't invent the concept of throwing strike one. In fact, they don't even make a big deal of it.
"We just say, 'Make one of the first two pitches a strike,'" Anderson said, "because if they throw ball one, we don't want them thinking, 'Uh-oh. Now I'm already in trouble.'"
But no team in the big leagues throws strike one more relentlessly than this team. The Twins have thrown first-pitch strikes to 66 percent of the hitters they've faced this year, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the best rate in baseball. The average team is at 58.5 percent.
"I have to admit," Anderson said, "that there have been some games where I'd get the game chart at the end of the game and look at the first-pitch strikes, and even I'm amazed. You'll see Radke: 28 of 31. Then the next night, you'll see Silva: 25 of 30. These guys are amazing."
According to Elias, Radke leads all qualifying big-league starters in first-pitch strike percentage, with a mind-boggling 77.1 percent. And Santana (68.7) and Silva (67.3) both throw strike one more than twice as often as ball one. Again, the average is only 58.5 percent.
"The magic number used to be 60 percent first-pitch strikes," Anderson said. "But we've gone up. Now we say 65 percent and we've gotten there. For us, it's been pretty successful."
Root for Web Gems
In an era where many pitchers fear contact, the Twins are one team that's actually in favor of contact.
If you've watched many Web Gem highlight reels on Baseball Tonight, you may have noticed those Twins defenders tend to show up there now and then. So if you're pitching in front of guys who catch the ball the way this team catches it, why wouldn't you be in favor of letting them do that as much as possible?
"That," Gardenhire said, "is something we've really preached: Throw the ball over, and let the boys catch it. We think we've got one of the best outfields in the game in tracking and catching the baseball. And even though we've changed quite a bit in our infield, we still have guys who believe in catching the ball."
So it's no accident the Twins throw more strikes, in general, (66.9 percent) than any team in baseball. And because they catch so many of those balls put in play, they also throw fewer pitches per game (131.6) than any team in baseball.
"If you talk to our players, they'll all tell you that one thing we've always talked about is: 'The longer we're out there in the field, the more chance we have of making mistakes,'" Gardenhire said. "So we're always talking about, 'Get the boys off the field,' because everyone knows that when you're hitting, you can't give up any runs."
But using your good friends with the gloves isn't a concept the Twins started working on only when Torii Hunter showed up. This one actually goes back nearly two decades, to the arrival of Tom Kelly as manager.
"If you come out early in spring training," Gardenhire said, "you'll see our pitchers standing behind the screen, watching our fielders do their drills. We call it our "Good Morning America" drill. That was something T.K. [Kelly] brought in here. He used to tell [longtime pitching coach] Dick Such, 'Get those pitchers out there and let them know how hard these guys are working to catch the ball for them.'"
Keep on throwing
Then there is one Twins ritual that Anderson openly admits to borrowing from Leo Mazzone and the Braves: Throw, throw and throw some more.
Every day, just about every Twins pitcher treks to the bullpen before games and does at least some light throwing often in sneakers, not spikes.
"We do a lot of it in tennis shoes," Anderson said. "That way, if you overdo it, you'll slip and slide and fall on your butt. We don't want them overdoing it. We just like to see our guys touch the mound and touch the baseball as much as possible."
This isn't about guys trying to break the radar guns. This is more like baseball's version of shooting free throws in practice.
If touch and rhythm and muscle memory can help Steve Nash make foul shots, why can't they help Brad Radke throw strikes? After all, sometimes the best concepts are also the least complicated.
Major in psych
Does strike-throwing feed off itself? It sure seems to, because when a team is this good at anything, it tends to get in not just the pitchers' heads, but the hitters' heads.
"Everybody on that team is all over the zone, man," said Rangers shortstop Michael Young. "They don't walk anybody."
So think about how that knowledge plays on the minds of hitters walking to the plate against these Twins pitchers. Working the count is normally a great plan, but not against these guys.
"You know they're throwing strike one," Young said. "So the thing you have to remind yourself is to keep your normal approach, because it's really tempting to change. You want to be aggressive against them. But at the same time, you don't want to force your hand. Then you get behind, and you've fallen right into their hands."
