Rhodes finds success right down the middle


August 03, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

At a young age, when his arm was more reliable than his control, Jim Palmer practiced what George Bamberger preached. Later in his career, after he became a television wordsmith, Palmer coined a phrase for the technique.

It's called the "Middle of the Plate Deviation Theory." At times it can be a pitching coach's best tool.

On Monday night it was Arthur Rhodes' best friend. Once again the young left-hander presented evidence, which admittedly has been infrequent to this point, as to why you travel the extra mile before giving up on a quality arm.

In so doing, Rhodes seldom attempted to throw pitches to precise locations. Only on rare instances did catcher Chris Hoiles offer a target other than the middle of the plate.

The bottom line was that the ball rarely ended up in that area. And the end result was only slightly less than spectacular.

When you have an arm as lively as the one on Rhodes' left side, the need for pinpoint control diminishes drastically. A safe estimate is that the ball misses the target more than 90 percent of the time.

In this case, that's good, because it means the ball is in the middle of the strike zone less than 10 percent of the time. When most of the other Orioles pitchers are on the mound, you will see Hoiles, or backup catcher Jeff Tackett, setting up in a specific area -- with most of their body target outside of the strike zone.

At this stage of his career, Rhodes cannot afford to try to be that precise. The natural movement of his pitches, especially his 90-mph-plus fastball, will take the ball outside the strike zone or to the middle. Neither is a desirable location.

Even when he is in the middle of the strike zone, Rhodes has an advantage few other pitchers have -- his stuff is good enough to survive occasional mistakes. Which is why the "Middle of the Plate Deviation Theory" is perfect for him. It's a comforting feeling to know you can aim the ball for the middle of the plate -- knowing it's not going to go there.

What was particularly impressive about Rhodes' 1-0 win over the Minnesota Twins was his ability to get ahead of hitters with a pitch other than his fastball. That's still his best pitch, and will continue to be throughout his career. Being able to throw a curve for strike one is an unexpected bonus.

Rhodes has had games similar to Monday night's gem before, so it's too early to declare that he's over the hump. But it's not too early, or too late, to speculate about what could be.

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