Acta's sabermetrics sermon paying off
After seeing numbers, Tribe hurlers pounding strike zone
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The late-February reporting date had the proverbial groups checking into the Indians' Spring Training complex in Goodyear, Ariz.: Pitchers and catchers and sabermetricians.New manager Manny Acta, having spent much of the winter frowning his way through the 2009 record books, and pitching coach Tim Belcher came to camp with a message: Turn the tables in your favor by not being afraid to throw strikes, and early. How well that message was delivered -- and received -- is reflected in the Indians' spring pitching, which has been borderline miraculous. It has been well-documented that Spring Training pitching performances are largely irrelevant, but they are still relative among all the teams, and the Indians are sticking out in the high-octane Cactus League. The Tribe pulled into Scottsdale Stadium for Friday's visit to the Giants with a staff ERA (3.56) more than a run lower than the Cactus League runner-up (Texas, 4.57). Through Thursday, the 14 other Cactus League staffs had an average ERA of 5.15. Justin Masterson dulled that glare a little, allowing six runs in his 3 1/3-inning stint to set up a 7-6 loss to San Francisco, but he recalled Acta's early sermon and its impact. "I've been told about the importance of throwing strike one ever since college," said the product of San Diego State -- Stephen Strasburg U. "It all makes sense, and it's reinforced by the experiences you have." Foremost, the numbers Acta studied had revealed an unsavory combination: Cleveland pitchers had the second-fewest strikeouts and the second-most walks among the 14 American League staffs. For Acta, it was a short leap from those ranks to the Indians being hit at a .280 pace and falling 11 runs short of allowing the most in the Majors -- and, by extension, to their 97 losses. "Even during the winter, we kept in touch with them and told them how important it is to pitch from ahead. But we didn't just want to give them ABC-type of advice," Acta said. "Like, it's not enough to tell them to get ahead, you have to show them why it's important. "So I wanted to make the point by showing them some numbers they probably weren't even familiar with." So, cue the lecture. ... "We had a meeting early on," Acta said, "showing them the difference between making pitches at 1-and-0 or 3-and-1 and 0-and-1, reminding them that even the best hitters make an out seven out of 10 times. "The problem here was ... you can't have sinkerball pitchers walking people. It's a confidence thing -- but numbers don't lie."
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The favorite set of numbers in Acta's dossier, and the one that elicited the most wide-eyed reaction, showed that of the first-pitch strikes put into play, only seven percent resulted in hits.That's seven percent, as in a batting average of .070. Powerful incentive for pitchers to not start off batters by pitching away from them, afraid of making too good a pitch too early in the count. "And [it's] a good way to conserve pitches," Acta said. "You stay longer in the game. You help out the bullpen arms. But it's not enough to keep telling them that. You have to show them the numbers." After having heard the advice throughout his pitching career, Masterson finally had the printout proofs in his hands during Acta's sermon. "Numbers can get skewed," Masterson said, "but in one sense, it was cool, seeing the results laid out. "I mean, you know that with the count 1-and-0, the hitter has extra confidence. Hitting is hard, and if they get in a situation where they feel better, they get more comfortable. But if you're ahead of them, they're more likely to swing at a pitch in the dirt." That's straight out of Pitching 101, of course. But to get his hurlers into that strike-throwing mindset, Acta suggests some advanced approaches. "I try to get them to sit behind the screen during batting practices," the manager said. "They'll see the batting-practice pitcher throwing 50 [mph], and every ball still doesn't get hit out. It's not that easy." Through 13 exhibitions, the eight pitchers competing for the five spots in the Indians' rotation have logged 41 strikeouts versus 15 walks -- a ratio considerably different from last season's 986-to-598. Even after being hit hard -- a stumble he attributed to sliders that broke too late and necessary work on his changeup -- Masterson remained the best practitioner of the Indians' new, aggressive mindset. One walk and four strikeouts Friday gave the 25-year-old right-hander three walks and 16 strikeouts in his 10 1/3 innings. Acta expects him to keep showing the way once the whistle blows and games count. Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona have more extensive resumes that they are trying to revive, but Masterson is fresher ace timbre. "I expect a lot from him," Acta said. "He can be that workhorse-type of guy." And Masterson wants it, both the role and the responsibility. "Being the workhorse is the coolest thing," he said. "You can be the one who starts to set the tone, and that can lead only to good things."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.