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<  Shannon Drayer

Mariners' pitchers have a new focus under Waits

By Shannon Drayer

PEORIA, Ariz. – Good teams have good organizational pitching philosophies, which can be seen carried out in the performances of pitchers from short-season A ball through the big leagues.

If you have been watching and listening in and around Mariners camp this spring you may have seen a new focus that is being asked of all pitchers from Felix Hernandez on down. It comes from pitching coach Rick Waits, who is new to the position, but not new to the organization having served as minor-league pitching coordinator for the past three seasons. He knows these pitchers, has worked with almost all of them and has identified one area he would like to see across-the-board improvement in – pitching inside.

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New Marines pitching coach Rick Waits (left) is stressing the importance of throwing inside. (AP)
"Waiter is real big on pitching in," Blake Beavan said. "I think that is his main focus for us. Don't be scared, go right after these guys."

"It is the duty of the pitcher to pitch to all four quadrants of the zone," Waits explained. "We are not talking about knocking guys down, just being effective inside and getting the respect of the hitter. If you are going to get a guy out outside, you better be good inside."

After being named pitching coach, Waits went back and watched every game from last season and determined that this was an area where just about everyone could improve.

Throwing in or establishing in is hardly a revolutionary idea in pitching, but one more and more pitchers have strayed away from in recent years. For some it is fear of missing. Miss in and the ball either hits the batter or strays into the middle of the plate. If a pitcher stays away from pitching inside, however, hitters can get comfortable and take advantage of pitches on the outside part of the plate. Being able to work in benefits not just the starter but the entire staff, according to catcher Mike Zunino.

"It just opens up the whole plate if we can establish that with our starting pitchers," he said. "It just sets that tone from the beginning that leaves our bullpen guys pitching to their strength, which is usually their fastball away and their breaking ball."

Pitching inside is something that is being preached in bullpen sessions and reinforced in games. Some pitchers naturally throw in while others have to be reminded during games. Zunino is encouraged by what he has seen in the willingness of a number of pitchers to follow his lead during games.

"It's one of those things where if it is called, many guys haven't been shaking it off so they can get used to it," he said. "They have been trusting and going with it and we have had some success. They can go there and then they can go right back away and we get a lot of ground balls with it."

Those ground balls are exactly what Waits wants to see. They are tracked on a chart next to the lineup on the board in the clubhouse. Ground balls, fly balls and strikeouts are tallied for each game with large numbers highlighted in yellow ink, a visual reminder of what they are trying to accomplish.

"When you put your toe on the rubber there are two things you are responsible to do as a pitcher," Waits said. "Get the ball on the ground or strike him out. You can't strike him out until you get two strikes, so why are you trying to strike him out on the first pitch?

"We know there are going to be fly balls, we know there are going to be home runs. Fly-ball outs? I like fly-ball outs. I like any outs, but the emphasis should be on what pitch selection and what location do I need to do to make my best effort to get the ball on the ground until I get to two strikes. When I get to two strikes, I love strikeouts. I'd like to strike out every hitter but especially in this day and time we have more guys who throw hard and they are trying to get swing and misses and get strikeouts on the first pitch, and that can't be the focus. You have to wait until you get two strikes and then I want them to go for it."

The message is simple and it gives clear direction to the pitchers.

"I think sometimes you see a lot of guys go to their breaking stuff more than they should with their fastball, and we all do it, but I think we like what he is doing," Beavan said. "Being aggressive with the fastball, putting guys away early with the fastball, kind of sending a message showing we are not scared to go in. It is kind of a different technique than what we have done the last couple of years but I think it is going to be good."

The philosophy is not just being preached at the big-league level. Dan Wilson, who is now the organization's catching coordinator, said it is something that was brought up on the first day of minor-league camp.

"We really are focusing on throwing inside a little bit and as an organization I think we really see the value of that and I couldn't agree more as a catcher," he said. "Understanding getting guys off the plate. Sending a message inside but also being able to throw strikes inside and making hitters cover both sides of the plate is very very important. It makes it a lot tougher at-bat and I think pitchers will have a lot more success doing that."

Manager Lloyd McClendon, who has been sharing the hitter's perspective with a number of pitchers this camp, agrees.

"A lot of time we give hitters too much credit," he said. "Real good hitters get a hit three out of 10 times. We need to pound the strike zone a little more, pitch to contact not away from contact, particularly when when have two outs. Just keep it simple. Sometimes we turn .220 hitters into .320 hitters by not being aggressive, not pounding the strike zone."

Pitchers are being given the opportunity to push their limits on pitching inside during the spring. Brandon Maurer hit two batters in his first outing, and that may not have been a bad thing.

"In spring training is where we are going to sure do it. If we miss, we miss," Waits said. "You are going to see it. It is training. We are getting guys ready for the season. You are going to see guys try to come in miss over the middle and get hit for a double. That's okay, at least you were trying. Just keep working at it because as we get closer to the season those mistakes need to be less."

A tough thing to do when jobs are on the line but it would appear based on both what we are seeing and what we are hearing from players like Beavan and Zunino that the pitchers are buying in and realizing that there perhaps is a different expectation this year. While many pitchers like to work on and introduce new pitches in the spring it would seem that a well placed fastball is what will catch the eye of Waits in this camp.

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