Monday, June 14, 2010

Nolan Ryan's Crusade To Change The Culture With The Texas Rangers

Last month, Sports Illustrated produced a very interesting article about The Texas Rangers and their Team President--Hall Of Famer--Nolan Ryan. The story centers on Ryan's belief that pitcher's today are coddled too much. From Little League until players actually reach the The Big Leagues, hurlers are robots. They never learn how to pitch on their own. They are limited by pitch counts. And starter's especially, never build up enough arm strength because just giving six innings and allowing three or less runs is called a "quality start."

"What's quality about that?" Nolan Ryan is quoted in the piece as stating. Fellow Hall Of Famer, Don Sutton, told Nats320 the exact same thing back in 2007.

Last season, The Texas Rangers President, along with his Pitching Coach Mike Maddux, implemented a new throwing program for all pitchers within their organization. The goal to not only get Texas starters to go deeper into any game, but not feel the limitations of the pitch count. Go more on how how you feel, not how many tosses have been thrown. All behind the belief that greater arm strength will produce healthier arms. Ryan instructed his organization to have their hurlers throw more long toss (between 225 and 300 feet) between starts. The Rangers even upped their strength & conditioning training programs. And from the very first days of spring training, Nolan and Mike Maddux have their pitchers throwing live batting practice.

Ryan's remarks: "Now how in the world do you learn how a hitter's going to react to your pitches without a hitter in there? I always thought that was crazy."

With the ceiling lowered for starters, Nolan Ryan's "back to old school" goal is to have The Texas Rangers Organization make their pitchers re-think their physical limits. Even during his time in the Major Leagues, starters more routinely went the distance in any game. The article points out that Ryan himself completed at least 11 games seven times during his great career. The San Francisco Giants, as a team, led Major League Baseball with 11 complete games in 2009.

Bottom line--the Hall Of Famer and Mike Maddux believe there are stressful innings and not so stressful innings pitched during every game. And that amount of pitching should be the determining factor in whether any pitcher needs to be relieved in any game--not the negative limit of a pitch count. And there should be no limits, whatsoever, to a player's ability while placed on the mound. Over the past two seasons, Texas Rangers starters have all increased their workloads, lowered their E.R.A.'s and made their home ballpark in Arlington, Texas--less of a hitter friendly park.

The question--does this re-thinking of building arm strength for starters and throwing pitch counts out the window--work for everybody? Especially, Our Washington Nationals.

Recently, Nats320 asked Our Manager Jim Riggleman about these issues during a pre-game press conference. As well as Washington Starter John Lannan sitting in the dugout and MASN Broadcaster Phil Wood--standing near the field during Batting Practice . Each had their own various takes on the subject. But the best and most enlightening remarks came from Pitching Coach Steve McCatty. As a Major League Pitcher in the early 1980's, McCatty was a key component on the Oakland A's starting staff under then Manager Billy Martin. The '80's A's starting rotation of Rick Langford, Mike Norris, Matt Keough, McCatty and Brian Kingman completed 93 baseball games that season. Look it up, it's an amazing stat when compared to today. But a few years later, Steve McCatty was also out of the Big Leagues--a bone spur injury had curtailed his career.

Who better to give an opinion on this subject matter other than Our Washington Nationals Pitching Coach.

So today in Part one--we explore the answers with quotes from Riggleman, Lannan and Wood. Tomorrow, in Part two--it's all Steve McCatty. We covered so much ground during the interview in Washington's Dugout. And McCatty didn't disappoint. The man understands pitching and he truly enjoyed talking about the subject matter.

With that, here we go with Part One of Nolan Ryan's Crusade To Change The Culture With The Texas Rangers--beginning with thoughts from Our Washington Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman, Pitcher John Lannan and MASN's Phil Wood:

Nats320: You were answering a question the other day about pitch counts and Stephen Strasburg. You seemed uncomfortable talking about that. In fact, you seemed to gringe at the thought that pitchers are limited today on the mound. Do you think pitchers are coddled too much today and they should build up their arm strength to go deeper into games?

