Steady As He Goes
What's true of supermodels is equally true of great major-league pitchers: No amount of hard work will make one of an ordinary mortal. So many things go into a topflight pitcher--velocity, control, movement, command--but sustained excellence really boils down to the ability to endure the constant abuse associated with repeatedly throwing a baseball. In this respect great pitchers are essentially freaks of nature.
Twins pitchers--not to mention fans of the club--have certainly endured plenty of abuse over the last five years, but unfortunately there's been precious little excellence associated with it. The pitching woes of the team in recent seasons have nonetheless made for some often entertaining and hilarious sniping among die-hard fans. Perhaps it has only seemed like Twins fans have had to stomach more than their fair share of apparent Make-A-Wish beneficiaries in the starting rotation of late. Even casual fans are likely to flinch at the mere mention of such incendiary talents as David West, Scott Klingenbeck, Rich Robertson, and Scott Aldred. Yet despite all the often-justified criticism of beleaguered pitching coach Dick Such and the bottom-of-the-barrel pitching staffs he has assembled over the years, it's hard not to notice that the Twins have never in their history been what you could call a pitching-rich organization. There is not, after all, any pitcher's number hanging up there with the other retired jerseys in the Dome. Which begs the question--quick: name the 10 greatest starting pitchers in Twins history.
That's not as easy as you might think, and after mulling over the question for several days and soliciting input from friends and fellow fans, I was left with a relatively short list of names--some serious, some sarcastic (Terry Felton, who was 0-16 in his brief Twins career), and a handful that were clearly soft-spot choices (including my personal favorite, Leroy Purdy Smith, a genial right-hander with a big overhand curveball who started 54 game for the Twins from 1986-1990)--but no clear consensus beyond the first five picks. In the team's 38 seasons in Minnesota the Twins have had just twelve 20-game winners (Camilo Pascual and Jim Perry each accomplished the feat twice), two Cy Young-award winners (Jim Perry in 1970 and Frank Viola in 1988), and nine starters named to the American League All-Star team, including Brad Radke's selection this year. Only four pitchers have won more than 100 games in a Twins uniform, with Jim Kaat leading the way with a 189-152 record from 1961-1973. Bert Blyleven, in his two tours of duty with the team, racked up a 149-138 career mark, and Jim Perry (128-90) and Frank Viola (112-93) round out the list.
Local baseball historian and longtime Society for American Baseball Research workhorse Stew Thornley named Kaat and Blyleven as the top two on his all-time list, followed by Viola, Pascual, and Perry. His SABR colleagues George Rekela and Paul Rittenhouse also gave Kaat the nod for the top slot, and likewise filled out their top five, with slight variations in order, with Blyleven, Viola, Perry, and Pascual. There's little to argue about in any of those choices, but try to go any further and you're left with either solid rotation anchors such as Mudcat Grant and Dave Goltz, or splashy flashes such as Dean Chance, Jerry Koosman, and Jack Morris, all guys who had big seasons in short mercenary stints with the Twins. Dig any deeper and you're left with, say, the solid but decidedly unspectacular Kevin Tapani, or Scott Erickson, the lantern-jawed pain in the ass who did however win 20 games one season and also pitched a no-hitter in a Twins uniform before suffering the ultimate ignominy of being traded away to Baltimore for the unsightly--let me count the ways--Scott Klingenbeck.
Suffice it to say, then, that Brad Radke has already done much to add his name to that short list of all-time Twins pitchers (he appears in both Thornley and Rekela's top 10), and shows every sign of climbing it in the years to come.
It's unfortunate but likely that many fans of the local sports scene took little notice of Radke's appointment as the Twins' lone representative to the 1998 All-Star game. Coming on the heels of last year's 20-win season, the All-Star honor capped the right-hander's emergence as one of baseball's elite pitchers. Yet it's incredible how even many people who follow the team still seem to be scratching their heads over what they perceive to be Radke's abrupt and inexplicable transformation from a middling, innings-gobbling plodder to a staff ace and All-Star. Lost in all that incredulity is the fact that Radke is still only 25 years old, and the struggles of his first two seasons in the major leagues--during which he racked up workhorse innings even as he was taking his lumps--were completely normal for a young pitcher who was making the leap from AA ball.
