Baseball ‘90 PREVIEW : ONE PITCH FROM STARDOM : Speed is not enough. In the big leagues, variety is the spice of a pitcher’s life. Jim Abbott is making a pitch for greater respect. Fernando Valenzuela is making his pitch for survival.
Both are left-handed pitchers with charismatic stories and faithful followings. And there is at least one other similarity between Jim Abbott, 22, of Flint, Mich., and Fernando Valenzuela, 29, of Navojoa, Mexico.
On the eve of Abbott’s second season in the major leagues and Valenzuela’s 10th, each is attempting to expand his repertoire, taking on a new dimension.
The Angels are teaching Abbott a changeup in the hope that hitters won’t sit on his hard slider and fastball.
The Dodgers are helping Valenzuela develop a cut fastball so he can pitch inside to right-handed hitters who are accustomed to the screwball away and prepared to jump on a fastball that lost velocity in the wake of his shoulder problems of the last two seasons.
The art of pitching, as with hitting, is a matter of constant adjustment. The Angels believe Abbott will more easily reach his potential with an off-speed complement to a fastball clocked in the 91- to 93-m.p.h. range and a slider generally clocked at 87 or 88. The Dodgers believe Valenzuela must work right-handed batters inside if he is to regain his pre-injury effectiveness.
“Keeping the hitter off balance is the most important aspect of pitching,” the Angels’ Bert Blyleven said. “Timing is their key, so timing is our key, too. You become a complete pitcher when you learn how to change speeds, move the ball in and out.”
Blyleven, 38, has won 271 major league games with one of baseball’s best curves and a variety of offspeed pitches. He was 17-5 for the Angels last season, allowing only 14 home runs. In 1986, he set a major league record with the Minnesota Twins, permitting 50.
“I used to throw a ‘loan’ pitch,” Blyleven said. “I kept loaning it to the hitters and they never returned it.
“The problem with pitching as long as I have is that you have to keep inventing new pitches. I’m working now on the woofus-goofus, but don’t ask me to spell it. I’m still trying to figure out how to throw it.”
“Throw strikes, get ahead, keep hitters off balance, make ‘em hit your pitch,” said Angel announcer Ken Brett, who spent 14 seasons in the majors after debuting at 19. “It isn’t that tough, but kids try to do too much. They get behind in the count and try to throw harder instead of changing speeds, taking something off the ball. Let’s face it. A lot of hitters are standing up there trying to hit the ball out of the park. All you have to do is mess with their timing. The last time I looked, a 300-foot fly was an out.”
It may not be that tough, but it isn’t that easy, either. Young pitchers, conditioned to Little League, high school and college success, usually reach the majors with two pitches: fastball and curve. They were taught to throw hard and harder, and as Abbott acknowledged: “That was usually good enough.”
Then, at the major league level, they are confronted by hitters who can take a 93-m.p.h. fastball out of the park at 100 m.p.h. Do they have the athleticism and aptitude to make the necessary adjustment? Can they accept needing another pitch to survive? Even Nolan Ryan, the quintessential fastball pitcher, has had to adjust. Ryan honed his curve in the ‘70s and developed a changeup in the ‘80s.
“There’s a timing mechanism to good hitting, and I don’t care how hard you throw, there’s a certain percentage of hitters on every team who are selective enough to be able to wait for the one pitch they can handle, or they get ahead in the count and sit on the fastball,” Ryan said.
“You have to be able to put the thought in their head that you might be throwing another pitch. You have to be able to change speeds, particularly when you’re behind in the count and the hitter has the luxury of looking for the fastball.
“The other thing is that if you’re only a two-pitch pitcher, and one of them is ineffective on a certain night or you can’t get it over, then you’ve got problems.”
Said Roger Craig, the San Francisco Giants manager: “Unless you’ve got the overpowering fastball of a Ryan or the movement of an Orel Hershiser, you’ve got to be able to throw a breaking pitch when you’re behind in the count. You’ve got to be able to go to a second and third pitch if your primary pitch is ineffective. Nobody can throw to a certain spot everytime, though Hershiser comes close.”
