Wait and See
By looking for a good pitch, third baseman Shea Hillenbrand has
given Boston more pop
There was a simple formula for getting Red Sox third baseman Shea
Hillenbrand out last year: Pitch him anywhere but in the strike
zone. "Our book on him was that he'd be hacking all the time, so
we could probably get away with not throwing him a strike," says
Boston manager Grady Little, who was the Indians' bench coach for
the last two seasons. "We had pretty good success against him."
Hillenbrand put up respectable numbers (.263, 12 home runs, 49
RBIs) for a rookie last season, but he drew a mere 13 walks in
493 plate appearances, and no other hitter in the American League
with as many trips to the plate saw fewer pitches than the 3.25
he averaged. "No one in the minor leagues ever really taught me
how to hit," says Hillenbrand, who nevertheless batted .313 over
five seasons in Boston's farm system and led the Double A Eastern
League with 171 hits for the Trenton (N.J.) Thunder in 2000.
"Most of the time last year I got myself out."
Now Hillenbrand is a man with a plan. After beginning this season
with a 12-game hitting streak, he was batting .308 with 27 RBIs
at week's end, but most impressive was his improved patience at
the plate. He had seven walks--last year he didn't get his seventh
until July 27--and was averaging 3.76 pitches per plate
appearance. Says Little, "He is much more disciplined." Indeed,
in a ninth-inning, bases-loaded pinch-hitting appearance against
the Devil Rays last Saturday night, he worked righthander Victor
Zambrano to a 3-and-1 count before launching a grand slam into a
Tropicana Field catwalk. "I forced myself to be patient," he said
after the game. "When it got to 3 and 1, I knew he had to come
right at me."
Hillenbrand spent the off-season at home in Mesa, Ariz.,
reviewing videotape of every one of his at bats last season. He
didn't like what he saw: a hitter who went to the plate with no
plan of attack. This spring he concentrated on looking for
pitches in specific zones early in the count and laying off
everything else. The approach has made him more comfortable at
the plate. "Last year I'd go into my third at bat having seen
only three or four pitches," he says. "Now I see that many in my
first at bat. I've already seen everything a pitcher has."
Hillenbrand keeps his focus by continuing to study videotape and
having frequent conversations with Doug Gardner, a sport
psychology consultant who works with players in Boston's minor
league system. After he beat the Yankees with a two-run homer on
a 2-2 count against closer Mariano Rivera on April 13,
Hillenbrand said he had felt "an aura" come over him at the
plate. "I wouldn't have gotten that hit last year," he says. "I
probably would have swung at the first pitch."
Kirk Rueter's Strong Start
Location Is Everything
In the Giants' clubhouse lefthander Kirk Rueter is known as Woody
for his resemblance to the cowboy character in Toy Story, and the
Woody action figure hanging in Rueter's locker confirms the
likeness. Last Saturday, however, Rueter received a more
complimentary comparison. "He reminded me a little of Tom
Glavine," Reds first baseman Sean Casey said after Rueter allowed
one run in eight-plus innings in a 6-1 San Francisco win the
night before. "He always hit his spots, he never really cut
plate, and he worked us away all night."
A 10-year veteran with a history of struggling early in the
season, Rueter was 4-1 and had the National League's fourth-best
ERA (1.74) at week's end. The 31-year-old has been a solid
starter since being traded to the Giants from the Expos in 1996,
but this season his effectiveness has surpassed what he has shown
before. Through Sunday, Rueter's four wins and ERA led the
National League's second-best rotation, which had kept San
Francisco just half a game behind the first-place Diamondbacks in
the West despite an offense that aside from Barry Bonds, had been
tepid. "You could see it in spring training, he was better,"
manager Dusty Baker says of Rueter. "Everybody's trying to figure
it out. Maybe he's just getting better."
Perhaps pinpointing the reason for Rueter's improvement is
difficult because his pitching style lulls observers to sleep.
