It was so bad that this year the Brewers pitchers are going to be closing their eyes.
While they are pitching.
Don't worry. It's just a drill, but it's the kind of unconventional stuff that has come to define the career of pitching coach Rick Peterson, who has been summoned to Milwaukee to fix a staff that was most decidedly broken.
"His track record is amazing," manager Ken Macha told FanHouse. "He's going to have a dramatic impact."
Peterson took over an A's pitching staff that ranked dead last in the American League in ERA in 1997. A year later, they were ninth. A year after that, they had the first of five consecutive seasons in the top three. The Mets ranked 10th in ERA before Peterson took over. In his first year in New York, 2004, they were seventh, followed by two consecutive years at No. 3.
Peterson is facing another challenge. The Brewers last year ranked 15th in the league in pitching, and their starters ranked last – by a wide margin – with a 5.37 ERA. The Brewers allowed the most homers in the league.
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The Brewers added Randy Wolf and Doug Davis to a rotation that includes Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra and Jeff Suppan, with Peterson overseeing the entire staff.
"He's known for helping young pitchers and fixing things," Gallardo said. "We're all very excited to be working with him."
Even if that means throwing with their eyes closed.
"If it works," Gallardo said, "we'll try anything."
Early in spring training the Brewers had not yet done the throwing blind drill, but they had heard Peterson talk about why he has his pitchers do it. Parra was on board with the idea.
"When you close your eyes and try to stand on one leg, it's a lot more difficult," Parra said. "Now you are not using your eyes to adjust. You are feeling your body. It tunes your body in to that feeling. When you are pitching, when you can control your body over and over throughout the course of a game, you are going to have more success."
"Success" and "unconventional" are two words that have followed Peterson throughout his career. Peterson, 55, developed a relationship with noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews while Peterson was a White Sox minor league pitching coach in Birmingham, Ala., in the early '90s. Since then, Peterson has been a proponent of using high-tech biomechanical analysis to help his pitchers be more effective and avoid injuries. Earlier this spring he actually had Brewers pitchers undergo mechanical analysis right at the spring training complex, an unprecedented activity.
"When people first started using cell phones, that was unconventional," Peterson said. "If you take a look at the tools and the resources we have with technology, that tends to be looked at as unconventional, when really it's just new tools you can implement. I guarantee you if 20 years ago someone had handed everyone a cell phone, they wouldn't be standing next to a wall with a cord."
Peterson is part scientist and part psychologist. When he was with the White Sox, he co-directed a sports psychology program. He also studied art and philosophy while at Jacksonville University.
Roll it up and you have a man who believes in doing things his way, even if that's not the way other teams do it, or even the way his superiors want it done.
"His philosophies are unorthodox and he's been fired a few times for his philosophies not being the norm," said Barry Zito. "That's the mark of greatness – people who go with their gut instinct, what they know is right, and not with the status quo."
Zito and the A's provided Peterson's first opportunity to mold a big league pitching staff. He helped that staff go from one of the worst to one of the best in baseball. Yes, it's fair to say that Peterson benefited from the presence of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Zito, who arrived in '99 and 2000, but it's also fair to say that those pitchers benefited from him. None of the three was as successful after Peterson was gone.
The Mets fired Peterson along with manager Willie Randolph in the middle of the 2008 season. Their ERA sunk to 12th in the league without him in 2009.
Zito said he no longer maintains a personal relationship with Peterson, but he still swears by his methods.
"They are going to like him over there," Zito said. "Everything in baseball is so rigid and old-school. The second you start incorporating anything that's of an Eastern-type philosophy – like having guys throw with their eyes closed to gain a greater sense of feel of their delivery -- everyone on the outside would laugh. The guys he was actually helping were big advocates of his philosophies."
Peterson has always devoured data, video and statistical, in order to get the most out of his pitchers. Since the Brewers hired him, he's been studying to see where he could help them improve.
First, he said, the Brewers must cut down on their walks. They issued the third-most walks in the National League last year, so that's a fairly obvious point. When they are in strike zone, they need to be at the bottom of it.
"The average batting average in the big leagues on every ball put into the play at the bottom of the strike zone is about .210 or .220," Peterson said. "We have guys on this staff whose batting average against in the bottom of the zone is .150, .160, .170. They are killing the league averages. The problem is they don't get enough of them. One of the major focal points is to get more pitches at the bottom of the strike zone. When you start to look at those kind of incremental differences, if you are averaging 38-39 percent of pitches at the bottom of the zone and you can increase that by 11 or 12 percent, to 50 percent, and the batting average is .160 or .170, obviously you are going to have marked improvement."
The pitcher who could benefit the most from Peterson is Parra. No one else on the Brewers staff has as much untapped potential as Parra, a lefty with well-above-average stuff who just hasn't put it together. Parra has been either brilliant or awful in many of the starts in his young big league career.
"He's an enigma," Macha said. "You want to have that consistency, and perhaps Rick can get some things done with him."
Parra gravitated immediately toward Peterson. In the early going, he seemed receptive to his ideas for narrowing his repertoire and refining his delivery.
"He's got all the ingredients for a gourmet meal, but he's not quite sure what the recipe is," Peterson said. "We need to really help him so he understands 'What do I need to do to master consistent performances?'"
Each of the Brewers top five starters has had at least one double-digit victory season, so there is something there. All of them understand that they don't need to go from the worst staff in the league to the best to help the Brewers win. Simply moving up to the middle of the pack would make a big difference.
"Eighty wins last year with a pitching staff that struggled is very impressive," said Wolf, who was with the Dodgers in 2009. "I just don't see this pitching staff doing that again. I just don't see it. I think it was one of those years where everything just compounded and everybody had an off year. With guys getting over last year and obviously with Rick being here, there are a lot of positive things about this pitching staff."