From the hitter’s perspective, Don Mattingly of the New York Yankees said: “I don’t care how overpowering a pitcher is, I figure that I’m usually going to get one hittable pitch every at-bat. But if a pitcher can change speeds, if he can go to a second, third and fourth pitch, that serves to keep a hitter off balance, to disrupt his timing. He may still get that one hittable pitch, but he’ll have a tougher time taking advantage of it.”
Relief pitchers are in a separate category. They can get away with throwing only a fastball for an inning or two, because they often see batters only once in the game. Starting pitchers need more. The list of starters who sustained long careers throwing essentially only hard stuff--fastball, slider--is a short one. The names mentioned most frequently in an informal survey of pitching experts were Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Jack Morris. Each, however, brought an aura to the mound, a certain presence.
“Pitching is 90% mental,” said Craig. “If you think you’re going to win and believe you’re going to win, chances are you will.
“Drysdale thought he was the best . . . pitcher in the world when he went to the mound. He and Gibson took charge. They set a tone, and the other team knew it. They intimidated. Sandy Koufax did, too, but in a different way. He had such great stuff. Drysdale and Gibson would just as soon knock you on your rear.
“You’ve got to believe, you’ve got to have heart. Give me a kid with heart and a good arm and I’ll teach him how to pitch.”
Craig helped change the game in the ‘80s, becoming the guru of the split-finger fastball, a pitch he taught to Morris, who became the winningest pitcher of the decade; and to Mike Scott, who has won 86 games with it over the last five years. The split-finger saved the career of Dave Stewart, enhanced the careers of Mike Moore, Chuck Finley and Tim Leary among others, and enabled Craig’s own Giant staff to rise above its generally mediocre credentials.
The split-finger, for some, replaces the fastball. For others, it is more of an off-speed breaking pitch in that it is generally four to five miles per hour slower than the fastball and breaks, in the vernacular, as if dropped off a table. Craig first saw Bruce Sutter throw it in his glory years as a Chicago Cubs relief pitcher.
“I was shocked and amazed,” Craig said. “The hitters knew it was coming 80% of the time and still couldn’t hit it. I felt that if I could learn it and teach it, I could revolutionize the game.”
Craig learned it from Sutter and Fred Martin, the late Cubs pitching coach. Has Craig revolutionized the game?
“All you have to do is look at the decrease in batting averages over the last 10 years,” he said. “All you have to do is look at the number of pitchers who are throwing it effectively. I think Mike Schmidt had the best comment. I went over to congratulate him last year on his great career, and he said, ‘yeah, but I’d have lasted a hell of a lot longer if you hadn’t taught all those guys the split-finger.’ ”
The requirements for the split-finger, Craig said, are a large hand, the ability to throw hard and an over-the-top motion. The goal is to create the illusion of a fastball. Finley mastered it so successfully with the Angels last year that he went 16-9 with the American League’s second-best earned-run average (2.57) and eighth-best strikeout total. The split-finger gave Finley a third quality pitch to go with his fastball and curve, and, according to pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, enhanced his strikeout potential because hitters couldn’t sit on any of the three.
In considering an off-speed pitch for Abbott, the Angels weighed the split-finger but were faced with a unique problem. Because Abbott was born without a right hand and, thus, is not actually “wearing” a glove when he takes his grip with the left, some grips and pitches are harder to hide, the split-finger among them.
“Deception, in some cases, is a problem for Jim,” Lachemann said.
Said Abbott: “I simply can’t hide the split-finger. Some adjustments pose a stumbling block for me.”
It is not widely known, but American League President Bobby Brown took cognizance of Abbott’s condition last spring. Brown sent a memorandum to umpires instructing them to give Abbott leeway in the stretch position so that his habit of twirling the ball in the fingers of his left hand before he takes a last second grip--an attempt to hide pitches normally hidden by a glove--did not result in a balk call.
The changeup, Abbott and Lachemann said, does not present a problem. He began working on the pitch last year and might have been ready to employ it on a regular basis during the early phase of the 1990 season had the 32-day lockout not erased half of spring training.