That, of course, is what the Twins want those hitters to do get behind and fall into their hands. And there's more and more evidence that many hitters are beginning to psych themselves out against this staff.
Even the Twins have noticed that, as word of their strike-throwing exploits spreads, more offenses are hacking as if they're increasingly aware of that trend.
"We've had a few guys on the other teams talk to our guys in the last few weeks, talking about the walks," Anderson said. "You can see teams are coming up with contact in mind. They're thinking: 'Swing early, because you know they're going to throw it over.'"
But is that really the way to hit against this group? The Twins say: Bring it on.
"It should actually help us," Anderson said. "Santana has three pitches he can throw for strikes. So swing away. Pick one. Radke throws three pitches for strikes. [Joe] Mays and Silva both throw those hard sinkers. So if you want to swing away on them, it plays right into their hands.
"And they all know that if it's 3-and-2, they're swinging, because they know it's not going to be ball four. So if those guys throw a sinker, or Radke throws a slider, or Santana throws a changeup, and it's just off the plate, it probably gets hacked at."
When Radke walks a hitter, you practically expect everyone in the Twins' dugout to pass out.
"He walked a guy in L.A. the other day," Anderson quipped. "And I was ready to go to the mound and say, 'What are you doing?'"
It's hard to believe there could be a pitcher on this planet averages nearly 100 batters between walks (388 hitters faced, four walks). But Radke is. That, however, is only because he's practically in a strike-throwing slump these days.
This man started out the season by walking one of the first 247 hitters who stepped into the box. Read that stat a few times and digest it.
"Radke's always laughing about this," Anderson said. "He says, 'I've got such crappy stuff, I'd better get ahead.'"
Well, he's sure done that. He leads all active starters in lowest career walk ratio (1.63 per nine IP). He has walked one hitter or none in all 14 starts this year. He has gone 78 straight starts without walking more than three. And he has thrown a higher percentage of strikes (73.3) than any qualifying starter in baseball this year.
"He's the guy who sets the example for everyone else," Anderson said. "I mean, Silva just worships Radke. He calls him the Professor. Silva actually comes out and watches him throw his bullpens. Then he'll come away and say, 'The Professor is good.' They all watch him. They watch how he attacks the strike zone. If Radke can do that, throwing 88-90, a guy like Silva, who throws 91-93, says, 'Why can't I do that?'"
There was a time when people wondered whether a guy who induces as little swinging and missing as Carlos Silva could ever be a consistently reliable starting pitcher.
Even though Silva's career strikeout rate (3.74 per nine IP) is the lowest of any active pitcher with as many innings as he's pitched, the secret to his success is that he has cut his walk rate three straight years from 3.81 per nine IP two years ago, to 1.55 last year, to a microscopic 0.45 this season.
"He's a guy who has really surprised me with how few guys he's walked, just because of who he is," Anderson said. "It just stands to reason that you make a lot more mistakes with a sinker down than with a straight fastball. But his ball moves so much that even if he throws that sinker in the middle of the plate, they still pound it into the ground."
We've seen very few power pitchers in our lifetime like Santana.
It's one thing to strike out almost 11 hitters per nine innings (as Santana is doing this year). It's another thing to do it while throwing so many strikes that the hitters are almost afraid not to swing.
"Most strikeout pitchers wind up throwing a lot of pitches and walking guys," Anderson said. "But this guy is absolutely the ultimate example of a guy trusting his stuff. He has three pitches he can throw for strikes at any time. He trusts his stuff. And he just pounds the strike zone with it."
Only Radke has thrown a higher percentage of strikes than Santana (70.3 percent). And Santana is so efficient that, incredibly, 95 starting pitchers are averaging more pitches per inning this year than he is (14.3), even though none of them have a higher strikeout rate than he does. Which is almost impossible.
So friends, this is how a team makes strike-tossing history. Feed off each other. Let the glove men do their thing. And watch the hitters try to figure out how to deal with it all.
In fact, there's only one Twin who doesn't seem to be cooperating. And that, we regret to report, is the manager who is only two behind the league leader in most intentional walks issued.
"Hey, let me tell you," Gardenhire chuckled. "It's getting really hard to put up those four fingers, because I look down the dugout and all the pitchers are shaking their heads: 'No way.'"
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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