One of the most impressive transformations in the majors this season is taking place in the Detroit pitching staff where, through Thursday, the Tigers had issued the fewest walks in the American League (42), and the second-fewest walks in the majors behind Philadelphia (40).
This after walking more hitters a year ago than every AL team except Baltimore.
There are several reasons why the Tigers were 8-6 and tied with Chicago and Kansas City for first in the AL Central heading into their series finale in Anaheim Thursday night -- as opposed to 4-10 and dead last after 14 games a year ago.
But the fact that their pitching staff is pumping strikes -- Edwin Jackson's rocky fourth inning later Thursday night notwithstanding -- is among the biggest.
"I don't say, 'We're not going to walk guys', but I want them throwing strikes," first-year pitching coach Rick Knapp says. "I want them to attack the strike zone.
"I want them to think analytically how they're going to approach each guy in the strike zone with their strength, not necessarily pitching to a hitter's weakness."
The Tigers hired Knapp from Minnesota, where he spent the past 12 seasons as the Twins' roving minor-league pitching coordinator, after firing Chuck Hernandez following the '08 season. While manager Jim Leyland is reluctant to praise Knapp excessively because he does not want to disrespect Hernandez, it's clear that the fit has been a good one.
"When a guy is in the minor leagues for 12, 13 years, you know one thing: He likes baseball," Leyland says. "He's going to work his ass off because he loves the game. That's one thing I really liked about him."
Part of the Tigers' early strike-zone sharpness is because of winter changes, such as the additions of starters Jackson (acquired from Tampa Bay) and Rick Porcello (Detroit's first-round pick in 2007) and reliever Brandon Lyon (signed as a free agent). Part of it is the program Knapp has incorporated with those who were here last year, such as veterans Justin Verlander, Zach Miner and Armando Galarraga.
"One of his things is to avoid the three-ball count," backup catcher Matt Treanor says. "He keeps an unofficial stat on three-ball counts, that there are a lot more foul balls on those. And then you get a couple of foul balls, then you try and trick somebody and you go away from your game plan."
Too, as Knapp says, "One sure-fire way not to walk a batter is, don't throw three balls. If you don't get to ball three, there's a pretty good chance you're not going to walk the guy."
Another thing the Tigers pitchers do several times a week is "touch the mound."
Translation: "All of the pitchers have the opportunity to throw off of the mound every day," Knapp says. "Not top-speed, eyeballs-popping-out."
It's from the practice-like-you-play philosophy. Knapp likes his pitchers to throw at least every other day from a mound, even if it's just playing catch, so that they can work on their deliveries. Lyon, for example, has a higher release point with his curve than with his fastball, and in a recent game he lost track of his arm slot on the fastball. He was a prime candidate after that to cruise by Knapp a day or two later and say, as Tigers pitchers do now, "I need to touch it today."
"You have to tip your cap to the pitchers, they've worked very hard," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski says. "And it's something Rick Knapp has brought along with him."
Together, it's worked very well. But it remains way early, and this newfound familiarity with the strike zone, of course, will remain a work in progress. Thursday night in Anaheim, Jackson, who went to a three-ball count just once against 26 batters in his Saturday start in Seattle, walked two Angels home during a rocky fourth inning.
No doubt, he'll get a few subtle reminders from Knapp long before his next start, Tuesday in Detroit against the Yankees.
"When you get into an advantageous count, you can dictate what they swing at," Knapp says. "There's not much you can do when it's 2-and-0. But there's a whole lot you can do when it's 0-and-2."
More often than not, Detroit pitchers have been living that first-hand this season.
Likes: Did you see Milwaukee third baseman Bill Hall's spectacular play in the eighth inning as David Bush was gunning for a no-hitter against Philadelphia Thursday? The Phillies' Greg Dobbs smashed a bouncer down the line, and Hall absolutely robbed him.. ... Interesting watching the subtle changes in Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera. He's been around so long it seems like he's older than 25 (he broke in at 19), but now in his second season with Detroit, it's clear he's more comfortable with the organization, the American League and with himself. "He considers this his team now," Tigers batting coach Lloyd McClendon says. McClendon also adds that Cabrera "thinks he had a bad year last year." This after leading the AL with 37 homers, collecting 127 RBI but hitting only .292. So how does McClendon respond to that? "I told him I dreamed of years like that," McClendon says. ... Bob Verdi's column in the Chicago Tribune on late Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas brings it on home. ... National Public Radio's Don Gonyea, proud son of Monroe, Mich., on Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. ... U2 heading out on tour this summer. ... Claritin. If we had allergy medicine like this back when, I would have set some serious cross country records in high school (ha! hahaha!). It helps to run when you can breathe. It helps to do anything when you can breathe.
Dislikes: The NFL draft is proof that if you're a clever enough marketer, you can sell anything. The draft might be the single-most overrated thing in the country. I'd rather weed a garden for 12 hours straight in 100-degree temperatures than watch even one round of that thing.
Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:
"Well some say life will beat you down
"Break your heart, steal your crown
"So I started out for God kno ws where
"But I guess I'll know when I get there"
-- Tom Petty, Learning to Fly