Erickson changeup experiment is on again In usual spring fling, sinkerball pitcher eyes bigger repertoire

March 12, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It is Scott Erickson's annual springtime experiment. Known for possessing the game's heaviest sinker, he is again trying to add a finesse pitch to his assortment. Whether the changeup, an elusive pitch built upon deception instead of power, will finally follow him into the season remains uncertain.

With only two starts remaining before the regular season, the Orioles' No. 2 starter used only a handful of the pitches in yesterday's five-inning outing. He got one fly-ball out with it, then gave little clue about his level of satisfaction.

"I've been trying to do it my whole career, but it's been tough for me to throw one. If I knew what was the most important factor, I would have figured it out by now. It's hard to throw," he says.

Erickson, regarded as the staff workhorse, constructed a strong 1997. His 16-7 record was his best since winning 20 games for the 1991 Minnesota Twins. His 3.69 ERA was his best since 1992. Erickson pitched into the eighth inning in 16 of his 33 starts and had 11 wins at the All-Star break, most for any pitcher not named to the game. He says he would take his first half -- 11-4, 3.81 ERA -- while discarding his second half, which produced a 5-3 record but an improved 3.57 ERA.

Erickson says the changeup may help him rise another level. As pitching coach, Ray Miller sold its benefit to closer Randy Myers, who enjoyed one of the greatest seasons ever by a closer.

"It's a pitch-saver," says Miller, who recalled one fly-ball out induced by a change as Erickson's biggest thrill of the day. "Scotty's a workhorse and he can pitch a ton of innings, but the changeup is usually a pitch-saver. It would be good to cut his pitch count."

Erickson walked five and allowed one hit during five innings, his third spring outing. He avoided the loss in what ended as a 3-0 downer against the Boston Red Sox. The outcome was much improved over Friday in Vero Beach when Erickson surrendered nine hits and seven earned runs to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 3 2/3 innings. He had hoped to make five innings that day but fell victim to his experimental pitch.

"Today was the first time this spring I've pitched to [personal catcher Lenny Webster]," he says. "It was more like a regular game situation. I threw maybe 25 changeups last time. I threw maybe five this time."

As for April 2, Erickson's first scheduled start of the season?

"The game really dictates how often you would use it," he says. "If you get in trouble, then you might have to change speeds more often. If you breeze along with the fastball, you might not have to throw any breaking pitches. I don't like to do that. Sometimes you get lucky. You might break out [the change] the second or third time through the lineup. It's not going to make or break my season. If I don't throw one the whole season, I don't care."

Erickson did begin incorporating the pitch last August. However, he has become successful living on a sinker-slider combination that produced the American League's most favorable ratio of ground balls to fly balls (74 percent to 26 percent).

"I throw some good ones; I throw some bad ones," he says. "The main thing is to keep it low. I'm not going to throw it perfectly it every time."

Says catcher Chris Hoiles, who handled Erickson on Friday: "No matter how good you are, throwing another speed only makes it more difficult for a hitter. It's not easy or everybody would throw it. You've got to stay with it, and that's what Scotty's trying to do."

The changeup is perhaps the most difficult pitch to master. The goal is to produce a slower pitch with the identical arm action. To do so requires a different grip, usually either a "choke" hold, in which the ball is shoved back into the hand, or a "circle" configuration that has a pitcher place the outside three fingers atop the ball while the thumb and index finger form a circle on its side.

For Erickson, the pitch's purpose isn't to gain strikeouts. His power pitches produced 131 in 221 2/3 innings last season. Rather, by deceiving the hitter, the pitcher hopes to induce a weakly hit ball.

"I want the hitters to have that in the back of their mind so they'll have something else to think about. It's one more thing they can look for," Erickson says.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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