Jim Riggleman: “That’s a great question. Probably, the pitching people can answer it better than I could. But I think in today’s world we are a little too much on that (pitch counts). There have been some comments of late where I really like what I am hearing. Some people are talking more about it not being just the number of pitches, as it is more the stressful innings. If a guy goes out and throws 115 to 120 pitches, but he is winning 6-1, and every pitch is not as crucial--and he goes eight innings--that’s probably not putting as much strain on him. I don’t know that, but there seems to be some school of thought that 100 pitches in a 2-1 ball game in six innings, can really put some wear and tear on you.”

“Again, I don’t know how we are going to figure it out. I think there are a lot of theories on it. They’ve done studies on it as to at what point do people get hurt. After how many in a row they throw 115 pitches and end up getting hurt. And how many innings they are allowed to increase by every year. When you make this type of investment in people, you kind of take the safe road and make sure you can do everything you can. That being said, we as an organization, couldn’t have been more conservative with Jordan Zimmermann last year and his arm broke down. So there is no 100% way of making it work.”

Now John Lannan's Thoughts:

“I think there is bad throwing and good throwing. I think a good long toss during the week is good and I think it should be built into your routine. But overuse is definitely not a good thing. I do think that for some pitchers you have to be really careful and not go over 100 pitches. I don’t know where they got that (pitch count) from. But if guys take care of their arms--they can go longer and harder.”

Nats320: Nolan Ryan also believes that one of the biggest problems with pitchers today is that someone else is telling them what to throw on each pitch. So, in essence, a pitcher doesn't really understand what he can do with his very own talents?

John Lannan: “I really didn’t learn how to call my own pitches until getting here (The Majors). Randy St.Claire kind of forced me to do that. And that’s a big part of the game. It would be cool for a younger guy to do that, but in high school, I didn’t call my own game. In college, I didn’t call my own game. It wasn’t until the big leagues where I first started to learn the hitters and call my own game. So yeah, I agree with that. It can hold you back."

Nats320: How about pitch counts? Do you really ever think about that?

John Lannan: “No. It’s really hard in the NL because there is a lot that plays into it. If my spot comes up in the order, in a close game, I understand they’ve got to pinch hit for me. So it’s tough. American League guys seem to go longer. They have that DH (Designated Hitter) factor. But, you know, I pitch until the manager takes the ball away. Of course, I want to go longer. But he (the manager) has a reason for it. I know I did my job and that’s all I can do. Until he takes the ball away from me, that’s all I can control.”

Nats320: Do you ever insist when he comes to take the ball away that you can go longer because you are feeling fine?

John Lannan: “He’s got a reason and I don’t want to go against his reasoning. So that’s it. But yeah, if it’s between innings I will talk to him. He’ll ask me if I am feeling alright. If I say I am feeling good, he will let me go back out there. It’s his judgement call and that plays a big factor in whether a pitcher goes longer these days.”

Nats320: We are asking that because The Rangers are attempting to get their pitchers to go 125 pitches per start. And it's based of feel, not the number of tosses?

John Lannan: “That’s pretty amazing. That’s a pretty high pitch count. Ubaldo Jimenez (Colorado Rockies) throws 125 to 130 per game, but those 125 pitches really depends on how many innings he takes to reach that point. If you are throwing 30 pitches per inning, that’s going to do something to your arm. That’s not healthy. But if you are having quick innings and you are doing your job--125 is not much of a difference than 110. It’s just a matter of the workload and how long a period of a time it took you to reach that point.”

“I just go out there until they take the ball from me. When I go out there, yeah, I think I am going the whole game. And if I don’t, I get disappointed. I am a perfectionist. I want to go the whole game. I’ve done it before and it feels good. So, I would like to do it again. But whenever the manager takes the ball out of my hand, that’s when I stop.”

On to MASN's Phil Wood--who gets the final comments today:

Nats320: Knowing you have read the SI article on Nolan Ryan and The Rangers, what are your thoughts?

