Fostering pitchers in a hitters' league

Hurlers must adjust perspective, expectations when slated for CAL

(Lake Elsinore Storm)

March 7, 2006 4:58 AM

Pitchers in the California League could be given the same advice as a hunting partner for Vice President Dick Cheney.


Suffice it to say there are a lot of shots being hit around California League ballparks. But while the league has a well-earned reputation as a hitters' league, pitchers are there to develop, too. They're not just there to serve up the latest offering for a batter to crush, though sometimes it seems that way.

Pitchers in the California League likely will have to do some adjusting of perspective while they are there. An earned-run average that starts with a 2 or a 3 is virtually unheard of. It doesn't mean that pitcher is any less of a prospect; it's more of a byproduct of playing in some ballparks that are at high elevation and others that seem to always have a wind blowing toward the outfield fences. Some of the stadiums feature both.

"[Mavericks Stadium]'s a tough ballpark because the wind always blows out," said High Desert Mavericks general manager Josh Roys, whose team set Cal League records for home runs and hits in a season last year. "We play 70 games at home and we're hitting a lot of balls there."

While Mavericks hitters fattened up their stats, the High Desert pitchers mostly saw their ERAs get bloated. John Gragg III was one of the top pitchers in the league, finishing with a 13-5 record and a 4.36 ERA in 148 2/3 innings. Devon Lowery had a 3.84 ERA in 11 starts covering 70 1/3 innings.

Of the seven High Desert pitchers who made at least 11 starts, five had ERAs that were higher than 5.30. Two of those were over 7.00. Cesar Herrera went 7-7, pitched 125 innings and made 23 starts despite a 7.27 ERA.

That's not to single out the Mavericks pitchers. Every team's roster is littered with pitchers whose numbers are inflated, starters who made more than 10 starts and had an ERA of 6.00 or higher. Yet those teams have to keep running those pitchers out every fifth day and hope for the best.

But just because a pitcher gives up a couple of three-run home runs doesn't mean he's not still a prospect. Bad starts tend to be forgiven somewhat more easily in the California League, depending on where a team is playing. Lancaster and High Desert are known throughout the league as the best hitters' parks. Bakersfield's centerfield fence is a mere 354 feet from home plate, some 50 feet shallower than at most parks. San Jose and Modesto are regarded as pitchers' parks, or the closest the Cal League has to them. Scouts tend to get a more accurate read on a pitcher in those two stadiums.

"In Lancaster, the wind is blowing from 15 to 50 miles per hour pretty much every day," said JetHawks pitching coach Jeff Pico, who got used to dealing with wind at Wrigley Field when he pitched for the Cubs. "High Desert, it gets windy there and it's a short park. The air seems light and the ball keeps going."

Pico remembers the jaw-dropping sight of a home run not only clearing the center-field fence, but hitting the American flag at the top of the flagpole beyond the wall. And that was in April when the weather was still cool.

The game in which High Desert broke the Cal League record for home runs in a season wasn't so atypical. The Mavericks bashed two home runs and amassed 17 hits in an 11-10 victory over the Lancaster JetHawks that clinched the Southern Division second-half title.

High Desert finished the season with 203 home runs and 1,536 hits. The Mavericks had a .301 team bating average, which wasn't even best in the league. Lancaster finished ahead of them at .302. Eight of the league's 10 teams had a team batting average of .280 or above, and the league average was .286 -- highest in the Minors. The Mavs and JetHawks both had 222 longballs in their home stadiums, tying for the most in the Minors.

Of the 24 pitchers who qualified for the league's ERA title last season, only three of them had ERAs that were below 4.18. The leader was Jared Wells of the Lake Elsinore Storm, who went 11-3 with a 3.44 ERA. Just as impressive was the mere six home runs he allowed in 120 1/3 innings.

Ryan Feierabend of the Inland Empire 66ers and Cody Smith of the Bakersfield Blaze both finished with a 3.88 ERA. Feierabend was 8-7 in 29 starts and Smith went 6-3 while making starts in 18 of his 30 appearances.

