Batting against Rangers righthander Kevin Brown—especially the new Kevin Brown—is a little like trying to swat a 16-pound shot traveling 95 mph. He throws a fastball with such a hard, natural sinking motion that he has a tough time finding teammates willing to risk their hands in a casual game of catch. The action on his sinker has caused his catchers to wear plastic thumb protectors inside their mitts, and they still have to ice their swollen joints for days. "We call him Chain-saw," says former Texas catcher Mike Stanley, who's now with the Yankees. "He's always buzzing his catchers' thumbs and the hitters' hands and bats."
This season the 27-year-old Brown has hacked a nasty trail through the American League, getting more than 70% of his outs on grounders. At week's end he had a league-high 14 victories (against five losses) with a 3.18 ERA, and he started—and won—last week's All-Star Game. Brown has also made the act of hitting a homer against him truly Homeric, surrendering only three in 152% innings as of Sunday. The American League record since 1950 for fewest homers allowed in a season (with a minimum of 250 innings) is held by Mike Garcia, who gave up six for Cleveland in 259 innings in 1954. "When we signed him in '86," says Texas pitching coach Tom House, "I i said Kevin is Orel Hershiser with a little bit better stuff."
Despite having the stuff that hitters' nightmares are made of, the old Kevin Brown had a career of fitful tosses and turns. Going into this season, his record had gotten worse each year (going from 12-9 in 1989 to 12-10 in '90 to 9-12 last season) while his ERA had climbed (from 3.35 to 3.60 to 4.40). In '91 he tied an American League record by starting 33 games without finishing one. His problem in a nutshell: He was outsmarting himself.
A chemical engineering major at Georgia Tech, the 6'4", 195-pound Brown could grasp the molecular concept of Brownian motion, but he tended to examine his own motion in endless detail. Every bad pitch gnawed at him. The four days between starts were consumed by tinkering and self-examination. With two days—and no starts—left in the '91 season, Brown threw 200 balls against the outfield wall before one game to fine-tune his delivery. "Guys were saying, 'You're done for the year, stop,' " recalls infielder Jeff Huson. "But that's how far he took it."
"Kevin overprocessed," House says. "I think many times his exhaustion in the eighth or ninth inning was more mental and emotional than physical."
Last August, Brown made an appointment with a sports psychologist, whose name he won't divulge. In one day of talking, the two unraveled some of the troubles plaguing Brown. Like the Nuke LaLoosh character in the movie Bull Durham, Brown had to find away to simplify things. LaLoosh learned to relax by breathing through his eyeballs. Brown learned to stop thinking so much about what he was doing.
"My body's pretty damn smart," Brown says. "It knows what it needs to do to throw the ball. If I just trust it, while I concentrate on what pitch to throw in what situation, my body's going to take care of itself."
House, who has a doctorate in psychology, uses physiology to explain Brown's ability to throw 10 mph faster than the average sinkerballer. "The way he's built, he can touch his knees without bending over," House says. "That gives him the extension he needs."
Though he remains a fiery competitor—around the Rangers' clubhouse arc torn chair cushions and Plexiglas-covered dents on the walls that arc memorials to moments when Brown saw red—the new, less self-destructive Brown had six complete games through Sunday and is poised for a second-half Chainsaw massacre. "It's taken me awhile," he says, "but I've learned to listen to my body."