Shouldering the load

Pitching coach Kranitz has young staff confident, effective

June 10, 2008|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN REPORTER

BOSTON -- His workday usually starts about 11 a.m., eight hours before an Orioles starter will throw his first meaningful pitch. In a mostly empty clubhouse, Rick Kranitz reviews tape of the previous day's game, watching it twice to make sure he doesn't miss minute details. He then studies more tape of opposing hitters and reviews scouting reports.

If there is time, the first-year Orioles pitching coach walks to the bullpen and sits quietly while puffing on a cigar. It will be the only moment until long after the game when Kranitz will allow his thoughts to drift from his mission to build and mentor a young pitching staff.

"It starts with preparation for him," Orioles closer George Sherrill said. "From the day I was traded here and first heard he was the pitching coach, guys that I talked to said that you'll never be underprepared. You're going to be one of the most prepared staffs in the league. He's on top of everything."

In an eventful offseason during which club president Andy MacPhail traded away two of the Orioles' best players and committed to an arduous rebuilding process, Kranitz's hiring was barely noticed. The focus was more on highly regarded Leo Mazzone's departure after two years of leading an injury- and mistake-prone pitching staff.

Ten weeks into the season, Kranitz's influence has been obvious. A staff with four rookies, including two in the starting rotation, and eight pitchers 27 or younger has kept the Orioles competitive. The team ERA of 4.16 is eighth in the American League, but the improvement of several young pitchers has meant more than statistics.

"I give a lot of credit to him," said starter Daniel Cabrera, 5-2 with a 3.98 ERA. "He's been working really hard for me, and I've improved a lot from last year. All of us have improved a lot from last year, and he's the guy that has to get some of the credit."

Kranitz persuaded Cabrera to attack hitters with his two-seam fastball, and he built up the control-challenged pitcher's confidence after the right-hander led the American League in losses, earned runs and walks in 2007. Cabrera, who will pitch tonight, hasn't walked a batter in four of his 13 starts, a feat he accomplished just three times in his first 117 starts.

"I think he had to see the results," Kranitz said.

"What I see, what other people see, that doesn't matter. He saw it himself. When a guy starts to have confidence in his abilities, that's the best thing in the world."

Under Kranitz, Matt Albers and Jim Johnson made the transition from starters to two of manager Dave Trembley's most reliable relief options, and Sherrill has gone from a setup man to a highly productive closer. The bullpen, second worst in the AL last year, ranks as fourth best in the league. With an injury to Adam Loewen and the ineffectiveness of Steve Trachsel, the Orioles thrust rookies Garrett Olson and Radhames Liz into the rotation, and they have held their own after struggling last year.

"If somebody is telling you that you don't have to revamp everything you did to get here, you feel like you can keep going forward rather than backward," said Olson, 5-1 with a 3.86 ERA.

"I've had success in the past throwing inside and being aggressive with hitters. At this level, Kranny's been the first guy to reaffirm that for me. He encourages you to use your strengths."

Kranitz, who spent more than two decades coaching in the minor leagues, earned a reputation for having success with young pitchers when his 2006 Florida Marlins staff was the first in major league history to have four rookies win at least 10 games.

"When you think about young pitchers, mechanics are usually the test early, and he knows mechanics well and how to teach them," said Joe Girardi, manager of that Marlins team and now manager of the New York Yankees. "He's a great communicator, and as a pitcher, you don't need to have a ball in your hand for him to work with you."

Several Orioles said Kranitz's biggest strength is his attention to detail and his ability to break down opposing hitters. In pre-game meetings, he points out hitters' strengths but insists that his pitchers don't deviate from what they're good at just to avoid them.

"It's important to be able to focus on pitching and not a negative result or negative feedback," starter Jeremy Guthrie said. "I think, more than anything, he helps each pitcher believe that he can go out there and help the team win that day."

MacPhail, who, like Trembley, got to know Kranitz in the Chicago Cubs' organization, said the pitching coach is a "great fit" for the Orioles. He joked that Trembley called him "20 seconds" after learning that Kranitz parted ways with the Marlins last year.

"His strength is his personality and demeanor," Trembley said. "He may come across as a soft-spoken, laid-back guy, but his pitchers know how he wants it done and that he'll hold them accountable. He's hands-on, but he won't intimidate. But he's not immune to raising his voice."

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