Of the boatload of people who deserve kudos for the Twins’ surprising season, which incredibly has them in the thick of a pennant race just six weeks before Labor Day, pitching coach Rick Anderson belongs near the top of the list. Having traded away their Cy Young Award-winner (Johan Santana) and top young prospect (Matt Garza) and watched their innings-eating middle-rotation guy (Carlos Silva) signed away in free agency, the Twins’ starting rotation for 2008 amounted to a a well-past-his-prime veteran, Livan Hernandez, and a collection of unproven kids as the club took the field on Opening Day in early April.
Nearly four months later, Hernandez is in danger of being the first hurler in 29 years to surrender 300 hits in a season, yet the Twins have soldiered forward through the dogged improvement of four pitchers between the ages of 24 and 26, none of the highly regarded prospects deemed to have the stuff of an ace. But under Anderson’s steady tutelage and encouragement, each has made a quantum leap forward.
As a pretty staunch baseball fan, I realized with some embarrassment that I couldn’t really differentiate between the quartet–lefthander Glen Perkins, and righties Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn–and figured others might also benefit from a more detailed thumbnail sketch about their pitching make-up, specifically their strengths and characteristics and what challenges they most needed to surmount to continue their improvement. So, on Saturday before the middle game of the Twins’ three-game series with Texas, I asked Anderson to do just that. Here’s his take on the four cherubic horsemen.
Command guy. He throws anywhere from 87 to 91. He works with control and command and he’s got to live on the corners and keep the ball down. He’s also got all four pitches, but his main strength is his command and location. His one thing is sometimes he’ll get a little bit up and get a little frisky and get under the ball and try to overthrow a little bit. If he starts getting up around 91, 92, he’s overthrowing and has got to back down a bit, keep his arm slot up and work the corners and keep the ball down and stay under control.
Stuff. He’s probably got some of the best stuff of anyone on our team. The ball runs everywhere, moves everywhere, and he’s got a good feel for what he is doing; he’s confident and he attacks the hitters. He is not afraid to pitch inside, which is another good thing you like to see in a pitcher. His big thing–and I’m probably saying this about all the kids–is staying under control, not trying to do too much, let the ball work for you. But his ball goes everywhere and he’s very deceptive and the biggest thing with him is he’s fearless.
You know Scotty came up and down about three or four times over the past few years and in the middle of last year he kind of felt it and figured it out, that you’ve got to throw downhill and locate your pitches, that it is all about command and moving the ball in and out and trying to throw hard. And that’s what he’s learned and he’s got command and heck, every time out now he gives us a good effort. He’s controlling his pitches, he uses all four like the rest of them, but his key is keeping the ball down and being deceptive; and he is deceptive.
He’s come out of nowhere. Last year we didn’t even know who Blackburn was until he started doing well in Triple A. He’s continued to progress. He come up last year in September and tried to throw it by everybody and got hammered around pretty good. That was his biggest challenge, coming up here and learning that it is not how hard you throw, it is locating your pitches. It is being under control, like I said about the rest, and letting your pitches work for you. It is changing speeds and it is all about keeping the hitters off balance for him and not just trying to throw it past the hitters. He’s got a good fastball, but his whole thing is just changing speeds and keeping the hitters off balance.
As a bonus, I’ll throw in the fifth member of the starter kiddie corps, Boof Bonser, who has been banished to the bullpen.
The biggest thing with Boof is getting things under control. He’s got a good arm, he throws in the low-90s, a great curveball and he’s got all four pitches because he also throws a slider and a change-up. It is just a matter of–when he started he was just overthrowing everything and getting the ball up and so we’ve put him out in the bullpen and just told him to focus on two pitches, fastball and curveball and master those two and then we can add the other things as we go. He’s done a good job out of the bullpen and been a little more consistent.