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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Bill Hass column: Marlins pitching coordinator studies 'the game within the game'

 

 

 

 

 

There are a lot of descriptive words in Wayne Rosenthal's baseball vocabulary, but one he likes to repeat is "patience."

 

As the minor league pitching coordinator for the Florida Marlins, Rosenthal understands that young pitchers can't be rushed in their development. There's a lot to learn, especially for those drafted out of high school but also for ones coming to the minors out of college.

 

Rosenthal, 40, observes pitchers with quite a different eye than fans, media and even the players themselves. When he stopped in for several days last week to watch the pitchers of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, he was looking at more than just the box score.

 

"The first thing you look at is repetition of their delivery," Rosenthal said. "You want it to be the same way with every pitch. After that, it's fastball command, how they use that pitch down in the strike zone.

 

"I also look for command of a second pitch, whether it's a changeup or a breaking ball, but a pitch they can throw for strikes. I also look to see if they're going right after hitters instead of nibbling. We preach pitching to contact down in the zone and letting the defense work behind you."

 

Rosenthal looks not only to see how many pitches someone can throw, and with what command -- a pitcher's "stuff" -- but also what his mental makeup might be. That includes game preparation, how he warms up, how he handles adversity during a game and how he prepares during the off-season.

 

Pitchers with the right combination of stuff and mental toughness can move quickly through the farm system. A prime example is Jason Vargas, who started the season with the Hoppers, moved up to Jupiter and is now with the Marlins. He's scheduled to pitch Monday night.

 

Someone who needs to learn that is Scott Nestor, now in his second season in Greensboro. The Marlins love Nestor's 6-foot-4, 230-pound body. His stuff is there one game but disappears the next when he sometimes loses concentration if things go bad.

 

But Nestor won't turn 21 until late August, so patience is an operative word with him.

 

"Development is a slow progression," Rosenthal said. "But you want to start seeing more consistency."

 

With the season past the halfway point, Rosenthal said he has seen improvement in the Hoppers pitchers. His keen eye even picks it up in someone like Kurt Koehler, a classic case of looking past statistics at this level.

 

Koehler lost his first six decisions and had an ERA of 5.03, and opposing hitters were hitting .330 off of him. But he throws a sinker and gives up a lot of ground ball hits that might be gobbled by a defense at a higher level.

 

"He's pitching pretty good," Rosenthal said. "He's had some hard luck. His record means absolutely nothing. I look at the game within the game and evaluate from there."

 

Of course, there's nothing like a win or two -- or a quality start -- to bolster a pitcher's confidence. But just gaining experience is vital.

 

For instance, Jeff Allison, the Marlins' No. 1 draft pick in 2003, has been behind most of the other starters because he missed spring training and then was out six weeks with a sore shoulder. He should get six or seven more starts this season, ones Rosenthal considers vital.

 

"Those will be seven more games of experience to get ready for next year," Rosenthal said.

 

When impatience kicks in, either in a player or among others with high expectations, they would do well to remember Paul Mildren. The left-hander from Australia scuffled through two seasons in Greensboro, going a combined 9-17 with an ERA near 5.00.

 

The Marlins came within an eyelash of releasing him but exercised some organizational patience. Now, at age 21, Mildren is one of the best starters in Jupiter and made the Florida State League All-Star game.

 

"He turned it up a notch," Rosenthal said.

 

The switch isn't automatic, though, and some pitchers may never turn it up. But Rosenthal will keep watching them and giving them advice on how to prepare for their future. No one gets more satisfaction than he does when things click and they rise through the ranks.

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