February 2009

Good session for Dontrelle

Say what you want about pitchers being ahead of hitters at this point in camp, but the fact that Dontrelle Willis was pounding the strike zone means something. After his turn in live batting practice this morning, both Jim Leyland and Brandon Inge (who batted against him) said it’s the best they’ve seen from him since he joined the Tigers.

Willis’ delivery looked very controlled, more subdued, and his overall results were pretty consistent.

“What I wanted to do was throw everything in the zone and make them hit the ball,” Willis said.

For the most part, they didn’t hit it, which is expected at this point. But he didn’t have to do anything special to get it there.

“I’m sure Dontrelle walked off there today feeling pretty good about himself,” manager Jim Leyland said. “And he should.”

Ryan Perry also threw on Saturday. Not surprisingly, his velocity his impressive, while he seemed to be trying to get a firm grip on his command.

Willis and Perry were part of the third and final group of pitchers to throw their sessions. Every pitcher will get one more round of live BP, starting with Justin Verlander, Brandon Lyon, Zach Miner and others on Sunday. The difference Sunday is that Leyland will hold out most of his regulars, who will instead hit regular BP in the stadium. Leyland said he wants to do that to give them a day away from having to stand in against those guys.

In case you’re wondering about the rotation once games start, Sunday’s group of pitchers will be up to pitch in Wednesday’s Spring Training opener against the Braves. That will presumably include Verlander and Lyon.

Opening Day start vs. home opener start

The logical order to the rotation would have the top starter going on Opening Day, part of a four-game series at Toronto to begin the regular season. The fifth starter then would end up pitching the home opener April 10 against the Rangers, right?

“Not necessarily,” Jim Leyland answered.

He didn’t want to go into details, but it’s a unique scenario. It’s one thing to have a series on the road before starting at home, but another matter to open with a four-game series. And there’s certainly an ackowledgement that the home opener is huge in Detroit no matter when it falls, and it brings the type of energy level that isn’t simple for a pitcher to handle.

Justin Verlander would seemingly be the logical choice to open the season, despite the struggles last year. However, Jeremy Bonderman has started Opening Day twice (2005 and 2007). Armando Galarraga could also raise a case on the merits of leading the Tigers in wins last year.

However it turns out, the point is that it won’t necessarily be the winner of the Dontrelle Willis/Nate Robertson/Zach Miner/Rick Porcello competition who earns the home opener nod. But I would also expect the Tigers to send a front-line starter out against Roy Halladay April 6.

Everett will hit ninth

Jim Leyland pretty much confirmed that thought process Saturday morning. He has shown a talent for sacrifice bunts in the past, 22 of them in 2004 alone with the Astros, but I don’t think that’ll factor big into the Tigers’ plans. Brandon Inge will hit eighth.

Porcello still humble

If an eye-opening session of live batting practice Friday was supposed
to inflate Rick Porcello’s ego, it doesn’t seem to have had that
effect. He was flattered by the praise he was getting from teammates,
including Miguel Cabrera, but he definitely knows it was live batting
practice and not a game situation.

“It was pretty cool just to face him, even in live BP,” Porcello said Saturday morning.

It’ll be interesting to see how player opinions build on Porcello this spring. It’s always the manager’s decision, but the players often create the buzz, since they’re the ones chatting more often and more informally with reporters. Many Tigers have said they were impressed with Porcello from Friday. Some agreed with the comparison to Jeremy Bonderman from 2003, but not in terms of stuff. It’s more about mentality.

Jim Leyland said Saturday morning that a team can protect a pitcher on its staff, maybe a starter and/or a reliever, but that’s about it. There’s definitely the sense that the Tigers could take Porcello at age 20 if they felt he was ready, but that has yet to determined.

Good day for Zumaya, Porcello

Two scenes should give you most of what you need to know about the second day of pitcher-hitter meetings Friday.

  1. Miguel Cabrera smiling and yelling a torrent in Spanish back towards the mound, where Rick Porcello had just sent him swinging at a NASTY sinker and not coming close. Cabrera was having absolute fun with it, and he got a smile out of the normally unflappable Porcello.
  2. Alex Avila’s description of catching Joel Zumaya’s session: “My hands are going to be sore tomorrow.”

There were other encouraging signs for the Tigers. Nate Robertson had some bite back on his slider, for one, and Clay Rapada was consistently putting his pitches around the knees without leaving anything up. But Porcello and Zumaya were nasty today. Porcello was nasty enough that Magglio Ordonez, who was waiting for his turn against Edwin Jackson on an adjacent field, stepped out for a minute and walked next door to see what the hubbub was about Porcello.

“He’s got a presence,” Ordonez said later. “Good attitude. I like his attitude.”

The outing reinforces the consensus on Porcello: He has Major League stuff right now, but they have to figure out if he has the know-how to use it without the experience.

