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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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Melvin, a former catcher, knows exactly what is holding his team together. "Pitching is our strength," he said. "It has been all year." Melvin pointed to Young, who he hired to return to Oakland in 2012. "He has such an easy way about him," the A's skipper continued. "He gives our guys confidence that they can beat anybody. And we did, taking a four-game series from the Yankees. He makes the pitchers believers."

Melvin said Young "simplifies things. You can give your guys a game plan that is way too complicated. Curt does the work and then boils it down to one or two things. I spent my career sitting in meetings with pitchers and pitching coaches, and I've never seen a coach get pitchers so ready to do their job."

Ray Fosse is the TV color man and a former big league All-Star. All this talk of confidence and attitude seemed a bit twee. So I figured a ballplayer from a less touchy-feely time might have something more concrete to offer. Instead, Fosse laughed and pulled out a quote from thirty years before his playing days. "Pitching is just what Yogi Berra described it as, '90 percent mental, and the other 50 percent, physical.' At this level, everyone can do the job. On this team, it's been remarkable to see these kids are not just competing but winning. I've been watching baseball for fifty years. This is something special."

For every season from 2004 to 2010, Curt Young toiled in baseball anonymity. His talents and his results remained known only to the baseball cognoscenti and the 12,000 people who regularly filled the Oakland Coliseum. For a while, like most A's, the lure of a bigger payday and bigger publicity was dangled by one of the Haves, and every year, Young, like General Manager Billy Beane, stayed with the Have Not Muches.

Then in 2011, characteristically without a word, Young uncharacteristically took the bait. He was going to the brashest stage in the game, Boston, and was going to take its underachieving, overpaid pitching staff and bring the Sox back to the World Series, since they hadn't been there for a Cursed three seasons.

Perhaps the quiet man was seeking some spotlight, but, alas, what he found instead were Klieg lights. The Sox lurched badly out of the gate, losing six straight and ten of their first twelve games. With a now Yankee-like sense of playoff entitlement, the BoSox, who had been somewhat charming as Also Rans, became insufferable as Contenders.

Throwing Big Money at Big Free Agents cushioned the Boston team from the painful discipline of efficiency, but the bloated payroll brought new problems — like sloth. In spite of the stumble, the Red Sox seized control of a playoff spot by the start of September, even with the pitching staff firing on half its cylinders. A nine-game lead with less than a month to play is a mortal lock; no team had ever failed to make the postseason with such a head start. But Boston was determined to do the impossible.

Day after day, the million-dollar babies found ways to lose ballgames. Mostly, it was the pitching. On the final evening of the season, the Sox still controlled their fate, and needed only to beat the lagging Baltimore Orioles to limp into the playoffs. The Sox had won just 7 of their last 26 games, but they led the O's until the bottom of the 9th in the final game, when once again the pitching collapsed and Baltimore rose up from irrelevance to score twice and beat Boston 4-3.

Red Sox fans reacted with typical restraint. "They killed this city; this city is in mourning as of right now," a transit worker was quoted in the newspaper. The Boston Globe published an autopsy that ran for seven pages and revealed the cause of death: a mismanaged and poorly disciplined pitching staff, allowed to eat fried chicken, drink beer, and play video games during games, running roughshod over the gentle (weak!), patient (gutless!) pitching coach, Curt Young. "He was a cool dude," remembered Clay Buchholz, one of the Red Flops starters. "Curt's a really laid-back guy." It was obvious Hub talk for "big wuss."

Referencing his pitching coach previous to Young, Buchholz said: "I was scared of him. ... It made a difference." The Boston press used the phrase, "thrown under the bus" with unseemly glee to describe Young's fate. He was let go from his contract, free to pursue a new opportunity. Instead, he took an old one. Before the World Series had even begun, Young shook hands on a new deal, agreeing to come back to Oakland.

Before the 2012 season even started, the rich got richer. The A's play in a four-team division in which only the first-place team is guaranteed a playoff spot. There are three divisions, and beyond the division champions, the two teams with the next best records qualify as "wild cards." For the A's, two of the best teams in baseball were already in their division and not rebuilding for 2012, but reloading. Texas, with the league's 2010 MVP, got off to a rocket-fast start, and the Los Angeles Angels spent hundreds of millions to get Albert Pujols, the Most Valuable Player in the National League, to keep pace.

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