One year into the job, Rick Kranitz remains committed to the challenge. Hired to replace Leo Mazzone prior to last season, Kranitz’s assignment is to meld a mostly young and unproven Orioles pitching staff into a unit that can compete effectively against the high-octane offenses of the American League East. Coming off of a campaign where his charges finished last in the AL in walks allowed, and second from the bottom in both opponents’ batting average and ERA, work remains to be done. A 30-year veteran of professional baseball, the 50-year-old Kranitz spent 22 seasons in the Cubs organization before serving as the Marlins pitching coach in 2006 and 2007. Kranitz talked about his approach to pitching when the Orioles visited Fenway Park in September.
David Laurila: How would you describe Rick Kranitz’s pitching philosophy?
Rick Kranitz: In a sense, a lot of pitching coaches are the same, in that strike one is probably the most important pitch in the game. What I believe is that each pitcher is different. You can’t try to mold every single guy the same way, so number one, is Daniel Cabrera different from Garrett Olson? Absolutely, and not just because one is right-handed and the other is left-handed. Everything about their delivery, and everything about each guy that I have is so different, so I need to find out what makes each guy click. To me, it’s more about learning what they do right as opposed to what they do wrong, and trying to get them to understand what they do right. They need to learn that themselves. In order to be a successful pitcher at this level you have to know what you do; you have to know what you feel like when you make a good pitch; you have to know your body. If you don’t know your body, you tend to keep searching.
DL: It sounds like you differ from your predecessor, Leo Mazzone, in that he had a specific philosophy he wanted his pitchers to adhere to, while you’re more adaptable in your approach. Is that accurate?
RK: Well, I think that there are always absolutes. You know, in certain counts you have to make pitches; I think that every pitcher, number one, has a place where they can command their fastball the best. Now, wherever that place is, in certain counts they have to go there to stay ahead in counts. You can’t ask a guy to do something he can’t do. A lot of what Leo taught, which was to command the ball down and away, absolutely. I mean, you have to do that to be a successful major league pitcher; there’s no question about it. A lot of guys can’t do that in today’s age, so you obviously try to work on that, while still letting them pitch to their strengths and work with what they do best. Obviously, if you can never get the ball down and away when you need to in a hitter’s count, like 2-0, 2-1, or 3-1, you’re in trouble.
DL: In a conversation I had with Harold Baines, he said that pitchers on an opposing staff would generally pitch to him the same way, with that approach likely driven by the pitching coach. What are your thoughts on that?
RK: I think that what happens is that you have your meetings and go over guys, and you know what their strengths and weaknesses are going in. But, like I tell them, this is what we have to do if, say, David Ortiz is hitting. We pretty much have to make pitches in, but the whole thing is, can you get it there? Can you make the pitch? Ortiz is so good at hitting the ball out and away from him that we have to pitch him in, and if you can’t do that, you can’t ask somebody to do that if he’s having a hard time getting that job done. So I think that Harold is right in that sense, but the catcher has to know what the strength of the pitcher is. When he makes a good pitch, the catcher should know what he’s doing, and use that. You know, it doesn’t matter what a pitcher throws. It could be the wrong pitch, but if he has conviction to what he’s doing-if he’s convinced that it’s the right pitch-you have to go with it. You have to go with it as a pitcher.
DL: Pitchers have tendencies. Do catchers have tendencies in their game calling?
RK: There’s no question; absolutely. You’ll see, sometimes, catchers call pitches that they can’t hit. They’ll say, ‘Wow, I’d have a hard time with this guy,’ and then they’d call a certain pitch just because they’d have trouble with it. I think that as soon as a catcher separates his hitting from his catching, he becomes a better catcher. And it’s a process; it’s a lot of hard work to get back there and think with your guy, especially to take a young kid through the game.
DL: How much impact does a catcher have on a pitching staff?
RK: I think that it’s a huge impact. He’s the one who’s really running the game; he’s suggesting. Nowadays, you don’t see as many guys calling their own games. You look at the college game, and every catcher is looking over into the dugout for the sign; very few catchers call games. They’ve become robotic, where they don’t think for themselves. And certainly, in this day and age, we’re getting guys quicker and quicker to the big leagues, and they’ve never thought for themselves. They’re relying on other people, but they should be relying on themselves out there. That’s what they need to do: they need to rely on themselves to get guys out. A catcher has to work and get guys through the game when they’re struggling.
