FELDMAN AND FRIENDS RALLY RANGERS

By Murray Chass

September 13, 2009

If necessity is the mother of invention, it has done a pretty good job in developing a pretty good pitcher for the Texas Rangers. The pitcher’s name is Scott Feldman, and he entered the weekend with the best record in the American League, 16 victories and only 4 losses as a leader on the league’s most surprising team.

“Last year he pitched in relief and started for us,” Nolan Ryan, the Rangers’ president, said, tracing Feldman’s rapid emergence as the team’s No. 1 pitcher. “We felt going into spring training his highest value to us was pitching in relief. He could throw strikes and be able to be used more often than in a starting role so we started out that way. But we got into a situation where we needed him so we gave him an opportunity to start and he pitched at a level where he deserved to stay in the rotation.”

Feldman’s first three appearances in April were in relief, where he didn’t dazzle anyone, allowing 9 runs, 11 hits and 4 walks in 6 2/3 innings. A 26-year-old right-hander, Feldman made his first start April 25 and he has compiled a 3.10 earned run average as a starter, which would place him fourth among A.L. starters.

He has also won his last seven decisions and 11 of his last 13. In his last four starts he has given up one run in 26 1/3 innings. His performance has been eye-opening for the Rangers, who in his first year as a starter last year watched him compile a 6-8 record and 5.29 e.r.a. in 25 starts and 3 relief appearances.

“He is not a power pitcher,” said Ryan, the greatest power pitcher of all time, “but he is very effective because he has good movement on his fastball and he mixes up his pitches. He has confidence in all of them and gets ahead in the count. He pitches to both sides of the plate, and he relies on location and movement. He’s a good representative of what we want to see out of our starters in how he works and how he uses both sides of the plate.”

Feldman has pitched so well he has become a prime candidate for the Cy Young award. The Cy Young talk, Ryan said, “is reflective of how consistent he has been all year. It’s been very exciting for me.”

Ryan, who never won the award but is in the Hall of Fame with more no-hitters and strikeouts than any pitcher dead or alive, is not your average club president. At a time when teams are desperate for pitching, he knows pitching. He knows it well enough to change the culture of pitching with the Rangers.

This is a team that has had dreadful pitching. Last year the Rangers had the league’s highest e.r.a., 5.37, and this year they have a 4.25 e.r.a., which in three weeks could become the team’s lowest since its 4.09 in 1992, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

Ryan is responsible for the dramatic improvement for two reasons. Last year he announced that he wanted Texas pitchers to become more durable, being able to throw more pitches and last more innings. He also hired Mike Maddux, Greg’s brother and a former major league pitcher, as the team’s pitching coach.

“What we wanted to do is have a more balanced organization,” Ryan said in a telephone interview. “We’ve always been known as an offensive organization. I felt there wasn’t a reason you couldn’t do both in our ball park and be successful. I felt we had to change the mindset of our pitchers and strengthen the defense. We had to put as much focus on pitching and defense as offense.

“Defensively we’re a better team and pitching-wise, too. Maddux has had an impact on the whole staff. They’re throwing more strikes and getting ahead. A lot of positive things have happened that have had an impact on where we are.”

One of those things has been Maddux, who pitched for nine teams, mostly in relief, in a 15-year major league career. Ryan knew him – and liked him – from his time as pitching coach for Ryan’s minor league team in Round Rock, Tex.

“I think Mike Maddux has had a very positive influence on Scott,” Ryan said. “Scott has always been a hard worker and with his work ethic and Mike’s approach to his role with his pitchers it’s been very positive. They’ve accepted how he wants them to work. Also the preparation that he has them doing on how we’re going to approach opposing hitters. Because of his relationship with the staff, they have accepted it and embraced it across the board.”

By altering the practice of pampering pitchers with pitch counts and inning counts, the old-fashioned Ryan knows he is risking unwanted scrutiny from people ready to say I told you so.

“By going against it we knew we would be subject to criticism,” he said. “If you had some injuries, the first thing they’d ask is if that was due to increased pitch counts and throwing more off the mound. I knew we’d be subject to more scrutiny. But my goal was to cut down injuries on the pitching staff by 50 percent. I think we’ve done that.”

The pitching staff, Ryan added, has had some injuries but none related to number of pitches or innings pitched. “As a whole,” he said, “I’m pleased with the starting staff’s health issues.”

The health and effectiveness of the pitchers is a major reason behind the Ranges’ place in the races for a playoff spot, division and wild card, and the likelihood that they will finish with their best won-lost record in 10 years.

“It’s been a very good season,” Ryan said. “Attendance and revenues are up. We feel very fortunate with the way the team has performed. We’re excited about being this close. We want to take it into the post-season.”

The Rangers have been in better position in the wild-card race than they have been in the A.L. West race. They were the leading wild-card team for two days in mid-August but slipped behind Boston again Aug. 19 and have been there since. They began the weekend two games behind the Red Sox. They were five games behind the West-leading Angels. 