As for Zumaya, there’s a very businesslike presence to him, and he took it to the mound today. As soon as he walked out to the mound, he quickly pushed the protective screen out of the way and started his warmup tosses. He wasn’t throwing anywhere near full strength, but he was generating velocity. He also had movement going on his breaking ball. As for the split changeup I wrote about a few days ago, he threw some of those, too, which Avila described as nasty.

That decision to forgo the screen nearly came back to bite him when Cale Iorg hit a hard comebacker, but Zumaya deftly snared it, then hopped off the mound in a rare display of enthusiasm as teammates howled.

These are the moments that make these first few days of pitcher-batter matchups interesting. It’s called live batting practice, but as I’ve said before, the advantage clearly lies with the pitcher. As another player said, give Cabrera another couple weeks and let him get back into the box against Porcello. Still, putting a batter into the box gives the pitcher a frame of reference for the strike zone, and they can go about trying to hit it. Towards that goal, it was a very good day for the Tigers.

Postscript on Ni

I didn’t include this in the story this morning (only so much room), but manager Jim Leyland had a lighthearted moment with Fu-Te Ni yesterday during his throwing session. As the session was wrapping up, Leyland wanted to get across the idea that Ni had one more pitch left, but obviously didn’t know the word in Taiwanese or Mandarin. So he just blurted out something — fuji was basically what it sounded like. His coaches thought he had been taking Chinese.

Friday morning update

Pretty quiet around here in Lakeland, where the combination of low temperatures in the 40s and strong breeze made for a chilly morning (relatively speaking, I know).

It’s another round of pitchers vs. hitters later on this morning, including Joel Zumaya on the mound. The more pitchers you talk to around the clubhouse, however, the more you realize this drill is basically about pitchers finding the strike zone with their pitches now that they have someone standing in the box as a reference point. Seeing how hitters react will be a job for the early Spring Training games starting next week.

Interesting comment from Jim Leyland in regards to Brandon Inge and his new hitting technique. Responding to the question of what was different for Inge this offseason compared with past years, when he had seemingly been unable to take in coaching on his hitting, Leyland said, “You can’t force yourself on somebody. They get signed because of a certain way they hit. It’s a game of adjustments, and hopefully that’s what he’s doing. Sometimes people have to fail a little bit.”

“You see Brandon and you watch him, and you know he can do it.”

Pitchers 1, hitters 0

No surprise, but pitchers are ahead of hitters at this point in Tigers Spring Training — in many instances, very much so.

In Justin Verlander’s case, his health in these things depends on being ahead of hitters.

pitchers in these live BP sessions are throwing from behind the cage,
protecting them from the risk of a one-hopper back up the middle.
Verlander does not. He isn’t comfortable throwing from behind a screen,
and he wants to simulate game conditions as much as he can when he
takes the mound for these sessions. He says he was knicked by a
comebacker a couple years ago, but it didn’t change his view.

“It wasn’t the first time I’ve been hit by a ball,” Verlander said, “and it won’t be the last time.”

way Verlander was throwing Thursday, nobody seemed to be making
contact. He seems to have taken the adjustments pitching coach Rick
Knapp and worked them into his mechanics. The result is some very good
stuff, enough so that Miguel Cabrera and others were marveling.

“Verlander was outstanding,” manager Jim Leyland said. “I think he’s really trying hard.”

wasn’t the only one. Ramon Santiago was teasing lefty Kyle Bloom about
a curveball that he dropped on the plate and sent Santiago swinging at
air. Eddie Bonine said he was struggling to locate some of his pitches,
so he ended up throwing some knuckleballs, which wasn’t too fun for
Magglio Ordonez and his hitting group.

Those sessions will continue for the next two days. Tigers hitters get to face Joel Zumaya on Friday and Ryan Perry on Saturday.

Other odds and ends …

  • The
    Tigers were scheduled to do some fundamental work on rundowns Thursday,
    but with rain coming, they decided to scratch that and move up the
    pitching sessions so that they could get it in. They’ll do rundowns
    sometime in the coming days.
  • With Todd Jones back home enjoying
    retirement, Bobby Seay seems to be becoming a bit of a veteran voice in
    the Tigers bullpen. He talked this afternoon about how he felt the
    bullpen might have let up a bit down the stretch, including himself,
    and needs to carry it through.
  • Leyland said he thinks the
    key to Seay will be to find more consistency on his breaking ball and
    hit the outside corner with it against left-handed hitters. Seay said
    he’s also working on an offspeed pitch that he might mix in from time
    to time as an added option. But I think the general consensus is that
    even if LH hitters might sit on the slider and try to take it to the
    opposite field, Seay can get them out if he executes the pitch.
  • Leyland
    said he still believes Joel Zumaya can fill the closer’s role down the
    line. Just not right now, not with how little he has pitched over the
    last two years.
  • Interesting comment from Leyland on
    Fernando Rodney: “His fastball might not be his best pitch, but it’s
    his most important pitch.” He doesn’t mean throwing it more often; he
    means commanding it and maintaining velocity. For what it’s worth,
    fastballs made up a bigger percentage of Rodney’s total pitches last
    year (62.4%) than any other season in his career, according to
    fangraphs.com. His average velocity with it (95.3 mph) was also the
    highest of his career.
  • Leyland will be away from the club on
    Monday to return home to Perrysburg and attend services for his nephew,
    B.J. Miller, who passed away after a battle with cancer.

