Astros' rotation an unheralded bunch
Houston's staff fueled by pitching coach Brad Arnsberg's positive, hands-on approach
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Houston Astros lefty Wesley Wright is working on a new sidearm delivery this year, so pitching coach Brad Arnsberg arrived at the team's spring training site before 6 a.m. on Tuesday to study video and come up with a few ideas to aid in the process. The Astros were scheduled to play a game in Sarasota -- roughly 240 miles roundtrip -- so Arnsberg jumped in his car at 10:40 and hustled over to Ed Smith Stadium to watch top prospect Jordan Lyles and five other pitchers throw in a Grapefruit League game against Baltimore.
Major League Baseball coaches work long hours for generally modest pay, so Arnsberg isn't alone in his dedication. It was his agenda item between the video work and the commute that substantiated the notion that he goes beyond the call of duty.
Left-hander J.A. Happ, who stayed behind at Osceola County Stadium with several other Houston pitchers, wanted to work on his cutter and his fastball command to the glove side. So he threw a bullpen session mid-morning from the mound outside the clubhouse. Squatting behind the plate and urging him on with fist pumps and positive energy: Pitching coach Brad Arnsberg.
Even a big league pitcher throwing at 70 or 80 percent is capable of doing some damage with an errant throw or the usual late movement. So a 47-year-old guy who catches him with no mask or chest protector must have a little daredevil in him by nature. On the list of hazardous jobs, this ranks somewhere between window-washing skyscrapers and handling publicity for Charlie Sheen.
"He's worn a lot of pitches in the knee,'' Happ said. "It actually makes you concentrate quite a bit, because I don't want to hit him. Nobody wants to hit him.''
Former big leaguer Doug Brocail, now a special assistant to Astros GM Ed Wade, pitched professionally for 23 years and can't recall one pitching coach who caught him in the bullpen -- let alone with no equipment. But that can't dissuade Arnsberg from summoning the Pudge Rodriguez within. He's convinced that nothing helps him assess a pitcher's release point or movement better than squatting down and judging it from the hitter's perspective.
"It just shows my idio-cracy,'' said Arnsberg, who is also adept at inventing new words. "If they drill me, it's my fault.''
The Astros might ultimately find a new identity now that Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman are no longer in the lineup, but right now it's all about pitching -- specifically, the starting rotation. Even though Wade traded ace Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia in late July, the Astros finished tied for second in the National League with the San Francisco Giants with 95 quality starts (one fewer than the Chicago Cubs). Houston's rotation also ranked second to the Giants in MLB with 857 strikeouts.
It was a collaborative effort:
• Brett Myers, sometimes dominant, sometimes exasperating in eight seasons with the Phillies, emerged as one of the National League's most reliable starters. He became the first pitcher since Curt Schilling of the 2002 Diamondbacks to go six innings or more in his first 32 appearances.
• Wandy Rodriguez went 8-2 with a 2.03 ERA after June 24, and finished the season with 13 straight quality starts. The Astros rewarded him with a three-year, $34 million contract extension in January.
• Bud Norris, considered Houston's top prospect for the past couple of years, finished 9-10 with a 4.92 ERA. But he averaged more than a strikeout per inning, set a Minute Maid Park record with 14 K's against the Pirates in August, and improved his career record against the Cardinals to 5-1 with a 2.27 ERA. When Albert Pujols jokingly referred to him as "Chuck Norris,'' St. Louis beat writers had a field day making Twitter comparisons between the two.
Among the most pithy: "Bud Norris laces all of the baseballs he uses in his starts -- with red barb wire. He uses the leftover to floss.''
And: "Roger Clemens' orange Hummer runs on Bud Norris' sweat -- and gets 50 miles to the ounce.''
Norris modestly downplays the tough talk. "Luckily enough, I've had my best stuff on those days,'' he said.
The Houston pitchers don't lack for mentors. Arnsberg and Burt Hooton, pitching coach for Triple-A Oklahoma City, have their fingerprints all over the proceedings in Kissimmee. They're complemented by Astros bullpen coach Jamie Quirk, whose résumé and people skills make you wonder why he's not mentioned more frequently as a managerial candidate.
