High pitch counts nothing to worry about

Veterans know what needs to be done

March 08, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

SARASOTA, Fla. — It's early in the exhibition season, so no one should be terribly surprised that the temperature is low and the pitch counts are high.

Jeremy Guthrie needed 46 pitches to get through his first two innings Sunday. Kevin Millwood threw 30 in his spring debut the day before and didn't get out of the first. New closer Mike Gonzalez threw more than his share in his first inning Friday night.

Pitching coach Rick Kranitz listens to a question about some of the early command issues, immediately interprets it as a sign of irrational concern, and smiles knowingly.

"When the day is over and you pull out their baseball cards and look at the hits and innings," he said, "I've yet to see a spring training number on the back."

Touche.

It's very early and the veteran pitchers know what they need to do to get ready for the regular season. There almost seems to be an inverse relationship between the early pitch counts and major league service time.

"I think you have to understand that it's a process," Kranitz said. "It doesn't count. The question is, did you accomplish what you wanted to accomplish? If you didn't and still pitched well, I would be more concerned about that."

Guthrie worked 2 1/3 innings in the Orioles' 5-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox at Ed Smith Stadium. He gave up a run on three hits and two walks. He said he ran up his pitch count because he fell behind on some counts and didn't get a couple of close pitches from plate umpire John Hirschbeck, but "couldn't have been more pleased" with his performance.

He said the biggest factor contributing to his high pitch count is probably the most obvious.

"It's just a function of not having pitched," he said. "You come out here and you've been in one game in five months. I look at the box scores, and there are a lot of guys going 1 1/3 or two innings" with high counts.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. There's also the fact that most veteran pitchers go through a progression with their pitch repertoires. Millwood, for instance, spent Saturday working on his fastball and changeup. Guthrie concentrated heavily on his fastball Sunday, mixing in only a handful of curveballs and sliders.

"Jeremy didn't have much feel for his secondary pitches," manager Dave Trembley said. "I think the reason guys' pitch counts get up so early is because all they are throwing is fastball, changeup, fastball, changeup. The secondary pitches … they aren't there yet."

Even top prospect Brian Matusz, who has great command of four pitches, stuck to the script when he made his spring debut Thursday against the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte. He was overpowering with his fastball, striking out four of the six batters he faced, but he ran up his pitch count in a 13-pitch staredown with Rays star Evan Longoria because he didn't want to go beyond his predetermined two-pitch repertoire to shorten the at-bat.

"I think in a different situation I might have mixed in a breaking ball or something like that," Matusz said. "It probably would have been different in the regular season, but I continued to pound it in with the fastball in."

That was the plan, and he was sticking to it.

Don't misunderstand. It's not that pitchers don't care how they do during spring training. Millwood didn't want to walk off the mound without finishing the first inning of his competitive debut as an Oriole. But he has spent a career figuring out what he needs to do in his early spring games to be successful over the course of the entire season.

"I'm sure that no matter what I say, people are going to worry about it and talk about it," Millwood told reporters after that game. "I use this time to get ready. I try to get my pitches to a level where they're ready for Game 1" of the regular season.

Gonzalez just laughed when he sensed concern in a question after he was all over the place during his debut inning Friday night.

"You're going to see one or two more of those," he said.

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