Pitchers v. hitters

It’s going to be a rainy afternoon here in Lakeland (not that I’m complaining), but it should hold off long enough this morning for the Tigers to get in their first round of live batting practice between pitchers and hitters. Again, it’s hard to get a good read from these things, because pitchers are almost always ahead of hitters, but it’s a better read than the bullpen sessions we’ve been watching.

In news this morning, manager Jim Leyland said that if everyone’s healthy, he probably has four bullpen slots set for Opening Day. Lyon, Rodney and Zumaya are among them. Leyland didn’t name anyone else, but my read is that Bobby Seay is another. That leaves three, Leyland has already indicated that Zach Miner will almost certainly be in the bullpen if he doesn’t get the starting job. That essentially leaves two open spots, but with the closer and setup jobs stable (unlike last year), the Tigers have a lot of flexibility with those two openings.

“If healthy, I think we have a chance to have a lot of depth in our bullpen,” Leyland said.

Also, Juan Rincon said this morning that he will not play for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. He wants to stay in camp and try to win a job. It brings up one of the recurring issues that seems to be going on this year — in this market, and with so much competition in some of these camps, players seem reluctant to go away for a couple weeks and try to pick up where they left off with just a couple weeks left in camp. Even a week, Rincon said, would be too long to be away.

If you were worried about Zach Miner, fear not. He missed yesterday’s workout with a nasty stomach virus, but he’s back today and holding down solid food.

Knapp adds drill to Tigers pitching regimen

For the most part, Rick Knapp hasn’t tried to make a whole lot of
changes in the Spring Training routine of Tigers pitchers. They take
fielding practice and throw bullpen sessions much like they have the
last few years. Today, he brought in a new wrinkle.

After the
scheduled pitchers threw their side sessions, Knapp brought one more
group of pitchers to the mound — including Justin Verlander, Edwin
Jackson, Bobby Seay and Fu-Te Ni, and had them do some light pitching
to catchers. This wasn’t meant as another bullpen session, but meant
for location work.

Knapp calls them “knee-to-knee” drills,
Verlander and Jim Leyland said. The point is to have the catcher spot
his glove at either knee and have the pitcher try to hit the spot.

“It’s a concentration tool, really,” Leyland said. “You can see if your mind and your arm are [in sync].”

teams do it, but it’s something new for the Tigers. Some teams will
have the pitcher do it off flat ground, but with the bullpen mounds
available, doing it there allows them to get the feeling and the
repetition of spotting from the mound.

Thursday starts a more
traditional Spring Training drill — pitchers throwing batting practice
to hitters. Expect pitchers to be well ahead of hitters at this point.
Though the gap between reporting days for pitchers and position players
wasn’t as big as in previous years, most of the Tigers pitchers were
throwing off of a mound well before formal workouts began.

Other notes of interest today:

  • Not
    a whole lot of high pop-ups to the outfielders today, but a lot of
    chasing down deep drives. That, too, was an adventure. The outfielders
    who went through that drill were rewarded when they were able to take
    batting practice with the wind blowing out. Some Tigers were supposedly
    launching shots that not only cleared the outfield fence on the back
    fields, but also the road beyond the fences.
  • So far, Spring
    Training single-game ticket sales are down only slightly from last
    year, according to Director of Lakeland Operations Ron Myers.
  • Leyland
    said he would like to get Joel Zumaya “20 innings or so” this spring in
    order to get him ready for the season. Remember, the Tigers plan to
    stretch him out to pitch 2-3 innings at a time down here, so they could
    get to that point in maybe 10 outings.
  • Others who are probably
    going to be stretched out include Brandon Lyon, with a one-time outing
    probably midway through the spring, and Zach Miner, who will be
    stretched out as a starter.
  • Interesting question: How do you
    get a left-handed specialist ready for the season when opposing teams
    are probably going to react with right-handed pinch-hitters when he
    enters a game? Leyland’s thinking about that, and he said he could
    stack up a series of left-handed hitters from the Minor Leagues and put
    them against Seay or other lefty relievers in a simulated game on the
    back fields.
  • The last Tigers position player to report checked in this morning. That was Timo Perez, who was in the clubhouse super early and was in outfield drills by mid-morning.
  • Ryan Perry wasn’t the only Tigers prospect in camp about which Leyland raved. He also had strong compliments for infielder Cale Iorg. “You look at this Iorg kid and everything, that’s a prospect. I’m not talking about a fringe prospect. I’m talking about a top-notch project.