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Find weakness, pitch to it

That's Lou Piniella's advice to his pitchers, among AL's worst in walks and homers allowed.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 15, 2003

BOSTON -- Really, Lou Piniella said, grabbing a pen and drawing a rectangle on the back of a stat sheet, it's a simple philosophy.

Divide a hitter's strike zone into four zones. Understand that individual hitters do better when balls are in certain quadrants than others. Follow the scouting reports and coaching instruction that identify the hot zones.

And throw the ball someplace else.

"It's not that difficult," Piniella said. "We're not trying to invent the wheel here. We're trying to make it as simple as possible. Invariably, if you're going to make a living up here pitching, you're going to have to be able to pitch to the four quadrants, and if you want to be successful you're going to have to be able to pitch to the quadrant the guy can't hit."

Twelve games in, Devil Rays pitchers seem to have two significant problems.

They throw too many balls out of the strike zone, as evidenced by the 57 walks, second most in the American League, they have issued.

And they throw too many balls in the middle of the strike zone, as evidenced by the 18 home runs, matching Seattle for the league high, they have allowed.

Piniella doesn't have much tolerance for either transgression, especially when they seem to occur one after the other. But the home runs hurt more, so curbing them has become his first priority, preaching to the pitchers, and the catchers, to be more concerned with location than velocity.

"Our young pitchers here have to learn how to stay away from the hitter's power zone," Piniella said. "More than anything else, that's what they have to learn: to keep the ball in the ballpark.

"At the same time, be adroit enough to be able to pitch to that low quadrant on the outside part of the plate with consistency. The fallacy up here basically is that you've got to pitch inside. You've got to pitch inside when it's right to do so. But you get hurt inside more than you do outside, I can tell you that."

One of the biggest adjustments younger and less experienced pitchers face when they get to the big leagues is when they realize they can't overpower as many hitters as they used to. Piniella explains to them that most big-leaguers can hit any fastball, "so you've got to figure out where do they hit it harder and farther, and you stay away from that zone, period."

Another tactic is keep the hitter off-balance by throwing a breaking ball early in the count for a strike and to throw it in counts, such as 2-and-0 and 3-and-1, when the hitter is expecting a fastball.

"It's a lot different pitching in the minor leagues than it is the majors," Piniella said. "It's a totally different ballgame up here, and once they learn that mind-set, they're on the right path."

Piniella accepts, to a degree, that pitchers can't always throw the ball where they want it to go. ("The problem is if you don't execute too often you're not going to be here," he said.) He wants to at least know they have the right idea and have the confidence to try to do the right things.

His theory is that the pitchers will have to learn to do things this way at some point, so they might as well start now -- or else.

"They'll figure it for themselves or we'll figure it out for them," Piniella said. "We're trying to make it easy as possible for them. The idea is that you're going to give up base hits, but if you stay away from the base on balls and keep the ball in the ballpark, your chances of winning increase. It's a simple mind-set."

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