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Moneyball 2.0: The Pitching Whisperer

The Oakland A's are winning again on a shoestring budget, but this time the credit goes to a soft-spoken coach named Curt Young.



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Parker is 23 years old, and even in his brief minor league baseball career, has been privy to the thoughts and ministrations of more than a dozen pitching coaches. The A's have handed him the baseball every fifth day since he arrived and said: "Your time is now." Parker said he's gotten better as the season progressed, and pointed to Curt Young as the explanation.

Parker recently reflected on one of his starts, a stinker against Baltimore, one of four teams including the A's, that has been competing for a pair of wild card playoff spots in the American League. "Curt came up to me the next day after the game," the peach-fuzzed pitcher said at his locker. "He said to me, 'What's done is done.'"

"That was it?" I asked.

"He told me to turn the page," Parker replied.

I must have looked less than impressed, so Parker continued in earnest, trying to communicate why his pitching coach's message, which sounded like clichés to me, spoke to him. "There are guys I've had coach me who put their hands in everything," he explained with greater intensity, eyes locked on mine from under his cap as he mimed a man whose hands are grabbing at objects all around him. "Curt gave me a few key points and moved on. He doesn't over-coach me."

Parker is having one of the best rookie seasons by an American League starter; the others are also Oakland A's.

Ordinarily, using eleven rookie pitchers in a season spells Wait Till Next Year, but in this most surprising season, it has yielded Pennant Fever. The slightly more grizzled relief pitcher, Jerry Blevins, chimed in on how Young manages his youngsters. "Curt gets to know us as people," said Blevins, a six-foot-six beanpole. "The best coaches know that when you have five different starters, you're going to need five different ways of talking to each one. He's not a guru, if you know what I mean. He's not on the bus telling us this is how you throw a cutter, this is how you throw a curve."

Blevins looked around his clubhouse and added: "We all got here, the skills are evident. It's up to us to perform. But what makes Curt so popular around here is that he knows us as people first, not employees. Some guys like me want to be talked to directly, right at the moment. No bullshit. Other guys aren't going to be receptive walking right off the mound. That's what makes him great to have around."

Pitcher after pitcher echoed the words of Parker and Blevins. Reliever Doolittle, who had been a minor league first baseman until last season, said that Young "builds relationships." The pitching coach, he said, provides all the info necessary and whatever degree of input and advice a pitcher seeks. After a lousy effort against the Toronto Blue Jays, Doolittle went to Young the next day, half dreading his coach's review. "Instead, he just said: 'That was pretty bad. Let's just throw it out.'"

The itinerant Blackley, who has not only crossed continents but now does the traverse between starting and finishing games, said Young finds places to build confidence, too. "After my bad start, Curt took me out and we started throwing the ball back and forth in the outfield," Blackley said. "My solution after giving up a home run was to just start throwing everything five miles per hour harder." He grinned and shook his head. "So we're there in the outfield just throwing the ball back and forth, and Curt gives me some thoughts as we debrief out there. I had my guard down, and was ready to listen. I didn't get beat up, didn't beat up myself."

The veteran of international pitching added simply: "I have never had a pitching coach to build confidence like Curt. He told me once: 'You have a Gio Gonzalez curve ball.' And I never even liked my curve, but then I started throwing it. He was right. He's right a lot."

The A's new manager is Bob Melvin. He is the favorite to be named baseball's Manager of the Year regardless of where the A's finish at this point because they've gone so far beyond where they were predicted to end up (in a ditch somewhere).

There was nothing in the stars that suggested this baseball blitz. Most of the publicity that the A's have gotten has gone to the team's streak of walk-off hits, referring to a blow struck that ends the game at that moment. The name, ironically, was coined by Dennis Eckersley, an A's relief pitcher back in the day, and now his former team is its most successful practitioner. With each successive last-minute win, the Oakland crew has piled on elaborate celebratory flourishes. A Gatorade shower. Pies in the face. Spiderman with Gatorade showers and pie (don't ask).

But if the Oakland A's are to make this a September (and October, yo!) to remember, it's the men on the hill who are going to take them there. Need numbers? This is a team that leads the majors in being shut out; the A's strike out more often than any team in the game other than the Houston Astros, the actual worst team in baseball, who were eliminated from pennant contention around Easter, or, for their Jewish fans, Passover.

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