Devil Rays looking to throw strikes

Devil Rays hold high hopes for pitching staff

ST. PETERSBURG -- Heading into the 2007 season, the burning question the Devil Rays have to answer sounds simple: Can they throw strikes?

Despite lowering the team's ERA from 5.39 in 2005 to 4.97 in '06, the Rays ranked 27th in the Major Leagues in overall pitching. Meanwhile, the Rays' bullpen was the Major Leagues' worst by allowing 15.01 baserunners per nine innings, 10.55 hits per nine, and 40 percent of inherited baserunners to score.

Free passes had a lot to do with that standing, as Rays pitchers allowed 165 more walks than Rays hitters received.

Well aware of the problem, manager Joe Maddon likes to point out, "You can't catch a walk."

"Throwing strikes, to me, is the key," Maddon said. "That is a burning issue for us this season."

New pitching coach Jim Hickey has brought along a simple sounding concept to try and find a solution to the problem. In essence, according to Maddon, the Rays want to "Meatloaf" the opposing team, which was a reference to an old Meatloaf song: "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad."

"I love Jimmy's theory about making two out of the first three pitches strikes," Maddon said. "We often talk about first-pitch strikes -- everybody does. That puts a lot of pressure on that one pitch. We've spoken a lot about the 1-1 count -- same thing. But he's taking it a step further in regard to how he explains it. And that is, if we can throw two out of the three first pitches for strikes. And we're pitching for contact -- we're not trying to strike people out. I like that philosophy, because I think that may be the one thing that can get into their heads and will cut down on strikes."

Maddon elaborated by noting the difference in the success of opposing hitters when facing a 2-1 count as compared to a 1-2 count.

"It's astronomically different," Maddon said.

Statistics back Maddon's contention. In 2006, opposing hitters hit .220 (177-for-804) when facing a 1-2 count against Rays pitchers and .340 (120-for-353) when facing a 2-1 count.

"It's overwhelming what happens when you get to those two different counts," Maddon said. "Obviously, the numbers support that if we manage to get more 1-2 counts than 2-1 counts we should be more successful."

Rays pitchers have bought into Hickey's simple philosophy.

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"Getting ahead with two out of three is big," left-hander Scott Kazmir said. "Two strikes with one ball, that's huge. You can mess with [the hitter] a little bit; you can throw two sit-down pitches before you have to come to them. You get to work more of the plate."

Right-hander James Shields said getting ahead quickly is particularly important to the starters, because throwing less pitches gets them later into the game.

"The main thing [Hickey has] been stressing about is if you get to strike one, get to strike two as quick as you can," Shields said. "Whether you throw a ball or a strike the next pitch, get to 1-2 or 0-2 as quick as you can. And when you do get to 0-2, put them away quick. Don't mess around."

Maddon believes identifying the problem will force the issue.

"It should aid what we're trying to get done," Maddon said. "You're always talking about first-pitch strikes. And if the pitcher doesn't throw a strike, is it a failure? No. If he comes back and boom, boom, two out of three first pitches are strikes. And it also addresses the 1-1 count."

Not throwing strikes can also be a symptom of youth. And the Rays have a lot of young arms on their staff.

"When you're young and in this league, and in this division, you have all these wonderful hitters coming up, you tend to be too careful and give them too much credit," Maddon said. "You're doing what they want and all of a sudden, you get to that 2-1 count and they're in control. And so is everybody else in baseball in control, whereas if you get to the 1-2 count more often -- even the better hitters are not in control as often. If we could just keep pounding that concept home, I think our guys will understand that better. They're more willing to try; they're more willing to be aggressive in the zone. That's what we're trying to get done."

Maddon believes the season's outlook will be much brighter if the members of his young staff decide to trust their stuff and throw strikes.

"So we're going for Meatloaf instead of nibbling on Doritos," Maddon said.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.