“I was just hoping one of them would stub their toe and give us a chance to get ahead of them,” Ryan said.

The Angels and the Red Sox, though, have maintained their balance. The Rangers, however, have a great opportunity in the division because seven of their last 17 games are against the Angels. Of course, unless the Rangers cut their division deficit before the first of those games Sept. 18, they will have to win just about every one of the seven games to catch the Angels.

On the other hand, if they lose a bunch of those seven games, they will suffer a serious setback in their wild-card quest.

 

FROM MINOR TO MAJOR OWNER

Tom Hicks, the Rangers’ owner, has put the team up for sale, and there has been much speculation that Nolan Ryan will put together a group to buy it. He already owns two minor league teams.

Asked about the speculation, Ryan said, “I wouldn’t be the leader of a group to buy it. I’d like to think whatever group it is I would be involved in it, but it’s premature to make a prediction.”

 

NOT TRADED BUT MAYBE AFFECTED

Many baseball people believe Roy Halladay is the best pitcher in the American League, if not in the major leagues. However, he has not looked like No. 1 the last two months.

In Halladay’s first 16 starts, he ran off a 10-2 record and 2.79 e.r.a. In his last 12 starts, though, the 32-year-old right-hander has a 4-7 record and a 3.33 e.r.a.

The line of demarcation between those two periods was the most curious development of Halladay’s season. On July 7 J.P. Ricciardi, the Toronto general manager, announced to the world that Halladay was available in a trade.

It turned into a disaster because the Blue Jays asked interested teams for an exorbitant price in terms of players, the Blue Jays seemed to engage in prolonged talks with the Phillies and daily newspaper and television reports left Halladay wondering what was happening and would happen.

Finally, at or near the trading deadline July 31, Ricciardi said he didn’t really want to trade Halladay and that to get him a team would have to knock them over with an offer.

Higher-ranking club officials expressed displeasure with the fiasco, and Halladay has remained with the team, pitching less effectively and successfully than before the trade proclamation.

 

SEE BALL, HIT BALL

Mark Reynolds of Arizona was hitting .273 and Adam Dunn of Washington .281 entering the weekend, but what were they hitting when they actually made contact with the baseball and weren’t striking out or walking? Those figures were more impressive: Reynolds .442, Dunn .418.

Reynolds, before the weekend, had struck out and walked a total of 261 times, Dunn 259. According to Elias Sports Bureau calculations, they were the leaders in going to the plate without making contact. Carlos Pena of Tampa Bay, who last week had season-ending surgery, and Ryan Howard of Philadelphia are also in the top five in missing or taking pitches, Pena third at 250, Howard fifth at 226.

All four have something else in common. They are among the major leagues’ home run leaders, Reynolds with 41, Pena 39, Howard 38, Dunn 36.

Reynolds last season struck out a major league-record 204 times and is on his way toward eclipsing his own record. He was at 190, well within range of his 2008 mark. Dunn has been better balanced, striking out 157 times and drawing 102 walks.

 

MAKING OF A LEAGUE AND A FILM

On the last weekend of the regular-season baseball schedule, the Hall of Fame will stage its fourth annual baseball film festival. One of the 13 films on the viewing schedule is probably the most unlikely, “Holy Land Hardball.”

Having seen a screening of the 83-minute film last week, I can recommend it. My wife recommends it, too, and that’s even better because she is not a baseball fan. The film is more about people than it is about baseball, especially some of the players who played in the Israel Baseball League in 2007.

Those players include a 34-year-old American with a pregnant wife whose own father fought for Israel’s independence in 1948, and a 22-year-old African-American who was told by a preacher at a young age he would one day “play in front of God’s people.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that Erik Kesten and Brett Rapkin, who made the film, have said that they got the idea for it from a column I wrote in The New York Times in May 2006. But I take no credit for the film. Kesten and Rapkin did a fine job on their own.

Anybody who would like to see the film doesn’t have to go to Cooperstown. The DVD is available for $20 at www.holylandhardball.com.

The league lasted one year. Beset by financial problems, it didn’t come back in 2008. However, plans are being made for a possible new league in Israel in the next year or two.

 

THE I’S HAVE IT

In a recent column about the plan of The New York Times to make its venerable Sports of the Times column obsolete, I noted that the Times planned to have its beat reporters write columns instead. That’s great for the reporters, but the practice is undermining some of the most inviolable tenets of journalism.

An “One Baseball” column last week by Tyler Kepner, the Times’ Yankees beat writer, confirmed the newspaper’s new journalism. In a previous analysis, Kepner had used the unusable (for reporters) word “I.” In his more recent column he confirmed that the Times was no longer playing by its long valued standards.

Kepner seemed to go out of his way to use “I” to show that he could. In his first sentence, he wrote parenthetically, “I wish I remembered who.” The sentence added nothing to the column; the column would not have suffered without it.

At least two editors read that sentence and left it in the column, demonstrating the freedom Times reporters now have in the decline and fall of a once great newspaper. 

 

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.