Change at the top shifts direction in Rangers' pitching

Updated: May 19, 2009

Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

Kevin Millwood has provided a steady hand as the Rangers transform their pitching staff.

Despite Tuesday's 4-0 loss against the Tigers, the Texas Rangers' pitching is experiencing quite a turnaround.

Historically, the franchise has not had strong pitching staffs, to say the least, and last year the team ERA was 5.37, dead last in baseball. So far this season, they are sixth in the American League at 4.54.

It all starts with team president Nolan Ryan. Obviously, he knows pitching. Last year, during an ESPN Wednesday Night Baseball game, he came up to the booth and joined Dave O'Brien and I. It was a big thrill for me personally to have him up there. I had admired him from afar for many years.

One of the things that came up was the relatively new stat of quality starts (six or more innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs). I kind of had a theory that the agents came up with it to fool the owners. I asked Ryan what he considered a "quality start" and, with that southern drawl, he said, "Six innings with three runs allowed? I would have called that a poor performance."

We all cracked up, but he was dead serious. I think a lot of us that pitched 10 to 15 years ago might have said the same thing.

One of the tools that can be so effective for pitchers is what I call the "surrender" pitch. It can be either a sinker or a cut fastball, but the idea is to rely on some late movement to get the at-bat over with as soon as possible. You are "surrendering" the fact that the batter is going to put the ball in play, but that is by design. Two guys who had tremendous success putting this into practice are Greg Maddux (sinker) and Mariano Rivera (cutter). Basically, you are throwing the ball down the middle, but the late movement keeps the ball off the barrel of the bat. With two out and nobody on, why throw four to five pitches trying to strike someone out when you can get the at-bat over much faster with the late movement on a "surrender" pitch?

One of baseball's best teachers of this tactic is Mike Maddux, the Rangers' new pitching coach. He did it in Milwaukee, and now has brought it to Texas. The team plays in the best hitters' park in the major leagues. If you play 81 games there, you are going to give up runs. You could pitch the game of your life and you might win 5-3. But if you can incorporate a surrender pitch, which the Rangers' staff has done, you are going to get deeper into games. That saves the bullpen.

What also helps is that the team doesn't pay much attention to pitch counts. They have incorporated that philosophy into the minor league system. The general idea of pitch counts makes some sense, to a point. I remember a rule in the Padres' minor league affiliates: After the fifth inning, they wouldn't let their starters face the go-ahead run. That's ridiculous. What's going to happen when that guy gets to the big leagues? The perfect example of this is Brian Lawrence. He once had a shutout going into the ninth inning and he gave up the lead. There's no shame in that necessarily, but he said later that he got nervous because he was in a position that he'd never been in before. Well, Ryan wants those guys to experience that late-game pressure at the minor league level.

Another factor in the Rangers' favor is the presence of veteran Kevin Millwood. Ryan can talk about his pitching philosophies, Maddux can teach them, but when the young guys on the staff can watch it firsthand, that's invaluable.

It all works because the team has buy-in from the top down. When the manager, pitching coach and team president are all on the same page, it gives the coaches and players a freedom that can lead to big things.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: May 18 | May 17 | May 14 | May 13 | May 12

TOUCH 'EM ALL

Touch 'Em AllWho went deep? Keep track of all the home runs hit each day on "Baseball Tonight" and on the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse page.

For more, check out the Home Run Tracker page.

Home Run Tracker
NAME HR OPPPITCHER SITUATION
R. Howard, Phi9CinCuetoTop 2: 2-2, 0 Outs. None on.
A. Rodriguez, NYY5BalBergesenBot 1: 3-2, 2 Outs. 1 on.
A. LaRoche, Pit2WasMartisTop 3: 1-0, 2 Outs. 1 on.
A. Dunn, Was12PitKarstensBot 4: 1-1, 0 Outs. None on.
J. Bruce, Cin12PhiHamelsBot 4: 3-2, 2 Outs. None on.

The complete list of Tuesday's homers

ON DECK: WEDNESDAY'S BEST MATCHUPS

Twins at White Sox

Two of baseball's most promising lefties -- and two not off to the best starts to the year -- meet. Francisco Liriano (2-4, 5.21 ERA), however, has started to turn things around by winning his past two decisions. John Danks (2-3, 4.82 ERA), meanwhile, has lost his past three starts.

Blue Jays at Red Sox

Brett Cecil has been quite impressive over his first three major league starts. He is 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA. Cecil has gone at least six innings in all three starts and has not allowed more than six hits in any of those outings. Brad Penny has given up at least six hits in all but one of his seven starts this year.

Cubs at Cardinals

Chris Carpenter makes another return from the disabled list. He has been out since April 14 with a strained left oblique. It will be just the seventh start since the beginning of 2008 for the oft-injured Carpenter.

For the rest of Wednesday's schedule, click here.

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BBTN ON THE AIR: WEDNESDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
10 p.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Karl Ravech
Analysts: Steve Phillips, John Kruk, Fernando Vina
12:30 a.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Steve Berthiaume
Analysts: Steve Phillips, Fernando Vina

BBTN MINUTE: CARPENTER BACK AGAIN

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he looks at Cliff Lee, who was practically unbeatable last season but can't seem to get a break this year. Lee was denied a win Tuesday when Kerry Wood allowed four runs in the bottom of the ninth of a 6-5 loss against the Royals.

Cliff Lee (past six starts)
W-L 1-3
ERA 1.57
IP 46
K-BB 31-5

The Indians' bullpen has a 9.46 ERA in Lee's past six starts.

WEB GEMS

TUESDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Joel PineiroJoel Pineiro breezed through the Cubs' lineup in a complete-game, three-hit shutout as the Cardinals won 3-0. Pineiro didn't give the Cubs much of a chance as the game went on, retiring 23 of the final 24 hitters the Cubs sent to the plate. It was Pineiro's first shutout since 2003, when he was with the Mariners. Pineiro's effort narrowly beat out Dontrelle Willis' (6 1/3 innings, one hit in a 4-0 win against Texas) and James Shields' (8 1/3 shutout innings, four hits in a no-decision against Oakland).
WORST
Kerry Wood• That would be Kerry Wood, who allowed four runs in the bottom of the ninth against the Royals. Wood served up back-to-back homers to Mike Jacobs and Mark Teahen early in the inning, then gave up two more. His line: 2/3 of an inning, three hits, one walk and four runs for his second blown save of the year.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Justin Verlander posted a 17-loss season in 2008, one year removed from a top-five Cy Young finish and two years removed from AL Rookie of the Year honors.

He also started this season slow out of the gate, losing two of his first four starts and allowing at least five runs three times. However, he's reverted back to previous form over his past four starts, allowing three earned runs in 29 1/3 innings pitched and striking out 44 batters. What has spurred this change? Verlander appears to have regained the command of his fastball.

Verlander's fastball (past two seasons)
Previous 37 starts Past 4 starts
BA against .295 .125
SLG against .452 .172
Miss pct. 16.0 29.4

-- ESPN Stats & Information

FANTASY: PREVIEW OF WEDNESDAY'S GAMES

Tristan H. Cockcroft examines the 16 games on Wednesday's slate.

Fantasy Cockcroft ranks the pitchers scheduled to take the mound and supplies loads of other information that could help shape your roster for Wednesday. Daily Notes