Phil Wood: “I think it’s a good idea, and I think the way he is doing it is going to work. I was talking to Tom Grieve, one of The Rangers broadcasters--their former GM--and he says people think it’s a real radical thing. But what they are doing down there is taking a pitcher and adding 10 pitches to their normal pitch count. In the minor leagues, they are adding a little more throwing between starts. It’s not something that people are going to notice overnight, but five, six, seven, eight years down the road--you are going to see guys--at least with Texas--going 120 pitches and going on three days rest. So, if you are willing to commit to it, organization wide, the only issues would be when you pick up a guy from another organization--you are basically going to have to indoctrinate him quickly. But certainly Ryan is a guy, like Jim Palmer is a guy, that threw a lot and they threw a lot between starts. Just simply throwing an extra day between starts will make a huge difference down the road.”

“But what other thing that will make a huge difference is, if clubs ever get back to it, is actually taking regular infield practice on a daily basis--not just the first game of a home stand. Or the first game of a series. And if you watch batting practice anymore, you or I could be throwing it. They are just tossing it up there. What’s the benefit of that? The Nationals are the only team in baseball right now that doesn’t have a lefthanded batting practice pitcher. I would think, and I have talked to a couple of the guys: 'gee--as a lefthanded hitter, I would like to see the ball come from the other side of the mound sometimes'. But they haven’t had one in like four or five years. Manny Acta told me they had one his first year--but not for the whole season.”

Nats320: Do you believe what Nolan Ryan believes--that pitchers will then be less susceptible to injury?

Phil Wood: “I would hope so. What club in baseball has had the fewest number of arm injuries over time? The Atlanta Braves. And that’s because their guys in the minor leagues threw more. They threw more between starts. More arm strength, fewer injuries. I think it’s a good idea, but difficult to make it work on purely a one club basis. If The Rangers do it and it works, everyone is going to copy it. It’s like in football, once someone changes to an offense that works--everyone follows.”

Nats320: What about the fear that the media will blame all injuries on the organization for increased workload? That belief is out there?

Phil Wood: “Look, those guys (baseball organizations) did it by pampering the pitchers when big money walked in the door and common sense flew out the window. And so now, when you have pitchers who are having pitch counts in little league, counting pitches in high school ball, having strict pitch counts--no one is throwing complete games anymore. To change that culture now, will be a remarkable achievement.”

With that final answer, Part One of Nolan Ryan's Crusade To Change The Culture With The Texas Rangers concludes. Tomorrow, in Part Two--Our Washington Nationals Pitching Coach Steve McCatty gives his opinion on the entire matter. He didn't back down and he explained his beliefs extremely well. So, please come back tomorrow.

Photo Credit:


NYer in DC said...

I'm a Mets fan who moved from NY to DC in December and I just happened to stumble on your blog. I think I was looking for a picture of Ryan Howard crying through google images, and your blog came up haha. Anyway, great write up here. And as DC is my adopted city, the Nats are my adopted team, so I'll be sure to stop back and keep reading!

Wooden U. Lykteneau said...

The Braves do a blend of old-school throwing and new-school biomechanics. They do not just simply throw more.

The idea, however, that today's pitchers are softer and more coddled ignores some basic facts. Fifty years ago it was common for a guy in his mid-20s to have a "dead arm." It was uncommon for a guy to pitch past his mid-30s, and over 40? Forget it.

It should also be noted that Nolan Ryan was a freak of nature. Literally. When he was tested by exercise scientists, he had the highest concentration of fast-twitch muscles they had ever seen - something like 80%. Most people are around 50%, and even today it's rare to see a figure above 70%.

Thus, there's a certain degree of "Well, I was able to..." prejudice that has to be taken into consideration.

Wombat-socho said...

Linked at Beltway Baseball.

Kevin Rusch said...

Also, I'm too lazy to look it up, but research shows that a lot of the injuries from high pitch counts aren't immediate. However, the correlation between high pitch counts and injuries, and high pitch counts and poor performances in the following start(s) are pretty well-documented. And in Nolan's day, the Shortstop and Catcher hit .230, and the pitcher hit .150.

I mean, are quarterbacks "coddled" nowdays because the DLs are 320 lbs and faster than WRs were in the 60s?