The mantra surrounding pitching has often centered around working fast, pitching to contact and keeping a low pitch count.
That logic makes sense because it allows starters to stay in a game longer and a team's defense would be engaged.
But things have changed now.
Instead of just trying to pitch to contact, pitchers are trying to throw harder than ever. They want to increase their spin rate and try to find ways to rack up strikeouts.
This new way of pitching also makes sense because it’s hard to score runs without putting the ball in play.
The Rochester Honkers are no different. Throughout their first three games, their pitchers fanned 43 hitters.
"It is a small sample size, but it’s exactly what you want,” Rochester pitching coach Derek Dahlke said. "If guys are going out there and throwing strikes and they have swing-and-miss stuff, that’s a good indicator of what’s going to happen for the rest of the summer.”
Honkers manager Paul Weidner and Dahlke have been in constant communication with their guys and each pitcher's college coaching staff so they can get a plan in place for each pitcher this summer. The coaches don’t want to overwork their pitchers in a 72-game season, instead preferring to ease them into the summer.
So throughout the first three games of the season, no Rochester pitcher threw more than 4 2/3 innings. Brant Alazaus got the nod on Opening Day and he’s the only pitcher who threw more than 80 pitches in a game prior to Thursday night's game.
The boon in strikeouts has been incredibly encouraging and they show the upside of the pitching staff that the Honkers have put together.
“We’re really happy because these guys are performing well,” Dahlke said. “Obviously, we want strikeout numbers but we also want to develop weak contact. We don’t want guys throwing so hard that they can’t find the strike zone. We want our guys to have the mindset where they throw as hard as we can and throw their best stuff but it’s also all in the zone. We want to develop swing-and-miss stuff and also create weak contact. We’re going to trust our defense.”
Even against a very tough Waterloo lineup on Wednesday, starter Evan O’Toole struck out six of the 16 hitters he faced in four innings (two runs allowed, one earned). Keith Walker came in for the seventh inning and he struck out five of the 13 hitters he faced and didn’t allow an earned run.
In Tuesday’s 8-7, 10-inning win over Eau Claire, the Honkers pitching staff combined to strike out 17. A 30 percent strikeout rate (number of strikeouts divided by the number of batters faced) is considered excellent. The four pitchers who pitched for Rochester on Tuesday hit or exceeded that 30 percent threshold.
Starter Aaron Vernon struck out three of the 10 hitters he faced (30 percent). Matthew Maldonado fanned five of the 12 hitters he faced (42 percent). In his first pitching performance in two years, Austin Moberg had four strikeouts despite only facing 10 hitters (40 percent). And Troy Lanier finished off the final three innings in style, striking out five of the 12 hitters (42 percent) he faced using his power fastball and breaking ball.
“Moberg hadn’t faced hitters in a real game in a while,” Dahlke said. “We didn’t know what he’d look like and he didn’t really know either, but he pitched really well. Lanier’s got nasty stuff and he’s really strong. He’s got a really powerful fastball. It’s overall consistency with him. He’s going to keep working at it. He looked really good.”
Reinforcements are also on the way for the Honkers. Rochester has 10 pitchers on the roster right now, plus a few two-way prospects who can take the mound if needed. More will join the team in the next week or so, starting with former Kasson-Mantorville star Brendan Knoll, who’s slated to earn the start on Sunday against Bismarck.
Early signs point toward the fact that the Honkers’ pitching staff has a chance to be the strength of the team this season. The plan is to keep striking out as many hitters as possible.
“I just want these guys to go compete and be a successful staff,” Dahlke said. "We are really confident in this group so we’re excited about what this summer could bring."