O's Cabrera regarded as a wild card

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Daniel Cabrera's numbers send the mind dashing toward extreme possibilities, some fantastic and some terrible.

In 6 1/3 innings this season, the Orioles' No. 4 starter has walked 16, uncorked four wild pitches and struck out 11. He has reduced batters to mere observers in his personal drama. They can't beat him by hitting his 97-mph fastballs so they let him beat himself by tossing his thunderbolts all over creation.

Many baseball men believe that if Cabrera can harness his stuff like Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson did, he will become baseball's next great pitcher.

But if he can't, he might join a long line of towering hurlers who tantalized with raw talent but never satisfied with production. Or worse, he could join the small club of pitchers - Steve Blass, Rick Ankiel, Mark Wohlers - who lost the ability to throw strikes altogether.

Orioles coaches say Cabrera is enduring a blip.

"Come on, my God, it's two starts," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "His last start, he gave up one run and struck out 10. You have pitchers where the toughest hitters they have to face is themselves. He wants to do real good, real bad. I wonder what would have happened to [John] Smoltz if he would have been taken out of the rotation at the All-Star break in '91 with a 2-11 record."

Cabrera walked a subpar five batters a game in his first two seasons but had never pitched a pair like this.

"I don't think we have to make any more of this than it is," Hall of Fame pitcher and Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer said. "He's a big, young kid who's not the most coordinated guy."

Palmer said most people can't imagine how difficult it is to get all the parts of a 6-foot-7 body moving the right way 100 times a night.

"I don't think it's any big deal," Palmer said. "As long as his windup is sound and as long as he's able to throw downhill. ... On the other hand, baseball history is dotted with guys who couldn't figure it out. You just hope that's not the case with Daniel."

Cabrera has already improved this season.

In his first start against the Boston Red Sox, he evoked memories of Ankiel with an almost total inability to throw strikes. He walked seven and managed to record only four outs. On Wednesday, he made good pitches in tight spots and survived five innings against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He allowed only one run, struck out 10 and left with a lead.

Manager Sam Perlozzo said he was pleased to see Cabrera step off the mound and compose himself when he struggled.

"To me, that was a little sign that he's trying to figure it out," Perlozzo said. "There were a lot of good things that happened in the game. I know the line score was screwed up, but he did a lot of good things. I don't know that I've ever seen him walk nine guys, but we're not even close to panicking on him."

ESPN analyst Rob Neyer catalogued all the significant pitchers in major league history for a recent book and said Cabrera's struggles don't seem akin to those of Blass or Ankiel.

"I'd be a lot more concerned if he wasn't striking anybody out," Neyer said. "Those guys with Steve Blass disease weren't doing that."

Dr. Richard Crowley is a Los Angeles-based sports psychologist who has worked with Blass and Steve Sax, the former Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman who couldn't throw to first for a stretch. He said that if Cabrera continues on an upward tack, he would shrug off the wild opening.

But if Cabrera reverts in his next start, Crowley said he might be worried about a psychological problem.

Crowley said that once physical problems have been ruled out, he never tries to find the cause of an athlete's performance woes. Instead, he has the player assign an image to the moment he began to struggle. Crowley then coaches the player through an interaction with the image that often ends with the athlete destroying his symbol of failure.

"Once you can see your problem, you can confront it," he said. "You can say, 'I don't want that thing in here.' "

Mazzone is already convinced that Cabrera's problems are mental. "Mechanically, there is nothing major going on there," he said. "He's just too hard on himself."

Some of the greatest pitchers in history battled wildness early in their careers.

Koufax walked more than five a game in his early seasons as a spot starter for the Dodgers.

Johnson led the league in walks for three straight seasons as a young starter for the Seattle Mariners. In 1990, he no-hit the Detroit Tigers but walked six. The next season, he pitched three seven-walk games, two eight-walk games and a 10-walk game.

With the help of pitching coach Tom House, he finally found a formula that worked for him - start on the ball of the right foot, end on the ball of the left foot. The 6-foot-10 left-hander has pitched with superb control since he turned 30.

Nolan Ryan didn't show even average control until his mid-30s. At 6-foot-2, the all-time strikeout leader wasn't built like Cabrera. But like the lanky Dominican, he managed to be wild within the general environs of the strike zone. In one remarkable 1974 outing, he pitched 13 innings, struck out 19 and walked 10.

Scouts have compared Cabrera to J.R. Richard, the former 6-foot-8 right-hander for the Houston Astros who dominated hitters and frightened them with wildness.

In one stretch of starts in 1975, Richard walked eight in five innings, 11 in six innings, eight in 7 2/3 innings and six in 5 2/3 innings, according to Retrosheet, a non-profit organization that collects historical box scores. But he improved his control and was probably the best pitcher in the National League when a stroke prematurely ended his career in 1980.

Neyer argued that pitchers like Ryan and Johnson are so unique that to project Cabrera's future based on their experiences would be folly. Most pitchers who struggle with control never find the magic elixir.

The St. Louis Cardinals thought Ankiel could be the next Koufax or Johnson. He entered the 2000 postseason at age 21 with a prized left arm, confidence bordering on arrogance and a string of dominant performances behind him.

But 2 2/3 innings into his playoff start against the Atlanta Braves, he had walked six batters, thrown five wild pitches and allowed four runs.

He walked 24 in 25 innings the next season and has pitched only 10 big league innings since. He's now trying to make it as an outfielder.

Ankiel's collapse put him in a class with pitchers like Blass, Mark Wohlers, Bruce Ruffin and Joe Cowley, all of whom were successful in the big leagues before developing a crippling inability to throw strikes. Such mental or physical blocks have also afflicted position players like second basemen Sax and Chuck Knoblauch and catcher Mackey Sasser, who couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher.

The Orioles have some experience with wildness.

Steve Dalkowski stands among the most legendary avoiders of the strike zone. By all accounts, the Orioles' minor leaguer threw as hard or harder than anyone in history. In Class D ball, he walked 129, threw 39 wild pitches and struck out 121 in 62 innings. His control was actually improving when an injury ended his career in 1966 before he reached the majors.

Left-handed fireballer Brad Pennington ranked among the team's top prospects in the early 1990s. But he walked 25 in 33 innings for the Orioles in 1993 and 11 in 6 2/3 in 1995 before being shipped out of town. Pennington never harnessed his electric fastball and thus, never stuck in the big leagues.

Palmer walked eight in his first start of 1966 and showed spotty control throughout that, his first full season. Even in his prime, he had starts when he walked a batter an inning.

He said his problems were usually mechanical. He fought them by returning to the basics of putting his fastball where he wanted.

But sometimes, he said, he just lost it. He remembered walking four straight Red Sox and going to a 3-0 count on a fifth in the middle of one 10-inning outing. Palmer didn't walk another batter the rest of the game. He was mystified then and remains mystified almost 30 years later. Some feeling clicked off and then clicked back on.

"Pitching is all about touch or feel," Palmer said. "And right now, Daniel doesn't have it. Maybe he'll find it. Maybe not."

This is the way it's supposed to be," Palmer added. "It's never easy."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

Their aim wasn't true

Severe control problems have hampered pitchers at various points in their careers. Among them:

Those who struggled early but recovered:

Sandy Koufax: Traded wildness for greatness.

J.R. Richard: Went from scary wild to scary good.

Randy Johnson (left): Found mechanics, fixed career.

Those who lost it mid-career or earlier:

Steve Blass: A star of the 1971 World Series retired less than three years later.

Mark Wohlers (left): Closer went south in 1998.

Rick Ankiel: Wildness drove him to the outfield.

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