His fastball doesn't crack 90 mph, and he doesn't have an
extraordinary breaking pitch. Like Glavine, the Braves' Cy
Young-winning lefthander, he makes his living on the outer
reaches of the plate, relentlessly spotting that middling
fastball on or just off the outside corner and coming inside only
occasionally, to keep hitters honest. Generally it takes Rueter a
month or so of the season to get into a good rhythm and master
his location. "This year I felt comfortable coming out of spring
training and had a good feel for all my pitches," he says.
That comfort level has helped Rueter avoid what has been his
downfall in the past: good starts that unravel in one bad inning.
Because he doesn't have the overpowering stuff to rack up
strikeouts, Rueter has often had trouble extricating himself from
difficult situations. This year sharper location has helped him
get key outs even when the ball is put in play. For example, last
Friday he stifled the Reds with the help of four double plays.
Opponents are batting just .201 against him, eighth-best in the
NL, two spots behind--you guessed it--Glavine.
"He's the guy you want to pattern yourself after if you're
lefthanded and you don't throw 95," Rueter says. "But he's too
good. I don't compare myself to him."
Second Time Around
On April 27 Giants righthander Ryan Jensen was hammered for eight
runs and seven hits in 2 1/3 innings of a start in Cincinnati, so
it was hard not to cringe when he next took the mound--in relief
of injured starter Jason Schmidt just two outs into a game last
Saturday against those same Reds. There were two runners on, and
the stage appeared set for another Cincinnati rally, but Jensen
got a strikeout to end the inning. He then held the Reds hitless
until Jason LaRue's leadoff single in the eighth. Jensen picked
up his second win of the year, 3-0. "I was more aggressive today
and mixed up my pitches better," he said in comparing his two
outings against Cincinnati.
A pitcher's ability to adjust his strategy and show a familiar
opponent a different look is as vital to his success as a 95-mph
heater or pinpoint control. The unbalanced schedule instituted
last season forces teams to play as many as 20 games against
intradivision rivals and often leaves home-and-home series
against other opponents bunched on the calendar. (For example,
the Giants' six meetings with the Reds this year were played
within 10 days.) Through Sunday pitchers had made back-to-back
starts against the same team 115 times this season.
Some pitchers have less success than others at keeping hitters
off balance the second time around. Take Marlins righthander A.J.
Burnett, who on April 14 shut out the Braves on four hits; when
he faced them again six days later, Atlanta scored three runs in
six innings and won 3-1. That reversal continued a trend for
Burnett, 25, who through Sunday had faced the same team in
back-to-back starts eight times in his career. In the initial
matchups he was a combined 5-2 with a 3.86 ERA; the second time
around he was 1-6 with a 5.21 ERA. Says Burnett, by way of
explanation, "I've always been a firm believer in not pitching to
their weaknesses, but pitching to your strengths."
Burnett's results don't back him up, but most pitching coaches
agree that he has the right idea. "You can't go out and change
your style of pitching," says Rockies pitching coach Jim Wright.
"The only thing you can do is change your patterns."
That's easy if you have three or four highly effective pitches.
Boston ace Pedro Martinez, for example, is notorious for blowing
away teams with his fastball in one start and then relying on his
devastating changeup and curveball to the near exclusion of his
heater the next time out. From start to start the Yankees' Mike
Mussina can appear to be, in the words of Orioles pitching coach
Mark Wiley, "a completely different pitcher."
Mere mortals without such an extensive repertoire try to change
their patterns even if they rely on the same one or two pitches
to get outs. White Sox lefthander Mark Buehrle, for example, will
start hitters with his fastball one game and then open with
breaking stuff the next. The plan works: In seven back-to-back
starts against the same teams, Buehrle's ERA dropped from 4.37 in
the first outings to 2.22 in the follow-ups. "You just change the
first pitch and then attack like you normally would," he says.
More often than not, over-reliance on one pitching pattern leads
to trouble. For instance, in his shutout last month Burnett
baffled the Braves by using his changeup more than he ever had.
He lost his following start when Chipper Jones, looking for a
change, got one and belted it for a three-run home run.
Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone uses Andy Pettitte's
performance in the 1996 World Series to illustrate how effective
an adjustment can be. In Game 1 Pettitte worked the Braves
inside, and they raked him for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings. In
Game 5 he worked mostly down and away, and the Yankees won 1-0.
