Orioles Pitching Guru
A Staff from Scratch
Taking the job as Orioles pitching coach wasn't exactly a move up the career ladder for Mark Wiley last October. He gave up his post atop the Rockies' player personnel department—as they were about to sign free-agent starters Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle—to become the eighth pitching coach in eight years for a staff that had the third-worst ERA (5-37) in the American League in 2000 and was about to lose ace Mike Mussina. Baltimore's new No. 1 starter, righthander Pat Hentgen, who was signed as a free agent last December, had a 38-35 record with a 4.89 ERA over his previous three seasons. Behind Hentgen in the rotation was a mishmash of arms that were either unproven or, worse, proven bad.
"It was a tough decision, but I think it was a good move," says Wiley, who had 10 years' experience as a pitching coach for three teams, including the 1987 season with Baltimore plus two stints with the Indians under manager Mike Hargrove, now the Orioles' skipper. "I've always liked being the underdog."
Hargrove and a number of major league scouts credit Wiley for working wonders with a patchwork rotation. The starters' 4.30 ERA through Sunday was a big reason the Orioles were in third place in the AL East, only seven games out of first. From May 12 through June 2 every Orioles starter—Hentgen and righthanders Jason Johnson, Jose Mercedes, Sidney Ponson, Willis Roberts and Josh Towers—lasted at least five innings. The staff ERA since that span began was 3.72, including a 1.33 ERA against the Expos last weekend when the Orioles won two out of three games.
Wiley has tweaked the mechanics of his starters. He has gotten Johnson to pitch with a more relaxed motion. Roberts, a rookie who won his first three starts but has struggled of late, is trying to curb a tendency to rush his delivery. Ponson is attempting to develop more balance on the mound.
More important, perhaps, Wiley has his starters believing in themselves. "I'm trusting my stuff a lot more and getting ahead of hitters," says Johnson, who, with Hentgen sidelined (right elbow tendinitis), has emerged as the staff leader at 6-3 with a 3.09 ERA. "[ Wiley] has helped me realize I don't need to give hitters so much credit."
Last year Johnson struggled as a starter (0-8, 7.20 ERA) and was moved to the bullpen. The difference this year is his command: Throwing his fastball more, he has cut his walks per nine innings from 5.10 last season to 2.64 in 2001. At the start of spring training Wiley stressed that every pitcher on the staff must first gain command of his fastball, then develop his change before working on breaking stuff. "Command is what makes a pitcher successful, not assortment," Wiley says. "A lot of good pitchers didn't become good until they got rid of some pitches."
New Team, Same Strengths
Grace Notes in Arizona
Late in the Diamondbacks' 11-4 win over the Royals last Friday, Arizona second baseman Jay Bell sidled up to manager Bob Brenly in the dugout, and the two began comparing notes on Mark Grace. "I was talking about him being one of my alltime favorite players," Bell says. "The more I play with this guy, the higher my regard for him goes."
Adds Brenly, "He's a manager's dream player."