Hoiles relaxes, chokes off throwing slump Gripping ball too tightly, admitted mental block had beset O's catcher

September 30, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- As long as Chris Hoiles is a major-league catcher, he knows that baseball people will first see what he doesn't possess. He's heard the whispers and been asked the questions for too long to believe it will ever change.

"It doesn't matter how many years I hit 20 home runs or how many bounced pitches I block, people will always focus on my throwing. I've come to accept that because that's just the way it is," he says.

Hoiles, 32, is no Pudge Rodriguez. Not even close. "I know I don't have a strong arm," he admits.

He also understands how important it is to augment his catching with offense, something he did by averaging more than 22 home runs from 1992-96 until a variety of injuries (knee, Achilles' tendon, etc.) held him to 12 homers and 49 RBIs this season.

However, despite suffering through a career-worst defensive season in which he has thrown out fewer than 18 percent of base stealers, Hoiles steps into the postseason with bad times behind him.

Rather than blaming this year's injuries for a disappointing percentage against opposing runners, Hoiles, who suffers from an arthritic shoulder, admits he has suffered from a mental block that sometimes caused him to flinch in certain situations.

More often, Hoiles has gripped the ball too tightly, or "choked" it, causing his throws to land five or six feet in front of a base.

"It's not like the ball was tailing or dying. It would be on line, but sometimes it seemed to go straight into the ground," Hoiles says. "I was so conscious of getting rid of the ball, I was pressing."

Though criticism has eased this year, Hoiles admits consistent questions about his arm made it a sensitive topic. Last season he threw out only 19 percent of would-be base stealers, well below his previous career average, 25.5 percent.

Coach Andy Etchebarren, a former Orioles catcher himself, persuaded Hoiles to use a smaller mitt. This allows him to transfer the ball to his throwing hand more easily. Hoiles also has adjusted his mechanics to get his arm in position to throw more quickly.

Like a pitcher who rushes his delivery, Hoiles fell into the habit of pushing the ball rather than extending his arm through his delivery. At times, he even cut off his throwing motion.

"It wasn't physical. It was mental," confirms Etchebarren, who worked with Hoiles hours before games. "It wasn't one of those situations where he couldn't get the ball back to the pitcher. He was self-conscious about throwing to bases. The more he hurried himself, the worse it got."

"It was pretty bad for awhile," Hoiles says. "I was conscious of it. Other teams were conscious of it. I know people in [the clubhouse] were aware of it. It was something I've had to battle."

The last week eased the pressure. Hoiles threw out three runners last Thursday and Friday. There was no sign of choking the ball or of hurried mechanics.

When given a chance, he delivered. The timing couldn't have been better since the Seattle Mariners probably will test him often this week.

Orioles pitchers have improved at holding base runners, but are still among the league's most vulnerable.

Reliever Armando Benitez sometimes fails to check runners and rarely shows more than casual indifference. Starter Scott Erickson, who routinely throws to Lenny Webster, is no treat.

"Sometimes there's absolutely nothing you can do," says Hoiles. "You have to accept that and go on rather than force something and throw the ball away."

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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