For Pirates' pitchers, it starts with strike one

But there is much more to staff's 3.41 ERA, lowest in majors

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To hear the Pirates tell it, the foundation of pitching coach Joe Kerrigan's philosophy can be tidily summarized in two words: Strike one.

"It all starts right there," starter Zach Duke said. "The numbers don't lie."

They surely do not: As Kerrigan eagerly points out to his pitchers with a weekly posted notice in a clubhouse meeting room, a National League batter who sees a first-pitch strike -- a called or swinging strike, foul ball or ball put in play -- has a .233 average, while the one who gets a 1-0 count has a .278 average. That creates the difference, with one pitch, between facing a utility infielder and a top-of-the-order type.

Kerrigan also updates on that notice the following figure, just in case any pitchers fret about being too predictable with too many first-pitch strikes: Of the 291 first pitches the Pirates have thrown this year that have drawn contact into fair territory, only 20 have resulted in hits.

"It's a huge swing," manager John Russell said. "Joe puts it up for everyone to see. If you have any doubts about it, there it is."


Today
  • Game: Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
  • TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
  • Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (3-1, 2.43) vs. RHP Bronson Arroyo (3-1, 6.48)
  • Key matchup: Eric Hinske has pounded Arroyo for years, owning a .478 average - 11 for 23 - with a home run and four doubles.
  • Of note: First baseman Joey Votto was the Reds' ninth player since 1974 to have 20 or more RBIs in April. He had 20 while batting .346 with nine doubles.

"It's huge," starter Jeff Karstens said. "That swing in the average says it all. Anytime you can get ahead, you have a little room to play with. Joe's been pounding that since minicamp, and you can see it now: The games we've won, we've had those first-pitch strikes."

Pretty striking stuff, indeed.

One problem with it: The Pirates are, according to those same numbers that do not lie, no better at throwing first-pitch strikes now than in 2008, when their pitching was among the worst in Major League Baseball, with a 5.08 ERA and only 66 quality starts. The Pirates threw 55.8 percent of their pitches for strikes in 2008 under pitching coach Jeff Andrews and currently are throwing 54.8 percent, third-lowest in the majors. Moreover, four of their five starters -- everyone except Duke -- have regressed in this area.

So, now that the team's ERA is the best in the game at 3.41, and a remarkable 13 of the 21 starts have been quality, what is the real difference?

The answer clearly is not strike three: The Pirates rank last in the majors with 112 strikeouts.

Perhaps it would be wise, then, to look at what happens between those pitches ...

For one, and this might be most important, the Pirates are walking far fewer batters, averaging 4.2 per game now compared to 5.9 in 2008. They also average 15.85 pitches per inning, fewest in the majors. Those are strong signs that Kerrigan's push for first-pitch strikes is just part of a push for strikes, period.

Another sign: Back in spring training, when the Pirates grew weary of Tom Gorzelanny's inability -- or unwillingness -- to throw strikes, they surprisingly made him among the earliest cuts of camp.

"We want our pitchers to pound the zone," Kerrigan said. "If you're thinking about it with the first pitch, you're going to keep thinking about it."

Second, the Pirates' pitchers are using more offspeed material. Fastballs now account for 59.3 percent of their repertoire, 18th in the majors, while the 2008 staff threw 62.8 percent, ninth in the majors. The latter occurred even though there really were no flame-throwers in the starting rotation.

Third, the analysis of the opponent runs deep, as evidenced by the example Russell gave of Houston slugger Miguel Tejada.

"Tejada swings on a 1-2 count 87 percent of the time if you throw him a changeup," Russell said. "That's not Joe making up a number. That's what the player does."

And so, the Pirates, whose approach is to pitch to contact rather than go for strikeouts, anyway, are highly likely to see their catcher call for a changeup because they know the low percentage of success Tejada has in that situation. They want him to hit the ball.

STRIKING SUCCESS
How opponents fare against the Pirates' starters after having an 0-1 count:
PitcherABHHRBBKAvg.
Zach Duke5090211.180
Ian Snell48114314.229
Jeff Karstens266216.240
Paul Maholm4712018.255
Ross Ohlendorf3910117.256

Opponents are batting .236, third-lowest in the majors.

"With Joe, it's not just about mechanics and arm strength," Russell said. "It's about attacking the players they're facing. When he goes to the mound, he doesn't talk about a call the umpire missed. He doesn't ask how they're feeling. He talks about how to get the next hitter out."

Some of this information is compiled by the Pirates' advance scouting, all of which is now done by video analysis, and some is offered by Dan Fox, the team's statistical guru. But most of it comes from Kerrigan, who often reports for work early in the morning in advance of a night game, mostly to study the opponent.

"There can't be any pitchers in baseball more prepared than we are," Karstens said.

After the season opener in St. Louis, reliever Tyler Yates was kicking himself after allowing a first-pitch home run to Ryan Ludwick because, in Yates' words, "the guy hit 17 out of his 37 home runs last year on the first two pitches he saw, and I still threw it right to his bull's-eye, over the inner half."

Yates cited that without handy reference material.

Does Kerrigan feel his message is resonating?

"I don't know. I can't say that right now," Kerrigan said. "I know that we believe in the information I have and ..."

He held up a folder full of data.

"Anyone can find this information if they want it. It's all over the Web. These are things that have already happened. They're numbers."

Foremost among those he stresses will continue to be first-pitch strikes, if only because he has seen the frightening numbers that result without that foundation.

"I think it's really important," Kerrigan said. "You have the ability to impact the entire at-bat with one pitch."

And what if opponents begin to adjust, knowing the Pirates' pitchers will be that aggressive? Paul Maholm, for example, has now allowed eight hits in 20 at-bats when batters swing at his first pitch, including a Bill Hall home run Wednesday in Milwaukee.

Kerrigan thumped that folder.

"It's all right here."

Count starter Ross Ohlendorf among the believers. His percentage of first-pitch strikes, like most of the starters, is down, from 61.1 percent to 58.2. But there is no question he has become a more efficient and successful pitcher.

"I had a lot of trouble getting behind last year, making too many pitches, having to pitch more over the middle," Ohlendorf said. "Being behind, the hitter knew the fastball was coming. If you throw first-pitch strikes, you keep them more off-balance the whole time they're up. It's also big in keeping your pitch count down and staying longer in the game."

Hitters concur, including the most selective one in the Pirates' lineup.

"When you're at the plate, whether or not you swing at the first pitch, if it's 0-1, it drastically changes the at-bat," Nate McLouth said. "It's just the way you feel up there. If you're 0-1 ... you're not necessarily in protect mode, but you have to bear down. At 1-0, you feel a lot more comfortable."

Opponents have noticed.

"The thing that really stands out for me about the Pirates is the amount of strikes they throw," Florida catcher John Baker said after the Marlins were swept at PNC Park last week. "That was the biggest thing. They got ahead, made you battle deeper in counts and were successful."

Milwaukee manager Ken Macha worked with Kerrigan while in the Montreal Expos' organization.

"I know Joe Kerrigan, and he's extremely thorough," Macha said. "Two years ago, I saw that staff in Pittsburgh and thought it was going to be pretty good. Obviously, it didn't happen. They always had talent, but the walks hurt them. Giving away bases, nothing's going to happen for you. So, just let the other team hit the ball. But get them to hit it the way you want. Joe understands how to do that completely, and it starts with throwing strikes."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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