“I don’t think it’s out of the question for Jim to continue working on it and put it in during the course of the season,” Lachemann said. “Jim is such a good athlete with good mechanics that I don’t see anything out of reach for him as far as repertoire is concerned. I think he can be a four-pitch pitcher. It’s just that under the timeframe, the changeup might not be ready when the season starts.”
The changeup is a pitch designed to be hit. It is designed to catch the hitter in an off-balance swing while looking for the fastball. It is designed to give the pitcher an option when behind on the count.
Abbott throws a curve in addition to the fastball and slider, but he doesn’t seem to have great faith in it, Lachemann suggested, and it doesn’t create the speed differential that the changeup will.
Said Abbott: “The fastball and slider are still my best pitches, and I want to stay focused on that. I also don’t want to abandon the curve. I threw it a lot last year and I think it’s improving. But anytime you add a pitch like a changeup it makes your other pitches that much more effective and gives you an added option.
“I’ve come a long way with it and will definitely use it during the season. This year, I think it’s necessary and a very, very important pitch to throw. Look what it did for Chuck Finley and Frank Viola. You need a third pitch to get over the hump, and I hope I’m on my way to that.”
Abbott was 12-12 last year when he stepped from the Olympic Games and a celebrated college career directly to the major leagues. His sophomore goal is 15 victories, and he is hopeful that the media hoopla of last season will have ebbed. He understands, however, that he will always be something of a curiosity, and that his continued success is likely to sustain an Abbottmania reminiscent of the Fernandomania of a different time and place.
The architect of that hysteria is embarking on something of a second career.
“We can’t rely on the Fernando of four or five years ago,” Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia said. “He has to be a totally different pitcher, and it’s not just the one new pitch that contributes to that, it’s everything coming together and working together.”
Valenzuela arrived in Los Angeles in 1980 at 19. He was a tenacious workhorse who seldom gave in to a hitter or situation. The innings and pitches eventually took their toll when Valenzuela left the Dodger rotation during the second half of the 1988 season with a strained shoulder that needed rebuilding.
He returned last season to go 10-13 with a 3.43 earned-run average, rebounding from an 0-5 start to pitch effectively in the second half despite consistently poor support and an obvious loss of velocity.
Stronger now and throwing without pain, aware that he has to be a different pitcher, Valenzuela said the cut fastball, which he began working on last year, will allow him to pitch inside to right-handed batters, restoring the effectiveness of the renowned screwball that breaks away from right-handers.
The velocity that used to be clocked at 87 and 88 m.p.h. has crept back to 83 and 84. The cut fastball looks faster yet because of the movement.
“Fernando will be able to use both sides of the plate with velocity. He’ll have a new look,” Scioscia said. “He’s not going to be the dominating strikeout pitcher he once was, but he should be much more efficient. I don’t expect all those long counts. He shouldn’t need 140 pitches. I look for some 100-pitch games because he’ll be more of a complete pitcher.
“The guy is definitely capable of winning 15 to 20 games again. He won 10 last year with a bad club and could have won 15. If we put a good club behind him he can easily win 20.”
Pitching coach Ron Perranoski said the key now is that Valenzuela has an understanding of the conditioning and rehabilitation he requires on an ongoing basis. No one has worked harder, he said.
“We knew it would take a year,” Perranoski said. “It’s still early (in the context of a normal spring), but he looks more comfortable on the mound, and I see more freedom in his delivery and more movement on the ball. I don’t think you can compare him to what he did early in his career because you’re talking about a pitcher who was headed to the Hall of Fame, but I see him becoming effective. I see him becoming a winning pitcher again.”
There is one other similarity between Jim Abbott and Fernando Valenzuela that may provide an additional source of motivation. Neither was completely happy with their contract situations. Abbott felt a $180,000 salary did not reflect his impact at the gate. Valenzuela felt that he removed the physical doubt last year, wanted a two-year contract and finally settled for one year at $2 million, including signing bonus.
Proving it is a year of adjustment in more ways than one, both say they have put contract complaints behind them and are happy to be where they are, confident in the belief that the new repertoires will translate to dollars and sense.