Mets stress strike-throwing in first workout
Manuel, Warthen want to increase quantity, quality of strikes
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Each stood behind a bullpen mound with a pen in one hand and a clipboard in another, looking as much like a census taker as a big league pitcher. Each was inputting information the old-fashioned way. Twenty-six years after Davey Johnson introduced a computer to a Mets training camp, pen and paper were the required tools again. And throwing strikes was the directive.
With Fred Wilpon, a man whose millions were made in real estate, standing nearby Saturday, the Mets were all about location, location, location.
Mike Pelfrey threw a bullpen pitch; John Maine followed it, assessed it, called it and credited his buddy with a strike ... or a ball. A few feet away, Johan Santana provided the same service for Oliver Perez, Francisco Rodriguez for Pedro Feliciano and Ryota Igarashi for Hisanori Takahashi. On the first official day of the Mets' training camp, the word that was foremost was strikes. No umpire, no batter, no fans and no excuses. "Put the ball over the plate" was the message, delivered emphatically and, if need be, repeated with more decibels.
"We need to throw strikes," manager Jerry Manuel said early and often ... and late, as well. The 2010 Mets intend to spell strikes with an uppercase K ... StriKes. Not since the days of Mr. Gooden has the 11th letter in the alphabet had so high a profile in a Mets camp.
"That wasn't about fastballs, sliders or velocity or movement," new man Josh Fogg said. "Just strikes. That's all they want now."
Manuel had implemented a similar program when he was the White Sox's manager 10 years ago. And pitching coach Dan Warthen, then the Mariners' pitching coach, helped still-undisciplined Randy Johnson find himself and the plate in 1992. The Unit has thanked Warthen publicly for his guidance on several occasions.
In the case of the 2010 Mets, the notion is that each pitcher will benefit from throwing more and higher-quality strikes. Manuel and Warthen discussed what could be done late last season when New York was about to secure an unwanted distinction -- second most walks allowed in the big leagues, 616. The Mets decided they would use what had worked previously. So the pitchers were assigned a new responsibility Saturday, the first day in weeks that the east coast of Florida basked in characteristic Florida weather.
"You don't want them just throwing and letting it fly," Manuel said following the workout. "We want focus on the strike zone."
As the pitchers threw, eyes other than Santana's were fixed on Perez. Wilpon, Manuel and Warthen were close, in a juxtaposition that indicated how important Perez is to this team's welfare. The owner says he doesn't get involved in pitching matters, despite his abiding appreciation of the art. But he had been a high school pitcher of some promise. And years after he purchased a share of the Mets, he and a high school teammate were at Dodgertown playfully pitching to string strike zones. The owner still knew how to throw strikes. So did his buddy, but the owner threw more than Sandy Koufax that day.
Wilpon and the others watched Perez intently as Santana charted. Manuel later said Perez's mechanics were better and more consistent than he had remembered them. "He was landing on the same spot," the manager said, while others detected variation. Moreover, Perez's arm appeared to be in better shape. In April, National League hitters and strike zones determined by men named Mike Winters, Jerry Layne and Wally Bell will tell us more. But for one day, the observers were pleased with Perez.
"He looks better," Santana said, acknowledging that Perez also seems more receptive to advice offered than he was a year ago when his dreadful 2009 season was foreshadowed by unbecoming performances in Spring Training and the World Baseball Classic. "We talked about approach when I got here two years ago. Now I talk to him about motivation and how much we need him. I talk about being serious to him.
"He can have fun when he wants to, he can jump over the foul line. But we need him to be serious when he's on the mound. We need him to be consistent, so if he pitches a good game today, we get the same kind of game from him in five days. We talk a lot about that."
They spoke after Perez threw. Maine and Pelfrey talked, too. Maine's strike zone had been quite large. "I'll get better," Maine said.
"I want them talking," Warthen said. "I think a competition [within each tandem] develops. That's healthy. When you have a contemporary, not a coach, watching, you up your game."
The observers benefit from watching, too. Their sense of the strike zone is enhanced, as well. Years ago, George Kissell, the Cardinals' resident genius and a skilled instructor, used a similar concept to help Lou Brock learn the strike zone as a batter. He had Brock catch in an instructional league game. "Being back there does get you thinking about strikes," Maine said.
The club intends to continue the practice and later show the pitchers what progress or regress has occurred.
"They'll be given folders with their own charts," Warthen said. "They'll see. We might use them to look at patterns, too. But the emphasis has to be on throwing strikes -- quality strikes."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.