Special mention has to go to Thomas Diamond, who was absolutely dominant during his short stay with the Bakersfield Blaze. Diamond was 8-0 with a 1.99 ERA in 14 starts before being promoted to Double-A Frisco. He also had 101 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings. Jered Weaver got over an initial bad start to go 4-1 with a 3.82 ERA for Rancho Cucamonga. He struck out 49 in 33 innings.

Diamond was responsible for what was judged to be the best single-game performance in the Cal League in 2005. Diamond twirled a one-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts for Bakersfield in June before his promotion. It was one of just three complete-game shutouts last season. Besides Diamond's gem, John Gragg III of High Desert and Jared Wells of Lake Elsinore were members of the very exclusive club.

But like the small print says in those diet commercials, "Results are not typical." The California League likely is the place where sayings such as "Anything that travels that far ought to have a stewardess on it" were created.

There can be some benefit for the strong-minded who don't allow the shellings to chip away at their psyche. One benefit for the pitchers is that they are forced to learn the kind of focus and preparation that a Major Leaguer needs to succeed. Clearly, it's a hard lesson to learn and many will become demoralized and doubt their own ability before they learn it. But you can't get to The Show without those qualities.

"You need to play the game because it only gets harder and players only get better with each step up," Pico said. "It could be a great tool for guys to help their focus. You can never take a hitter off, or a pitch off, or an inning off. If you have an eight- or nine-run lead, you could say 'I'm OK,' but in Lancaster I've seen an 8-run lead change hands.

"I try not to refer to the big leagues as a comparison. I try to get them prepared for the league that they're in and to trying to pitch their way out of the league," Pico added. "Are they hanging pitches left and right or throwing good pitches that were getting hit? I try to look at the pitch. Was that a quality pitch or was it not? I try to work with the pitcher on making quality pitches."

Pico seems to be doing well in that regard. Lancaster's top starter was Garrett Mock, who went 14-7 with a 4.18 ERA in 28 starts. Mock had 160 strikeouts in a league-high 174 1/3 innings. Matt Chico was 7-2 with a 3.76 ERA in 18 starts. He had 102 strikeouts in 110 innings. Jonathan Castellanos went 10-3 with a 4.65 ERA and seemed to embrace Pico's theory of keeping the team in the game and pitching to win, no matter what the score. Ultimately, winning is the pitcher's main goal.

"It's kind of a different feeling as a coach when you're in parks like that, because things like that happen. You can see a four- or five- or six- or seven-run inning," Pico said. "You try to keep it in the same foundation. It's about battling and keeping the team in the game and wining the game one day at a time. Numbers are going to be down in ink, so let's go out and have fun and win a game."

That being said, there are some who are able to excel in the league. It doesn't mean those pitchers are on their way to Cooperstown, but it is something of an indicator that he eventually will be worthy of a shot in the Major Leagues.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitcher Ervin Santana went 10-2 with a 2.53 ERA when he was in the Cal League. Red Sox starter Matt Clement won 13 games with a 3.35 ERA. Nationals starter Brian Lawrence won 12 games with a 3.38 ERA. Then again, Santana's teammate Francisco Rodriguez went 5-7 with a 5.38 ERA, and White Sox closer Bobby Jenks was 3-6 with a 5.61 ERA. Brewers closer Derrick Turnbow had a 5.25 ERA during his time in the league.

No one is immune in the California League. Arizona Diamondbacks starter Russ Ortiz did a rehabilitation start for Lancaster last season and never made it out of the third inning. Instead of getting some innings in, Ortiz was shelled. The nightmarish outing resulted in 12 hits and 11 earned runs over 2 1/3 innings.

"At times, I think they do pitch a little bit afraid and sometimes try to miss the bats which usually gets them in trouble," Pico said. "You try to keep it real with them. Pitching inside, working fast, working on both sides of the zone -- all the clichés that successful pitchers do. You try not to let it get to them mentally, but it does."

Tim Leonard is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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