DL: A number of the pitchers on your staff have been struggling as of late. How do you want them to react to their bad outings? Do you want them to be angry with their performance, or do you want them to always be on an even keel?
RK: I think that you have to be-you know, I don’t want them to be happy. I think that they need to be upset about not throwing the ball well. But you also have to let it go. You can’t let things fester in this game. You can’t just go from one start to the next, or one day to the next, and have a carryover. In this game, you can never let your last pitch affect your next pitch. And I think that with young guys, that’s what happens. They let certain things affect them more so than a veteran guy. A veteran guy will shake it off and move on, and he’ll show how he’s let it go. A young guy will tell you that he let it go, even though he doesn’t necessarily believe it himself.
DL: What role do you play after someone has a tough outing; what is your demeanor in the clubhouse?
RK: You have to keep these guys positive. You have to keep them positive, because this isn’t an easy game, and this isn’t an easy team we’re playing against. We’re in September and going up against teams that are fighting for the playoffs. We have a very young group that’s never been in the big leagues, much less playing against teams where every at-bat means something-where it could mean the season. You just have to keep pushing them forward and directing them in the right way; you have to keep them positive and upbeat.
DL: Can a pitcher hurt himself by being overconfident?
RK: You know, it’s easy to sit there and think, ‘I’m doing this,’ and ‘I’m doing that,’ but you don’t have to show it. You know it inside, but you don’t need to go out and tell everybody how well you’re throwing. A 91 mph fastball thrown with confidence will get anybody out. A 98 mph fastball thrown without confidence won’t get many people out. You can’t let anybody on that field know, and that’s what happens-your opponents sense it when things aren’t going right. And when that happens, you’ve got problems. You have to be a poker player.
DL: Prior to coming to the Orioles, you worked with Dontrelle Willis in Florida. Did you ever have concerns about Willis because of his unorthodox delivery?
RK: He’s such a great athlete, so I didn’t have concerns. The first thing-if you try to change that delivery-that’s him, that’s his style. There are guys who come up and they’re a little bit different, but if it works for them, great. Not everybody’s the same. So that’s the last thing you’d want to do. I thought that with his athletic ability, he wasn’t going to have the problems he’s had this past year. But I would say that once you start to get a little older, you always have to make a few adjustments to what you have to do, because your body changes. You’re not as flexible as you once were. But I haven’t seen him this year, so I don’t know; I don’t really have a comment on what happened beyond that.
DL: Doug Jones, who had one of the best changeups of his era, was a teammate of yours in the minor leagues. Did he have the great changeup as a young pitcher?
RK: What he always had was great command; his control was unbelievable. I wouldn’t say that he had the kind of changeup that he had when he was in the big leagues, because he used his other pitches a little bit more, but the one thing about him was that the command of his fastball, and the way he threw the ball down in the strike zone, was as good as I saw as a young player.
DL: How important is it to have an effective changeup, and how important is velocity?
RK: Well, you know what? Velocity is not that important. Obviously, the better the velocity, the more room for error. But fastball command… you will never be successful on a long-term basis without fastball command at this level. If you have the changeup, it will allow you to get by without great fastball command. But if you don’t have a changeup, and you don’t have fastball command, you’re in trouble, because the change of speeds is so important. Getting a hitter out on his front foot is so important in this game. You don’t find very many hitters who can’t hit the fastball in the big leagues; they will time it. And if they get beat by it, they’ll make an adjustment.
DL: You coached in the Cubs organization for a long time. What has it been like watching them have so much success this season?
RK: I’m so happy for them. I have so many friends over there, and I knew that it was just a matter of time. You could see-the years we thought we were going to be there, we put so much on Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. And when they didn’t come back like everybody thought, you put all your eggs in that basket, and I think that finally the organization said, ‘You know what? We have to try to do this without them.’ So they started doing some things, and it has really worked out. They put Kerry in the bullpen, and you can see that it’s a good, good team, with good defense. For a while there, the defense was very suspect. And there were a lot of home runs, but the on-base percentage wasn’t there. Now you see guys grinding out at-bats. I see them going quite far, actually.
DL: It sounds like you’d like to see them go far into the postseason?
RK: Oh, there’s no question. I know Larry Rothschild very well; he’s one of my best friends in the game. The third-base coach, their manager, their bullpen coach-we worked together for 10 or 12 years. I know most of the players. So, absolutely, I want to see those guys win. I’d love to see them go to the World Series. I’m partial to them, because I was there a long time.