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Baseball '90 PREVIEW : ONE PITCH FROM STARDOM : Speed is not enough. In the big leagues, variety is the spice of a pitcher's life. Jim Abbott is making a pitch for greater respect. Fernando Valenzuela is making his pitch for survival.

April 09, 1990|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

Both are left-handed pitchers with charismatic stories and faithful followings. And there is at least one other similarity between Jim Abbott, 22, of Flint, Mich., and Fernando Valenzuela, 29, of Navojoa, Mexico.

On the eve of Abbott's second season in the major leagues and Valenzuela's 10th, each is attempting to expand his repertoire, taking on a new dimension.

The Angels are teaching Abbott a changeup in the hope that hitters won't sit on his hard slider and fastball.

The Dodgers are helping Valenzuela develop a cut fastball so he can pitch inside to right-handed hitters who are accustomed to the screwball away and prepared to jump on a fastball that lost velocity in the wake of his shoulder problems of the last two seasons.

The art of pitching, as with hitting, is a matter of constant adjustment. The Angels believe Abbott will more easily reach his potential with an off-speed complement to a fastball clocked in the 91- to 93-m.p.h. range and a slider generally clocked at 87 or 88. The Dodgers believe Valenzuela must work right-handed batters inside if he is to regain his pre-injury effectiveness.

"Keeping the hitter off balance is the most important aspect of pitching," the Angels' Bert Blyleven said. "Timing is their key, so timing is our key, too. You become a complete pitcher when you learn how to change speeds, move the ball in and out."

Blyleven, 38, has won 271 major league games with one of baseball's best curves and a variety of offspeed pitches. He was 17-5 for the Angels last season, allowing only 14 home runs. In 1986, he set a major league record with the Minnesota Twins, permitting 50.

"I used to throw a 'loan' pitch," Blyleven said. "I kept loaning it to the hitters and they never returned it.

"The problem with pitching as long as I have is that you have to keep inventing new pitches. I'm working now on the woofus-goofus, but don't ask me to spell it. I'm still trying to figure out how to throw it."

The keys?

"Throw strikes, get ahead, keep hitters off balance, make 'em hit your pitch," said Angel announcer Ken Brett, who spent 14 seasons in the majors after debuting at 19. "It isn't that tough, but kids try to do too much. They get behind in the count and try to throw harder instead of changing speeds, taking something off the ball. Let's face it. A lot of hitters are standing up there trying to hit the ball out of the park. All you have to do is mess with their timing. The last time I looked, a 300-foot fly was an out."

It may not be that tough, but it isn't that easy, either. Young pitchers, conditioned to Little League, high school and college success, usually reach the majors with two pitches: fastball and curve. They were taught to throw hard and harder, and as Abbott acknowledged: "That was usually good enough."

Then, at the major league level, they are confronted by hitters who can take a 93-m.p.h. fastball out of the park at 100 m.p.h. Do they have the athleticism and aptitude to make the necessary adjustment? Can they accept needing another pitch to survive? Even Nolan Ryan, the quintessential fastball pitcher, has had to adjust. Ryan honed his curve in the '70s and developed a changeup in the '80s.

"There's a timing mechanism to good hitting, and I don't care how hard you throw, there's a certain percentage of hitters on every team who are selective enough to be able to wait for the one pitch they can handle, or they get ahead in the count and sit on the fastball," Ryan said.

"You have to be able to put the thought in their head that you might be throwing another pitch. You have to be able to change speeds, particularly when you're behind in the count and the hitter has the luxury of looking for the fastball.

"The other thing is that if you're only a two-pitch pitcher, and one of them is ineffective on a certain night or you can't get it over, then you've got problems."

Said Roger Craig, the San Francisco Giants manager: "Unless you've got the overpowering fastball of a Ryan or the movement of an Orel Hershiser, you've got to be able to throw a breaking pitch when you're behind in the count. You've got to be able to go to a second and third pitch if your primary pitch is ineffective. Nobody can throw to a certain spot everytime, though Hershiser comes close."

From the hitter's perspective, Don Mattingly of the New York Yankees said: "I don't care how overpowering a pitcher is, I figure that I'm usually going to get one hittable pitch every at-bat. But if a pitcher can change speeds, if he can go to a second, third and fourth pitch, that serves to keep a hitter off balance, to disrupt his timing. He may still get that one hittable pitch, but he'll have a tougher time taking advantage of it."

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