At every stage of his professional career, Radke, the Twins' eighth-round pick in the 1991 draft, has done all the things you like to see a promising young pitcher do as he works his way up through an organization. Despite apparent perceptions to the contrary and his early tag as a nonprospect, Radke has always found ways to adjust and get better from level to level and season to season. Since he made the jump from the minors as a 22-year-old coming out of spring training in 1995, Radke has never missed a start, and has racked up almost 800 innings pitched, won more than 50 games, and significantly improved his earned run average and strikeout totals in each of his successive seasons in the major leagues. He has done all of this while pitching for a team that was 64 games under .500 over that same period. In fact, of the 12 pitchers who have won 20 games for the Twins, Radke is the only one to have done so for a losing team (the '97 Twins finished 26 games under .500).
When Radke's on his game there might be no more entertaining pitcher to watch in the American League. By systematically addressing every one of his weaknesses and in short order turning them to his advantage, he has become one of the relatively few hurlers who can keep his team in games even on occasions when he doesn't have his best stuff. Since his rookie season, he has displayed the sort of pitching intelligence and quiet intensity that the Twins have utterly failed to cultivate in any of their blue-chip pitching prospects in recent years, and his makeup and mechanics have made him the ideal self-starter for a coaching staff that has had such a poor track record of handling young players.
Specifically, the keys to Radke's success have been his ability to mix his pitches and keep hitters off balance. He sets up a decent fastball and a good breaking pitch with an excellent change-up that he can throw at a variety of speeds, and he has the confidence to throw any one of his pitches even when behind in the count. He also works quickly, throws strikes, fields his position as well as any pitcher in baseball (he made his first major-league error this season), and, despite a willingness to challenge batters, will seldom make the same mistake to a hitter twice.
While Radke's early propensity to find too much of the plate and leave the ball up in the strike zone resulted in some gaudy home-run numbers in his first two seasons, last year he started to get the ball down consistently, shaved his home-run totals to a respectable number, and actually gave up a higher percentage of ground-ball outs than fly outs for the first time in his career. He has become a master at spotting his pitches and working the furthest outskirts of the strike zone, with the result that his strike-out-to-walk ratio has improved in each of his major-league seasons.
When the Chicago Cubs and rookie phenom Kerry Wood came to town to great fanfare in June, Wood responded with an impressive Frank Rodriguez impression--he was knocked out of the game in the fourth inning--while Radke delivered his best performance of the season to date, pitching a four-hit, complete-game shutout, striking out eight, walking one, and delivering first-pitch strikes to 20 of the batters he faced. Included in the gem was a three-pitch sixth inning.
While it does seem a bit presumptuous to hear the occasional commentator comparing the 25-year-old Radke to Atlanta ace Greg Maddux (the prototype of the craft-and-control pitcher Radke has become), it's also oddly thrilling to recognize that such comparisons aren't all that far off the mark--or at least Radke's progress and performance to date give hope that they might one day be truly justified. Last season Radke's decent 3.87 ERA was 1.13 runs a game better than the rest of his team, while Maddux's eye-popping ERA of 2.20 was posted with an Atlanta club that had a 3.18 team earned run average.
Maddux had a head start on Radke--he broke in with the Cubs when he was only 20 and scuffled badly his first full season in the majors--but he didn't become a truly dominant pitcher until his sixth season with Chicago, when he was 26 years old and won 20 games for the first time. Granted, Maddux had won 19 games a few seasons earlier than that, but the pinpoint control and microscopic earned run averages that have become his trademarks were still a few years off then. In that 19-victory season Maddux had a very mortal strike-out-to-walk ratio of considerably less than 2-1, a long way from the almost 9-1 ratio he managed in 1997.
Comparing Radke to a guy like Maddux at this point is unfair but understandable, given that his performance thus far has been the one considerable satisfaction in what is sadly shaping up to be yet another lost Twins season. And fans who were alarmed by the shelling Radke took in his first post-All-Star-game appearance (in which he gave up eight earned runs in only five innings against Cleveland, and saw his ERA rise from 2.77 to 3.23) will perhaps be heartened to learn that over his major-league career Radke has posted considerably better earned run averages and opposing batting averages in the second half of the season.
I know fans who felt that the absolute nadir in the history of Twins pitching came at the conclusion of the 1995 season when Radke--who had posted an 11-14 record with a 5.32 earned run average--was given the team's annual Pitcher of the Year award. The sad truth, however, was that Radke really was the Twins' top hurler that season. It speaks volumes about his demeanor that three losing years later, he not only remains the team's ace in the hole, but is still determined to get even better. In today's baseball marketplace, that makes him a player the Twins can't afford to keep--or lose.
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