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Nolan Ryan's Crusade
ALBERT CHEN
May 24, 2010
Pitches counted? Pitchers coddled? Not in Texas, where a Hall of Famer is molding a staff in his own old school image
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May 24, 2010

Nolan Ryan's Crusade

Pitches counted? Pitchers coddled? Not in Texas, where a Hall of Famer is molding a staff in his own old school image

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"Strategically, you want to throw as few pitches as possible," says Wilson, who was 3--1 with a 1.48 ERA through Sunday and had thrown more than 100 pitches in six of his seven starts. "It's not like we want to go out there, flex our muscles and be like, 'Yeah, look at me, I threw 130 pitches.' What Nolan wants us to be is built to throw 130 pitches."

To that end, Ryan has revamped the way his pitchers were prepared to pitch. (He was a notorious workout freak as a player; in the words of Texas general manager Jon Daniels, Ryan was "well ahead of his time—players, and certainly not pitchers, back then didn't condition like he did.") Jose Vazquez, the Rangers' conditioning coach, added more sprints and lower-leg work to the team's training regimen. Ryan ordered that pitchers throw live batting practice to hitters from Day One of spring training—a routine almost unheard of in big league camps but one that the Rangers have used for the past two springs to build arms up before the season. It didn't take long for Ryan to hear from critics of the BP tactics. "Last summer [starter] Brandon McCarthy came up tender in his shoulder," says Ryan, "and one of the reporters came up to me and said, 'Do you think it was batting practice?' He hadn't thrown batting practice in two months!"

The Rangers are also questioning baseball convention when it comes to the long-toss drills that are a part of every team's pregame routine. Before the 2009 season coaches and officials met with Alan Jaeger, an independent coach who has worked with the Giants' Barry Zito and the Diamondbacks' Dan Haren (All-Stars who have never missed a start because of an arm injury) and advocates that pitchers long toss at distances well beyond the norm in baseball today. Jaeger says that over the last 15 years the vast majority of clubs began capping their pitchers at 120 feet because "teams have become so paranoid about injuries." But Jaeger argues that limiting long-toss ranges keeps pitchers from building up the arm strength that can keep them healthy. "There's nothing that's even a close second for why we have arm problems than the 120-feet limit," he says.

Last spring Texas pitchers began throwing on a daily basis at distances from 225 to 300 feet—a range that Jaeger says better correlates with the effort of throwing a 90-mph fastball off a mound. "For me to see an entire field [of players] throwing at 250, 280 feet was mind-blowing," says Jaeger, who spent a week working with prospects at the Rangers' Dominican Republic academy last month. "I've been going to spring training 15 straight years, and the only other time I'd seen it was with Oakland under Rick Peterson [the A's pitching coach in the early 2000s]."

Says Feldman, "Last year during spring training early on, my arm felt tired, and I was going to take a day off. [Maddux] said, 'Why don't you just try to long toss and stretch it out?' So I did that, and I got into the habit of long tossing more, and my arm felt dramatically better after that."

The Texas rotation has become one of the most stable in the American League. Last season Texas starters made three trips to the disabled list. This year the only starters to miss a turn have been Wilson (he had a bout of food poisoning) and Harrison, who went on the DL on May 12 with biceps tendinitis but is expected to recover quickly. According to Jaeger, nearly a dozen other organizations, including the Angels, Tigers and Yankees, have since stretched out their long-toss routines as the Rangers have. "Other teams saw what Texas did and followed suit," says Jaeger. "They were the first team willing to think outside the box, and now they've started a chain reaction."

Texas pitchers are even thriving at the Ballpark in Arlington, long regarded as the most hitter-friendly park in the American League. The red-brick stadium that is a shrine to the greatest pitcher in franchise history—a bronze statue of Ryan stands alone in the centerfield plaza of the ballpark, which sits beside Nolan Ryan Expressway—has long been a pitcher's graveyard. But last year Texas pitchers were actually better at home (4.27 ERA) than on the road (4.51 ERA). This season the Rangers were on pace to have their lowest home ERA, by more than half a run, since the opening of the ballpark in 1994 (3.71).

"In reality the reputation was developed because of the Rafael Palmeiros, Ruben Sierras and Juan Gonzalezes—they just had really good hitters there," says Maddux. "When I got here I actually thought, Wow this place has gaps. That's kind of nice. Coming from the National League, this ballpark is much more pitcher friendly than the parks in Houston, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Wrigley Field."

The problem in Texas wasn't the sweltering heat or the alleged jet stream in rightfield. The problem, of course, was the talent. "When Nolan got here in '08, the focus was on fine-tuning our development process and our pitching program," says Daniels. "But first we had to collect the talent."

Included in the haul of prospects the Rangers netted in the 2007 trade that sent first baseman Mark Teixeira to Atlanta was Harrison, 24, and 22-year-old closer Neftali Feliz. Last season the Rangers won 87 games and finished second in the division in part because of contributions from homegrown starters Holland (a lefty drafted in '06) and Tommy Hunter (a righty taken in '07). Holland dominated hitters at Triple A Oklahoma City this season (4--1, 0.93 ERA in six starts) before being called up; he pitched six shutout innings in his first start, a win over Oakland. Hunter is 1--0 with a 0.00 ERA in three starts in Triple A. Also on the way: 23-year-old Tanner Scheppers and Martin Perez, 19, the jewels of a minor league system that Baseball America ranks second only behind Tampa Bay's. Says Mariners G.M. Jack Zduriencik, "The young pitching talent they have there is almost frightening."

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