Dobson blames pitchers for batters' pop

BASEBALL

April 24, 1994|By TOM KEEGAN

The strike zone continues to shrink. The baseballs carry like golf balls. The hitters grow stronger by the season.

Artificial turf. Short outfield fences. Going way back, the lowering of the mound.

All the popular theories for baseball's football scores have merit. Strangely, few seem prepared to blame the pitchers for bad pitching.

Pat Dobson, one of the 1971 Orioles' four 20-game winners, was the pitching coach for two Cy Young Award winners. He tutored Pete Vuckovich in Milwaukee and Mark Davis in San Diego.

Not Roger Clemens and Doc Gooden, who could make any pitching coach look brilliant. Vuckovich and Davis, two of the most surprising winners of the award.

Dobson, who scouts the National League for the Colorado Rockies, knows pitching as few in the game do. He thinks pitchers deserve a lot of the blame for the scoring inflation.

He also thinks baseball people deserve some of the heat for not eliminating 20 percent of the poor starting pitching by shrinking from five-man to four-man rotations.

Why won't teams take this drastic step back in time? The uncertainty that accompanies change scares the life out of baseball management.

The game has grown so huge, the scrutiny so intense, nobody wants to be the first. Nobody has the guts to invite that sort of pressure. Pressure from player agents, fans, the media, in the event the move backfires.

"I think they ought to go back to it," Dobson said. "If the fifth guys are pitching so bad, why not go back to four? How many teams can send out five quality guys? Atlanta is about the only team that can even send out four. Why have a fifth guy for the sake of having a fifth guy?"

Dobson doesn't buy the argument that five-man rotations spare sore arms.

"It doesn't seem to me like there were more arm injuries when we had four-man rotations," he said. "Let's face it, the DL is used more than it ever has been. A lot of people are afraid of 'If I'm the first one to do it and get hurt, what's going to happen?' It worked forever before, why not do it now? It's just a matter of conditioning your arm and the way you condition your arm is by pitching between starts."

OK, so turn the fifth starter into a long reliever. Then what?

"Whether the ball is juiced or whatever, pitchers are getting away from fundamentals," Dobson said. "No. 1, you have to pitch down. No. 2, you have to have command of a changeup, something soft."

What else?

"Too much of an emphasis in recent, recent times has been put on pitching inside," he said. "A lot of these guys simply can't pitch down in the strike zone. There is a lot of built-in elevation for the hitter right there."

Juiced ball? More muscular hitters?

"At different times over the course of baseball, balls have been wound a little tighter," he said. "The hitters are bigger and stronger, but you've got to remember when you look at the average major-league game, most of the balls hit out of the ballpark, the pitcher has done half the job. He has elevated the ball for him. I saw Frank Howard hit some balls pretty far, but most of the balls he hit out were elevated by the pitcher."

A common way to approach a high-ball hitter is to climb the ladder on him, starting high and moving higher and higher out of the strike zone. The reverse is not done enough with low-ball hitters, Dobson says.

"Hitters who attack the low ball will also expand the strike zone down and swing lower than the strike zone," Dobson said. "You can get those guys out just as easy as going up the zone on a high-ball hitter. Catfish Hunter got a lot of low-ball hitters out throwing shin-high sinkers."

Watching pitchers stay with four-seam fastballs (which are straighter and faster than the sinking two-seam variety) also irks Dobson.

"If, in any given at-bat, a good fastball hitter sees your fastball in that at-bat, he's gonna be a heck of a lot more comfortable the third time he sees it than the first time," Dobson said. "Now if it's got movement and he can locate it, it's a lot tougher to hit."

Dobson's three-step approach calls for a pitcher to gain command down in the strike zone first, away in the zone second, inside third.

"What happens is you see a lot of times a pitcher doesn't have that kind of command of the strike zone to be pitching inside," Dobson said. "He'll try a fastball inside, and he'll miss. Ball one. He misses again. Ball two. Then he throws him the pitch he should have thrown him at 0-and-0."

Self-destructive pitching deliveries are on the rise, he said.

"I'm amazed at how many pitchers are throwing across their bodies," Dobson said. "And when a guy is doing that, it's only a matter of time before he blows out the back of his shoulder."

Spotting such flaws can be easier than correcting them.

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