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A New ERA

One of the biggest stories out of the Twins organization during the off-season was almost lost amid the news of longtime manager Tom Kelly's retirement and all the contraction-related hand wringing and head banging. Yet the very quiet announcement that the contract of Dick Such, the team's pitching coach since 1985, would not be renewed was significant news indeed.

Such was a whipping boy for local fans and media for much of his tenure. His longevity was puzzling, to say the least, given his habitual low profile and often stunningly ineffectual job performance; the team ERA for six of the last eight seasons of Such's stint was five or more runs a game.

Like the manager who was his staunchest defender, Such was a difficult guy to read. It was hard to say, really, how he approached his job or what he thought of his charges. I never managed to have anything that even remotely resembled a substantive conversation with him (and it wasn't for lack of trying). When pinned down he would resort to his habitual reticence and his stockpile of pet clichés. "We noticed something about his arm angle," was about as deep as Such would usually go when discussing adjustments the coaching staff was considering for a struggling pitcher--and there always seemed to be plenty of struggling starters around during his days in the Twins dugout.

A few years ago, on a return trip to the Dome, one ex-Twin reminisced off the record about his time in the Such stable. "He wasn't a lot of help," the pitcher recalled. "He'd come out to the mound when you were getting rocked and say, 'Throw strikes, you're pissing off the manager.' That was more or less what you got every time."

Rick Anderson, who has made stops as pitching coach at every level of the Twins' minor-league system, was brought on to replace Such. And a lot has changed in a hurry around the Twins clubhouse these days. Anderson is as approachable as Such was aloof, and despite the up-and-down fortunes and health of the team's vaunted starters, the Twin's team ERA (4.38 going into the weekend) is the lowest it has been since 1992.

Anderson has been pitching and teaching pitching for most of his adult life, and it's clear that he enjoys the challenges of his job and loves to talk shop. Before he took his first job with the Twins organization (as the pitching coach with the club's rookie-league team in Sarasota), Anderson was a right-handed pitcher for the New York Mets and the Kansas City Royals. In 11 seasons he spent much of his time in the minor leagues before getting a shot with the Mets in 1996, when he appeared in 15 games and compiled a 2-1 record with a 2.72 ERA. He would also spend time with the Royals in 1987 and 1988, and would retire with a 4-4 career mark, with a 4.75 ERA.

Throughout his career Anderson has marveled at the way pitches regularly go in and out of style in baseball.

"When I was playing, I used to walk around and talk with hitters," he recalls. "I used to ask all these guys what the toughest pitch was to hit. In the Seventies it was the slider, then it was the split-finger for quite a few years. It really is amazing how pitches evolve. The curveball sort of disappeared for a while, and now you see a bunch of guys who use it really effectively."

Like former Twins pitching coach Johnny Podres before him, Anderson is a proponent of the changeup. Ex-Twins Frank Viola and Allan Anderson both had their greatest success under the tutelage of Podres, using the circle-change the coach taught them. Many of the current pitchers on the Twins staff got to know Rick Anderson during his time as pitching coach of the Triple A teams in Salt Lake City and Edmonton, and he has worked with most of them--and with young pitchers throughout the organization--to add some sort of changeup to their repertoire.

The change of pace has a long history, but like a lot of other high-profile pitches--the slider made stylish by Steve Carlton, the splitter revolutionized by Roger Craig and brought into vogue by Bruce Sutter, the big 12-to-6 curveball used to such devastating effect by former Twin Bert Blyleven--its popularity has waxed and waned among younger pitchers over the years. Warren Spahn, who dominated with the pitch with the Braves in the 1940s, once said, "Hitting is timing. The art of pitching is upsetting that timing." And no less an authority than Branch Rickey observed in 1950, "There are two ways of surprising a batter. One is in the sphere of space. When the ball hops or sinks or curves, the batter can't be sure where it's coming. The other is in the sphere of time. If you throw fast one time and slow another time and medium slow another time, the batter can't be sure when it's coming. I like a young man who does both."

There, in those two quotes, both of them more than 50 years old, you have the essence of the pitching philosophy Rick Anderson has worked to instill in his Twins staff.

"It seems so simple," Anderson says. "Hitting is all about balance and timing, and nothing upsets a hitter's rhythm more than that back-and-forth approach. If you can get him out in front, it just sets up everything else you're trying to do. Yet even now in high school and college, you'll still see very few changeups. Young guys fall in love with the radar gun; a guy who can throw 90 gets everybody's attention, and it can be hard to convince young pitchers to trust a 75- or 80-mile-per-hour pitch when they're used to getting by with that good fastball."

It's clear from the early evidence that Anderson's pitchers have begun to get the message; changing speeds has been the clear hallmark of the Twins staff this year, and frequently the results have been impressive. Scoreboard radar readings now make it possible for fans at the ballpark to track that "back-and-forth" strategy; virtually all of the Twins pitchers regularly bounce around on the radar gun, from the low 90s to the mid 70s. Rick Reed throws his changeup with split fingers, and turns the ball over. Tony Fiore has displayed a devastating palm-ball variant of the change, while both J.C. Romero and Kyle Lohse throw sliders that often travel more than ten mph slower than their fastballs. The impressive improvement of LaTroy Hawkins, who has struggled for years while relying on his excellent fastball, can be traced to an increasing trust and command of his off-speed pitches, as well as a willingness to mix in the occasional changeup. The bullpen's extraordinary success has been built largely on a steady complement of changeups and breaking balls used to set up the fastball.

After one of Eric Milton's early effective starts this season, Anderson offered up a pitch chart from the game. "Look at this," he said. "This is exactly what we like to see." The chart showed that Milton had thrown 67 fastballs, 13 sliders, 11 changeups, and 10 curveballs--a roughly two-to-one ratio of fastballs to off-speed pitches. Lately, as Milton has been pounded and has struggled with his confidence, his fastball has still been consistently clocked in the low 90s--pretty clear proof that there's nothing physically wrong--yet he has had problems spotting his other pitches and has paid the price.

Milton's ineffectiveness has been as puzzling to Anderson as it has been frustrating for the lefthander, he seems undaunted by the challenge. Confronted with another perplexing outing from Milton, the Twins pitching coach merely shrugs and offers a half-smile. "He's struggling right now, but we'll go back to work and get him straightened out," Anderson says. "I fully expect that the next time he takes the ball he'll get after it and give us the kind of performance we know he's capable of. He's just too good a pitcher to keep this up."

That's exactly the sort of unflagging confidence and optimism that has been on display in the Twins clubhouse all year. And after years of grim and tight-lipped postmortems, it's a refreshing change of pace.

 

Brad Zellar goes Yard every Tuesday morning--and perhaps more often--for as long as he (and the Twins) are up to it.


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