Even in this era when a sub-3.00 ERA in the American League makes a pitcher look like the second coming of Jim Palmer, it's hard to believe that a pitcher could be 9-1 and have a 5.01 ERA. Then again, there's a lot that's hard to believe about Rangers righthander Roger Pavlik. For instance, it's hard to believe he's still pitching, let alone winning, with that peculiar delivery of his.
Pavlik, 28, strides toward the third base dugout, instead of straight toward home plate, and thus ends up throwing across his body. It's almost painful to watch. "Watch an overhead view of his motion," says Rangers pitching coach Dick Bosman, "and you wonder, How in the hell does he even get the ball to the plate?"
"When I pitch and the opposing pitcher is a righthander, I see the spot where his front foot lands," says Pavlik. "My front foot is a foot further to the right. It's not something you want to teach kids, but I'm comfortable with it."
The advantage to this unorthodox delivery is that hitters seldom see anything like it. And there is an effective element of deception, too. Not only is his arm coming in a cross-fire motion at a righthanded hitter, but so is most of his body as well. "Not many righthanders come at you from that angle," says Red Sox catcher Mike Stanley. "It's tough for a hitter to keep his shoulder in."
But if Pavlik's weird mechanics are slightly off, it can be difficult to correct his flaws during the course of a game. That explains why he has pitched so badly at times in his career, including one three-start stretch early this year when he may have been the worst pitcher in baseball. On April 19 he was staked to a 6-1 lead after three innings against the Orioles but lasted only 3⅔ innings, giving up six runs on six hits and three walks in a game the Rangers won 26-7. "I caught a lot of grief from our guys, like, 'How can you not get the win when we scored 26 runs?' " Pavlik says. Five days later, against Boston, he had a 7-0 lead in the second but didn't make it through the third, giving up five runs on seven hits and five bases on balls in an 11-9 loss. On April 29, against Baltimore, he was given a 5-0 lead in the third but lasted just 4⅓ innings, surrendering six runs on six hits and three walks in an 8-7 loss. All told, his team scored 42 runs in three games and all he had to show for it was three no-decisions and an ERA of 15.30 during that stretch.
Yet his 9-1 mark at week's end was the best any Rangers starter has ever had after 10 decisions, and in his last 20 starts going back to last September, he was 13-2 with a 3.92 ERA. The latter record is all the more remarkable considering that he struggled throughout most of last season and during one monthlong stretch, from June to July, had a 1-5 record with a 7.02 ERA. It was around that time that Bosman tried to get him to change his motion and stride straight toward the plate. "He drew a line from the mound to the plate and said, 'Try to step to the left of this line,' " says Pavlik. "I couldn't do it without feeling really awkward." The session lasted 15 minutes, and then Pavlik and Bosman agreed it was a waste of time.
Despite his record Pavlik is not the best pitcher on the Rangers, who led the American League West by four games at week's end; that's probably Ken Hill, who was 7-5 with a 4.02 ERA. Nor does Pavlik have the best stuff in the Texas rotation; Darren Oliver (5-2, 3.86) does. But Pavlik and teammate Kevin Gross are two of the luckiest pitchers around: Their Ranger teammates give them some of the best run support in baseball (chart, next page). But talk to Pavlik about his high ERA, and he says, "I just refer people to Jack Morris." In 1992 Morris won 21 games for the Blue Jays despite a 4.04 ERA. "The idea," says Pavlik, "is to win."
He might have enough wins to get to the All-Star Game, but he's not thinking that far ahead. The only thing Pavlik has planned is a trip to the Amazon River this winter to fish for peacock bass. A down-home kid from Houston going fishing in Brazil. It's hard to believe.