Throwing out runners? Hoiles trying to catch on Veteran catcher aims to improve mechanics

March 07, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Something has changed about the Orioles' catching situation this spring. Rather than just complain about Chris Hoiles' arm, something is being done about it.

Much of this camp is devoted to pushing veterans familiar with the routine of March. Teaching is usually reserved for the back fields where minor-league players are largely quarantined from a ready-made roster. The most glaring exception occurs when coach Elrod Hendricks gathers his catchers for a tutorial on footwork and a quick release. Hoiles is the most closely watched.

"It's something that always gets discussed. No matter what I do, it always comes up," Hoiles says. "I'm never going to have a strong arm but I can get better."

Few, if any, are more popular within the Orioles clubhouse. There, Hoiles is known as "Tractor Man" or just "Tractor" for short. As down to earth as his name implies, Hoiles never has hidden from a painful discussion of his shortcomings, no matter how much they have clouded what he has given the Orioles offensively and as a presence. Manager Ray Miller counts Hoiles among the best receivers he has seen and Hoiles' ability to block and contain wild pitches may be unmatched in the American League.

His grit has sometimes cost him. While blocking the plate last June 16 against the Montreal Expos, Hoiles was rolled by Expos outfielder F.P. Santangelo and sustained a sprain of his right medial collateral ligament. Doctors believed the injury could sideline him two months. He missed five weeks before returning at less than 100 percent.

Still, there is the arm.

Hoiles threw out only 13 percent of base-stealers against him last year. The major-league average is around 25 percent. Forty percent is exceptional.

Miller minimizes the negatives about Hoiles' throwing, insisting too much has been made of it in the past. "He's got a presence," Miller said. "The team feels better just knowing he's around."

Rather than cite an arthritic condition that hindered his shoulder three years ago, Hoiles pleads guilty to a weak arm but doesn't believe he deserves a life sentence.

"I think that I've grown past that," insists Hoiles, who contributed 12 home runs and 49 RBIs during last year's injury-shortened season. "I know I do a lot more positive for the team in a lot of areas, yet [throwing] seems to be the one sticking point in my game. I realize it's a big part of my game but I seem to be defined by what I can't do. I'm never going to have a strong arm but I'm trying to compensate."

To assist his arm, Hoiles is addressing his feet.

Over the last several years his mechanics have sagged. When throwing, he would first take a drop step with his right foot, forcing his weight behind him and causing his throws to frequently float or short-hop a base. Hendricks' technique gives a catcher momentum toward second base, taking strain off the arm while also reducing release time.

Hoiles likens his predicament to a pitcher who lost his release point. Hendricks insists the adjustment is less traumatic than a hitter remaking his swing. But entering his ninth full major-league season, Hoiles concedes change doesn't come easily.

"Once you fall into the habit of doing something wrong it's tough to get back to doing it right. It's just a matter of confidence," said Hoiles, who spent much of the winter throwing 100 feet against a wall inside a building near his Ohio home, sometimes from his knees to increase arm strength. "You've got to get back to basics. You can work on it all day and be picture perfect but then if you get in a game with a base-stealer and you're not comfortable, it's not going to matter. You hope it becomes second nature. That's what I'm trying to get to."

When confronted with a bunt play or would-be base-stealer, Hendricks has urged all Orioles catchers to half-step into a pitch with their right foot. The adjustment is a difficult one given that the catcher must remain riveted to the pitch, the bat and maintaining his crouch.

Hoiles, two weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, says he is slowly becoming more comfortable with Hendricks' technique but has yet to be tested during a game. Yesterday, he fumbled a bunt by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Ramon Martinez and threw too late to first base, earning an error.

Hoiles also has suffered from benign neglect. Though Hendricks had served as the Orioles' catching coach through the Phil Regan regime, he was assigned as bullpen coach only when Davey Johnson arrived in 1996 with Andy Etchebarren, whom Miller chose not to keep. Hendricks never interfered but grimaced at what he witnessed.

"I told him since he's part of a team that has an excellent chance to win he should do what he can to improve," said Hendricks.

"Chris was willing from the start. He's got six weeks down here to work on things. Six weeks to adjust. The only way it's not going to make a difference is if you don't believe it'll work. He's open to it."

Of the change, Hoiles says: "I'm not going to sit here and say I'm going to throw out 40 percent. My goal is to continue to get better."

Pub Date: 3/07/98

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