O's Kranitz is on his way out, but is that a good thing?

November 02, 2010|Peter Schmuck

The Orioles staged such a dramatic turnaround over the final two months of the 2010 season that it's still hard to believe, but it's not hard to explain.

The proof was in the pitching stats. The club had a league-worst 5.18 ERA when Buck Showalter managed his first game as an Oriole on Aug. 3. The staff ERA was just 3.54 the rest of the way, and the starting rotation was even better than that (3.16).

Obviously, something changed dramatically upon Showalter's arrival. Maybe it was the attitude of the team as a whole. Maybe it was the focus of the young starting pitchers. Maybe the new manager just scared everybody straight.

What didn't change was the pitching coach. Rick Kranitz -- Baseball America's Major League Coach of the Year in 2006 -- presided over both the Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll versions of the Orioles staff, which leaves room to wonder if Showalter made the right decision replacing him, reportedly with long-time confidant Mark Connor.

That's a question that can't be answered at this point, of course. Connor isn't here yet, for one thing, and those kinds of judgments can only be made in the rearview mirror. What we do know is that Connor has been with Showalter at every major league stop and they have had a pretty successful association. What we don't know is how much of what happened in August and September was because of Showalter or because of Kranitz … or a combination of both.

The turnaround was so sudden and so dramatic that it's easy enough to draw the conclusion that it was all Buck all the time, but then you have to figure out how he taught everybody how to pitch during one short pregame meeting Aug. 3.

I mean, it happened that fast. Two days earlier, Kevin Millwood gave up five earned runs over 52/3 innings and lost for the 11th time in 13 decisions. The loss was the Orioles' eighth in nine games and 14th in 17 games. Over that 17-game span, O's pitchers gave up fewer than four earned runs in a game just twice but would average fewer than four earned runs per game from that point on.

If that was a coincidence, it was a coincidence along the lines of matching all five numbers and the Powerball.

But Showalter didn't wave some magic wand and Kranitz didn't suddenly pull a bunch of effective starters out of a hat. In fact, Kranitz insisted throughout the final weeks of the season that he wasn't doing anything differently. The pitching staff just sort of bloomed under the combined tutelage of the new manager and the old pitching coach.

Which brings us back to a fair question. When something doesn't appear to be broken anymore, does it make sense to try to fix it?

Showalter apparently thought so or the Orioles would have signed up Kranitz before he left the organization Monday to become the minor league pitching instructor for the Houston Astros. There had been speculation upon Buck's arrival that he would eventually bring in Connor, so maybe that was the plan all along, but Showalter insisted that the makeup of the coaching staff would remain an open question until after the season. So far, he has hired Jim Presley and Rick Adair from outside the organization and will bring back Juan Samuel to coach third base and the infielders.

It now appears that the Orioles will enter 2011 with all new coaches except Samuel, a degree of top-level organizational change that is hard to make a strong argument against after 13 consecutive losing seasons. The fans were clamoring for a dramatic course correction, and they will have it, though you also have to consider how this will affect a group of young pitchers who were developed under Kranitz and turned a big corner while he was still in place.

Starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie said this week that Kranitz had a big positive impact on the development of young pitchers like Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen.

"One of the biggest positives that he brought was the ability to make the young pitchers who came up feel comfortable, and that was a luxury that I did not enjoy coming up," Guthrie said. "I know how much it means for each pitcher to have the confidence of your pitching coach and manager and know that they support you and that they are not putting too much pressure on you. He did that exceptionally well. He never put too much pressure on the guys. He was always calm with them. I think that's part of the reason we saw so much success with the guys coming up."

You can be sure that Showalter considered that, because he is not the kind of manager to make an important change just for the sake of having another familiar face in the coaches' locker room. To borrow a phrase from the current political season, he came in with a mandate for change, and he clearly wasn't going to be talked out of it by a 66-win team on two-month hot streak.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays with Brett Hollander. Also, check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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