The pickup artists

The pickup artists

Not to spark any scandals, but a renowned family man is one of baseball's best pickup artists. This is gospel, although gossip columnists need not get worked up.

You can look it up: Curt Schilling, the intense Boston right-hander, has not allowed a single unearned run the last two seasons. That makes him tops in an overlooked category we've always considered an important tell-tale sign of pitching verve: The ability to steel up, rather than let down, after mistakes behind you.

It's an art, part of a pitcher's makeup. The knack of not only keeping your focus, but sharpening it, in response to peril. Fastball, curve, splitter -- fortitude ... it belongs right in the repertoire.

"The best indicator, what you look for, is for a pitcher to maintain his composure after a mistake is made," says Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "Does he show the ability to stay out there and still make pitches?

"Guys who do that will have better results, which can be interpreted as picking others up after a mistake."

The ability to do that is not universal. Nor are the consequences of mistakes random. Season after season, the same names tend to recur on lists of those best and worst at minimizing unearned runs.

Next time you see a Schilling game and there is a defensive breakdown around him, watch closely. He'll pace behind the mound with deliberate steps, impatient to get the ball back in his glove. Once he's got it, he'll climb the hill purposefully, look in for the sign with a determined squint ... and make his subsequent pitches with an extra grunt.

That I-got-your-back attitude helps explain the fact he has not permitted an unearned run in 260 1/3 innings over the last two seasons. On Thursday at Kansas City, he set a Major League record by going a 54th consecutive start without giving up an unearned run, surpassing his own mark of 53 straight while with Arizona from 2001-02.

To others, errors are a refuge from responsibility. Runs are diverted from their earned run averages, prompting them to waver, even if subconsciously. "I did my job, what happens next isn't on me," is a natural reaction in any workplace -- where it isn't as measurable as on a diamond.

"Everyone strives for perfection -- but it doesn't happen," says Buck Showalter, the Texas manager. "Picking up for others is part of the job description. The game is played with human beings, not computer chips. There will be failures -- and how you handle it is what separates you."

This is a statistical wasteland. Don't place blind faith in the numbers. For instance, if runs score as the direct result of an outfielder dropping a two-out fly ball -- how is that on the pitcher?

Baseball insiders don't need numbers to form impressions of pitchers in this regard. Managers, scouts, front office people ... they know. It is one of the elements for which they watch when evaluating talent. Baseball is a major body-language sport.

"We're all big body-language guys," Showalter agrees. "The game is an open book, if you're willing to watch. This is part of the game within the game."

As the Arizona Diamondbacks' charter manager, Showalter took two years to scout in preparation of the 1997 expansion draft and recalls spending "more time watching guys between innings ... how they walked back and forth to the dugout, how they interacted with teammates, how they responded to trouble."

Short of poring over box scores, there doesn't appear to be a way to categorize pitchers according to the number of errors committed behind them. Baseball has a lot of stats, but "Times Sabotaged" isn't yet one of them.

One isolated example provides evidence of Brad Penny's toughness. The last two seasons, the Dodgers have committed 14 errors behind him -- yet he has allowed only two unearned runs in 314 innings.

 Fewest unearned runs, 2006

•  Curt Schilling: 0 in 166 2/3 IP
•  Brad Penny: 0 in 139 IP
•  Jake Peavy: 0 in 136 1/3 IP
•  Jon Garland: 0 in 135 IP
•  John Koronka: 1 in 123 2/3 IP
•  Mark Redman: 1 in 110 1/3 IP
•  Dan Haren: 2 in 161 2/3 IP
•  John Smoltz: 2 in 160 IP
•  Jose Contreras: 2 in 144 IP
•  Justin Verlander: 2 in 135 1/3 IP

To Penny, there is nothing coincidental about the trend. When fielders' miscues extend an inning, "it makes me want to pick them up," he says.

"I know they're out there trying their best. They fight for me, I'll fight for them," Penny adds. "It's something I take pride in."

So any assessment of a hurler's pick-up prowess will be, as they say down at the CSI lab, tainted. You don't know how good he is at cleaning up someone else's mess unless you know how often he has stepped in it.

But we're not going to let such logic spoil a good story. Or at least an entertaining one.

Besides, overall this is a level playing field. Across a long season, every pitcher presumably runs into that monster: The Four-Out Inning! They all have an equal chance of taming it.

Well, even that isn't accurate.

Hard throwers -- strikeout pitchers -- have a decided and two-fold advantage.

"The more balls hit off you, the more chances for errors," Scioscia points out. "And if mistakes got you in trouble, being able to reach back and get the next guy without another ball being put in play makes it easier to avoid damage."

Pitchers face far more mental roadblocks than merely errors. Bloop hits, wormkillers through the infield, borderline pitches not called strikes -- they're all emotional hurdles to overcome.

"Some guys handle adversity in different ways," Scioscia says. "Some do get frustrated with a situation. You want to see those guys get back in the game, keep making their pitches and go from there.

"Younger pitchers have to grow into that -- and some never do. But you're always going to be up against it. No game is going to happen exactly the way you map it out. You have to let it go."

Tom Singer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.