How the Astros' top four starting pitchers in 2011 fared last season:
"I was listening to Arny and Burt Hooton the other day and I swear to God I left there going, 'Am I stupid?' '' Brocail said. "I left there feeling like an idiot. When those two guys talk pitching, it's like sitting down and listening to Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn talk hitting.''
Arnsberg, in his second year with the Astros, has previously worked as pitching coach in Montreal, Florida and Toronto. He received rave reviews from A.J. Burnett, Roy Halladay and several others, and he's generated similar sentiments among his current disciples in Houston.
"There are no words to give him all the compliments and praise he deserves,'' Norris said. "He goes out there and individually gets to know every guy. Most pitching coaches might see something right away and jump on it. He really wants to get to know you first and see how your mind works and what your thought processes are.''
Brocail has seen the phenomenon unfold from the outside, and he thinks Arnsberg's bond with his pitchers is fueled by an empathy that can't be faked. When they struggle, he internalizes it.
"He really, truly cares about what happens to guys,'' Brocail said. "He's like a big brother, and having that relationship puts pitchers at ease. If they have a failed day, they know that he's hurting right along with them. I'm around the ballpark a lot in spring training, and I see him on that treadmill trying to run the bad days out of that pitching staff.''
Arnsberg oversees an eclectic group in Houston. Happ, an Illinois native, studied U.S. history at Northwestern and comes across as the cerebral type. He recently conferred with former Phillies teammate Raul Ibanez at the batting cage, and they agreed to keep in touch and exchange book recommendations.
Happ's given name is James Anthony, but his father and paternal grandfather are both named James, and he carved out his own niche in school by signing his papers J.A. Some teammates call him J.A., others refer to him as Jay, and a lot of fans and casual observers stray off course and call him "A.J.''
Norris, 26, was named David Stefan Norris Jr. after his father, and the family referred to him as "Little D'' when he was a toddler. That all changed when he turned 3 and the family went out to eat at a Mexican restaurant back home in Northern California. All the men at the table ordered Budweisers, and Little D observed that he would like a Bud as well.
"The waitress told us, 'He's not allowed to have that,' '' Norris recalled. "My dad said, 'Don't worry about it. He's a Bud man.' It's stuck ever since.''
It's stuck to the point that David Stefan Norris Jr. ceased to exist, for all practical purposes.
"My grandmother called me David for the longest time,'' Norris said. "Now I call her on the phone and she says, 'Hey Bud.' That still catches me off guard.''
According to FanGraphs, Norris packs the most heat among Houston's starters with an average fastball velocity approaching 94 mph. Myers and Rodriguez, in contrast, average between 89 and 90. Last year Rodriguez threw his curveball 36.4 percent of the time, easily the highest ratio in the majors, and Myers finally jettisoned hardheadedness for a more subtle approach. At age 30, he's the Astros' resident staff sage, going from locker to locker and sharing tips on baseball and life.
"He's learned to pitch a little bit,'' Arnsberg said. "In Philly he was a chucker. He was 96 or 97 miles an hour. Now he knows that hitting spots is way more important. I told him, 'I'd rather see you pitch at 88 and hit your spot and get in your lane than rear back and try to throw one 94 when it's probably not there in the first place.' ''
As successful as the Houston pitchers were after the All-Star break, that momentum will be a challenge to sustain. The staff took a hit early in spring training when Jason Castro, one-half of the team's catching tandem with Humberto Quintero, suffered a season-ending knee injury. In addition, Norris has been bothered by a hamstring strain and the team is cautiously monitoring Rodriguez, who has tendinitis in his left shoulder. The Astros are still waiting to see how the fifth starter competition plays out between Nelson Figueroa and Ryan Rowland-Smith.
The baseball world anticipates regression just as eagerly as it celebrates upstarts. But with Arnsberg's prompting and lots of preparation, Houston's pitchers will never have to worry about might-have-beens.
"He makes boys into men on the mound,'' Brocail said. "If you get in trouble or hit a down spot, you know he's going to be the first one there picking you up.''
The Houston staff always knows where to find Arnsberg in Florida: He's at the ballpark before dawn, with his catcher's mitt within easy reach.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick
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