O's Cabrera regarded as a wild card

Pitchers with control problems could end up great - or gone

Baseball

April 14, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Daniel Cabrera's numbers send the mind dashing toward extreme possibilities, some fantastic and some terrible.

In 6 1/3 innings this season, the Orioles' No. 4 starter has walked 16, uncorked four wild pitches and struck out 11. He has reduced batters to mere observers in his personal drama. They can't beat him by hitting his 97-mph fastballs so they let him beat himself by tossing his thunderbolts all over creation.

Many baseball men believe that if Cabrera can harness his stuff like Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson did, he will become baseball's next great pitcher.

But if he can't, he might join a long line of towering hurlers who tantalized with raw talent but never satisfied with production. Or worse, he could join the small club of pitchers - Steve Blass, Rick Ankiel, Mark Wohlers - who lost the ability to throw strikes altogether.

Orioles coaches say Cabrera is enduring a blip.

"Come on, my God, it's two starts," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "His last start, he gave up one run and struck out 10. You have pitchers where the toughest hitters they have to face is themselves. He wants to do real good, real bad. I wonder what would have happened to [John] Smoltz if he would have been taken out of the rotation at the All-Star break in '91 with a 2-11 record."

Cabrera walked a subpar five batters a game in his first two seasons but had never pitched a pair like this.

"I don't think we have to make any more of this than it is," Hall of Fame pitcher and Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer said. "He's a big, young kid who's not the most coordinated guy."

Palmer said most people can't imagine how difficult it is to get all the parts of a 6-foot-7 body moving the right way 100 times a night.

"I don't think it's any big deal," Palmer said. "As long as his windup is sound and as long as he's able to throw downhill. ... On the other hand, baseball history is dotted with guys who couldn't figure it out. You just hope that's not the case with Daniel."

Cabrera has already improved this season.

In his first start against the Boston Red Sox, he evoked memories of Ankiel with an almost total inability to throw strikes. He walked seven and managed to record only four outs. On Wednesday, he made good pitches in tight spots and survived five innings against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He allowed only one run, struck out 10 and left with a lead.

Manager Sam Perlozzo said he was pleased to see Cabrera step off the mound and compose himself when he struggled.

"To me, that was a little sign that he's trying to figure it out," Perlozzo said. "There were a lot of good things that happened in the game. I know the line score was screwed up, but he did a lot of good things. I don't know that I've ever seen him walk nine guys, but we're not even close to panicking on him."

ESPN analyst Rob Neyer catalogued all the significant pitchers in major league history for a recent book and said Cabrera's struggles don't seem akin to those of Blass or Ankiel.

"I'd be a lot more concerned if he wasn't striking anybody out," Neyer said. "Those guys with Steve Blass disease weren't doing that."

Dr. Richard Crowley is a Los Angeles-based sports psychologist who has worked with Blass and Steve Sax, the former Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman who couldn't throw to first for a stretch. He said that if Cabrera continues on an upward tack, he would shrug off the wild opening.

But if Cabrera reverts in his next start, Crowley said he might be worried about a psychological problem.

Crowley said that once physical problems have been ruled out, he never tries to find the cause of an athlete's performance woes. Instead, he has the player assign an image to the moment he began to struggle. Crowley then coaches the player through an interaction with the image that often ends with the athlete destroying his symbol of failure.

"Once you can see your problem, you can confront it," he said. "You can say, `I don't want that thing in here.' "

Mazzone is already convinced that Cabrera's problems are mental. "Mechanically, there is nothing major going on there," he said. "He's just too hard on himself."

Some of the greatest pitchers in history battled wildness early in their careers.

Koufax walked more than five a game in his early seasons as a spot starter for the Dodgers.

Johnson led the league in walks for three straight seasons as a young starter for the Seattle Mariners. In 1990, he no-hit the Detroit Tigers but walked six. The next season, he pitched three seven-walk games, two eight-walk games and a 10-walk game.

With the help of pitching coach Tom House, he finally found a formula that worked for him - start on the ball of the right foot, end on the ball of the left foot. The 6-foot-10 left-hander has pitched with superb control since he turned 30.

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