Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A Tale Of Two Pitchers

In the first two home games of the season, Tony Pena has angered just about everyone with his handling of his pitching staff. And the way he has gone about it in those two games couldn’t be more different.

Runelves Hernandez had thrown 98 pitches heading into the eight inning of a 1-0 game. After getting the leadoff batter, he surrendered a double and a home run to put the Royals in a 3-0 hole. After walking the next batter, he was removed from the game.

“Tony Pena has no feel for a pitching staff and should never have let Hernandez take the mound in the eighth.”
--Caller to the Royals post-game radio show (4/11)

Zack Greinke pitched six innings of four-hit ball before turning over the game to the bullpen. Greinke was on a pitch count of 85-90 pitches after being lifted from his first start of the season after being hit on the forearm by a batted ball. He threw 86 pitches.

“What’s Tony Pena doing taking the kid out of the game? He should have pitched at least two or three more innings.”
--Caller to the Royals post-game radio show (4/13)

It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Of course, if the Royals had won at least one of these games, people wouldn’t seem so upset.

I’m in the camp of Exhibit B. Pitch counts are a necessary evil (unless you’re a Cub, then they’re just plain evil.) Greinke is a special pitcher who has a chance to be great. Witness his strikeout of Richie Sexson on a 64 MPH curve. I understand wanting him to continue, but we need to understand the situation. He last pitched deep into a game almost two weeks ago in Arizona. His first start of the season lasted only 38 pitches before he was pulled as a precaution after being hit on the forearm. He’s only 21 years old and making his 26th career start. There are plenty of reasons for the Royals to be cautious, and I don’t fault them one bit.

The pitch count seemed reasonable and Zack himself didn’t have a problem with it. One of the things he needs to learn is how to be efficient with his pitches. Giving up four hits, no walks and striking out only two while throwing 86 pitches seems awfully high to me. Mariner batters came into Wednesday’s game averaging 3.67 pitches per plate appearance. Against Greinke, they saw on average four pitches per plate appearance. Most of his trouble came in the first three innings where he needed 53 pitches. Give credit to the Mariner hitters for being selective and fouling off a ton of pitches.

That’s actually what the game came down to today. Both Greinke and Aaron Sele were outstanding. The difference was the Mariners were working the count and were able to knock their nemesis out of the game early. The Royals on the other hand were up there swinging away and could never pressure Sele.

The Royals will hopefully exercise Greinke-like caution when it comes to Hernandez. After missing the last year and a half with Tommy John surgery, he’s been a welcome return to the roatation. I would have liked to have seen Pena pull him from the game before the eighth inning on Monday afternoon. 98 pitches is more than enough from someone who was making his second big league start since August of 2003.

Monday’s game brought to mind a disturbing point. Pena can’t fall into the Tony Muser trap of not trusting the bullpen. But it’s going to be hard. Especially when the bullpen has an ERA almost four runs higher than the starters. (6.66 to 2.94)

Back when Muser was abusing pitchers because he didn’t want to go to his bullpen, young Jose Rosado was a casualty. Pena doesn’t necessarily have to trust his bullpen. He has to make sure he removes his starters when the time is right.

Today, Tony Pena made the right move.


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