April 11, 2007

Who Can’t Succeed Under Peterson?

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Take a look at this pitcher’s splits before and after the 2004 season.
Before: 61-29, 768 IP, 3.12 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 3.41 BB/9
After: 41-36, 673.1 IP, 4.12 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 3.66 BB/9
The former line includes a Cy Young award-winning season in 2002, in which he posted a 23-5 record, with a 2.75 ERA at age 24. With most pitchers hitting their prime in their late 20’s or early 30’s, almost everyone expected him to maintain a level of performance that would place him near the top of the league for at least a decade, especially when considering that his repertoire relies on a nasty 12-6 curveball rather than an overpowering fastball. However, since 2002, he has averaged less than 14 victories per season, earning him the largest contract for a pitcher in the history of baseball.
Wait, what did I just write. Of course, I’m talking about Barry Zito, the newest member of the Giants staff after signing a seven-year, $126 million contract over the offseason. It’s also the same guy who has allowed 10 earned runs in his first 11 innings for San Francisco, good for an ERA of 8.18 and not surprisingly, an 0-2 start.
So what changed? Zito has remained extremely durable, making at least 34 starts and pitching over 200 innings in each of his full major league seasons. Add to that, he has made half of his starts in the Oakland Coliseum, a ballpark known for its unusually vast amount of foul territory, and the decline seems even more puzzling.
The only obvious change, however, is one that could very well explain his regression: the departure of former pitching coach Rick Peterson. Peterson led the Athletics staff to the top ERA in the American League in each of his final two seasons with the club, having a noticeable effect on the development of Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder. In November 2003, Peterson signed with the Mets, following manager Art Howe to New York, and the “Big Three” have never been the same. Take a look at both Hudson and Mulder’s numbers under Peterson and their declines afterwards.
Tim Hudson:
Under Peterson: 80-33, 1052 IP, 3.26 ERA (including a 5.44 ERA in his rookie season)
After: 39-27, 606 IP, 3.98 ERA
Mark Mulder:
Under Peterson: 64-28, 777.1 IP, 3.77 ERA
After: 39-23, 524 IP, 4.60 ERA
Given, both pitchers have experienced arm trouble in the past few seasons, however, Peterson has earned the reputation of not only improving effectiveness, but also reducing the risk of injury.
Just before spring training in 2004, Peterson and a dozen Mets pitchers paid a visit to the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham, Ala., a center founded by orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, one of the country’s foremost experts on “Tommy John” surgery and rotator cuff injuries. Peterson has had a long-standing relationship with ASMI since his days as a pitching coach in the Chicago White Sox organization, with many of his methods rooted in biomechanical research. In 2004, Peterson introduced a revolutionary approach to the Mets staff, as the pitchers strapped on spandex suits with sensors connected to six high-speed cameras and a computer to record their deliveries. The data helped Peterson tinker with each pitcher’s mechanics in order to develop a motion that minimizes the strain on the arm.
Peterson himself pitched four years in the Pirates organization, however, he was never the same after experiencing arm trouble in his freshman year of college. That directly led to his interest in a pitcher’s consistency in relation to his effectiveness and susceptibility to injury. His instruction is based on the belief that one of the most important factors in determining success is the ability to consistently repeat a motion, going as far as having his players throw bullpen sessions with their eyes closed in order to commit a set of mechanics to memory.
While much has been made of Peterson’s effect on the development of younger pitchers, his influence extends to all members of the staff. Since joining the Mets, he has helped refine Tom Glavine’s approach, as the future Hall of Famer has made a concerted effort to establish his changeup on the inside corner, instead of strictly nibbling on the outer edge. Glavine has also more liberally mixed a curveball into his repertoire, often times as a show-me pitch to keep hitters off-balance.
In today’s game of escalating salaries, pitching has been placed at a higher premium than ever, with the likes of Gil Meche and Ted Lilly, middle-of-the-rotation starters at best, receiving lucrative multi-year contracts. Thus, the ability to harness under-valued talent has arguably an even greater impact on sustaining success.
Take former Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone for example. During the Braves run of 14-consecutive division titles, Mazzone earned his reputation as one of the best pitching coaches in the league, credited with the development of perennial all-stars such as Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. However, he also turned Jaret Wright, Russ Ortiz and Denny Neagle into valuable commodities, with all three having far less success in other organizations.
Dave Duncan has had a similar impact on the Cardinals pitching staff. Chris Carpenter had never posted an ERA below 4.37 prior to joining St. Louis, however he has since enjoyed three consecutive seasons with an ERA below 3.50, picking up a Cy Young Award in the process. Consider that the World Series winning rotation last year included Jeff Weaver, who was acquired in July for a minor leaguer and cash considerations and became arguably the Cardinals best pitcher in the postseason. Duncan’s effect cannot be understated.
Getting back to Peterson, through the first week plus of the 2007 season, the Mets have allowed just 16 runs over their first seven games, despite a rotation that had been constantly questioned in the offseason. John Maine, who the Mets received as a throw-in for Kris Benson, has the look of a solid No. 3 starter, while Oliver Perez appears to have conquered some of the control demons that have plagued him over the past couple of seasons. Chalk it up to Peterson. It seems like he can turn around any retread that Omar Minaya throws his way. Duaner Sanchez, Aaron Heilman, Darren Oliver, El Duque and Chad Bradford all fared much better under Peterson’s tutelage.
Make no mistake about it: if New York is to continue its reign atop the National League East standings, its pitching coach will be one primary reasons why. He simply does not need the biggest names to produce comparable results.
So, if Brad Lidge becomes available, expect the Mets to be very interested.

Bryan Pepper is a Sun Senior Writer. Raising The Apple will appear every other Wednesday this semester. Pepper can be reached at bpepper@cornellsun.com