Pitching Help for St. Louis
Italian Stallion To the Rescue
Asked to make a pickup from the Italian pro league, most major
league teams would probably opt for the postgame spread.
Pitching? No, grazie. But the Cardinals' rotation has been
shredded by injuries, and last Saturday the club made righthander
Jason Simontacchi, who was playing in Italy two years ago, the
11th pitcher to start for the club this season. It was the big
league debut for the 28-year-old native of Sunnyvale, Calif.,
whose previous career highlight was pitching for Italy in the
2000 Olympics, and he handled it con brio. Going seven innings,
he held the Braves to five hits and two runs in a 3-2 victory.
A standout starter at Albertson College of Idaho who was drafted
by the Royals in the 21st round in 1996 and who spent four
seasons in the minors before being released by the Pirates in
1999, Simontacchi landed with Rimini of the Italian professional
league, where he learned to throw a changeup and went 12-1 with a
1.71 ERA in 2000. Based on his ancestry--his great-grandparents
immigrated to the U.S. from Milan, Italy--Simontacchi was eligible
for the Olympic team. He had a 1.17 ERA in three games in Sydney,
starts against South Africa and the Netherlands and a relief
appearance against the United States. In January, St. Louis
signed him as a minor league free agent, and last week the team
summoned him from its Triple A affiliate in Memphis.
"I don't know how Italy lost the Olympics," Atlanta manager Bobby
Cox said after Simontacchi stifled the Braves. "He's one of the
better ones I've seen called up."
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Hillenbrand was a wild-swinging rookie last season, but now he has a plan before every at bat.
COLOR PHOTO: RUSTY KENNEDY/AP It's no stretch to say that Jones was the managers' overwhelming choice as the best at his position.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE When Burnett has started against the same team twice in a row, his ERA has soared from 3.86 to 5.21.
Stars on Center Stage
SI polled major league managers, asking each to list baseball's
top five defensive centerfielders. Twenty-seven of the 30
provided their choices, and two others delegated the task to a
coach or a general manager. Participants were promised anonymity
in return for their candor and comments. First-place votes were
worth five points, second-place votes four, etc. Here are the top
1) ANDRUW JONES, Braves (112 points) "Plays shallow, never has
to run into a wall. Always knows where he is."
2) TORII HUNTER, Twins (69) "He seems like a fearless player.
I've seen him crash into walls. He looks like Spider-Man making
those great plays."
3) MIKE CAMERON, Mariners (65) "His first step is potentially
the best of anyone's in the major leagues."
4) KEN GRIFFEY JR., Reds (47) "He's the absolute best at taking
a home run away from a hitter and breaking his heart."
5) JIM EDMONDS, Cardinals (44) "Good arm. Great first step.
Really knows how to play hitters."
NEXT SEVEN: Bernie Williams, Yankees (20); Steve Finley,
Diamondbacks (15); Kenny Lofton, White Sox (11); Preston Wilson,
Marlins (9); Carlos Beltran, Royals, Darin Erstad, Angels, and
Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Giants (8)
in the Box
PHILLIES 6, ROCKIES 5
The most common source of consternation for major league
hitters--aside from facing Randy Johnson--is being shuffled around
in the lineup, but it doesn't seem to bother Marlon Anderson. At
week's end the Phillies' second baseman had started in six slots
in the order this season, everywhere but cleanup, the fifth spot
and the ninth hole reserved for the pitcher. "It really doesn't
matter to me," Anderson says. "I just look at the lineup and try
to do my job."
The numbers suggest that Anderson is most comfortable hitting
seventh, which is where he landed in this game. He homered and
set a career high with four RBIs to help defeat Colorado. Overall
through Sunday he was 7 for 13 (.538) when batting seventh and
had knocked in six runs, his highest RBI total from any spot in
the lineup, even though he had had at least twice as many at bats
in the second (44) and eighth (26) holes. Anderson's production
has held up no matter where he has hit--he reached base in 25 of
his first 28 games this season.