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Damian Miller's Guide To Elite Pitchers

by Alan Schwarz
May 17, 2004

NEW YORK-As views go, Damian Miller's had a pretty darned good one.

The past three years, the itinerant catcher has called pitches for a who's who of modern pitching stars. Two years ago, it was Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling for the champion Diamondbacks. Last season, it was Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and friends in Wrigley.

This year, Miller has lugged his gear to Oakland, where he inherits the marquee threesome of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. That's seven pitchers less than three seasons who might win 200 games in their careers. Yogi Berra might have a Hall of Fame plaque, not to mention 10 rings with the mighty Yankees, but even ol' Yog can't compete with that.

"I like to think it's the catcher," the affable Miller joked. "But I think I know better."

Even so, Miller, who broke in with the Twins in 1997, has had the closest look at some of our generation's best pitchers, except perhaps the hitters they consistently dominate. Who brings the best heat? Which was the most clutch curveball he ever saw? To answer these questions and more, we now present the Damian Miller Guide to Elite Pitchers:

Best Fastball

Overall: Johnson and Wood. "Randy's arms are so long it looks like the ball's coming from 55 feet. But for the 60-foot guys, it's Kerry. Halfway to the plate, the ball just explodes. I know it can't speed up, but that's what it looks like. Hitters look at you and say, 'I don't have a chance.' "

Specific: Johnson. "Randy was pitching in Philadelphia. Ron Gant had hit a home run in his previous at-bat, off a 1-2 or 2-2 slider, and that pissed Randy off. The next time up, he strikes out Gant on a fastball, a just unhittable fastball--inside corner at the knees. As I threw it to third base I was like, 'Man, that was hard.' I looked up at the scoreboard, and it was 103 mph."

Best Slider

Overall: Matt Clement. "Everyone knows about Randy's, but Matt's is awesome for a righthander. He can throw a hard sweeper that's more horizontal if he's behind in the count, and when he's ahead he can throw one down and away to righthanders. Hitters just can't pick up the release point."

Specific: Johnson. "The night he struck out 20 (in 2001 against Cincinnati), he faced a righthanded hitter, I can't remember who. This slider was so devastating, the guy swung and it hit him in the back foot. It had to hurt like hell. But I think it hurt his feelings more."

Best Curveball

Overall: Wood. "His breaking ball comes out at the same spot as his fastball--it doesn't go up at all before coming down, like a lot of guys. It's just, zzzsst! He has incredible arm speed."

Specific: Zito. "In his first start against Texas this year, he froze Ramon Nivar on a fastball. When a lefty can buckle a righthanded hitter with a curveball, you know it's a great one. A righthander can see it coming, and Barry still has it backdoor over the outside corner. What a great weapon."

Best Changeup

Overall: Brad Radke. "Most righties can't throw straight changeups to righthanders, but Brad's is just as effective. His mechanics are so sound, he can throw it anytime in the count. It's the great equalizer."

Specific: Schilling. "His splitter is his changeup. In the 2001 playoffs against the Cardinals, he threw a great one in the dirt to Jim Edmonds that just set him up perfectly for a strikeout on the next pitch. But maybe the reason I remember it so well is that it bounced and hit me right in the jewels. That's stayed with me for some reason."

Miscellaneous

Best Control: Schilling. "Curt locates his fastball on both sides of the plate, up and down. He locates his offspeed stuff. He backdoors a slider. He backdoors a curveball. He throws a split on both sides. He just doesn't miss."

Most Intimidating (non-Randy Johnson division): Prior. "He has a great presence on the mound. Hitters know how good he is--you can tell by the swings they take. They know he knows what he's doing. They're already on the defensive."

Best Pickoff Move: Brian Anderson. "One day in San Diego, Rickey Henderson had like a two-step lead, and Brian picked him off. The guy wasn't even leading off the bag yet! That was incredible."

Best Athlete: Tim Hudson. "He's great at fielding his position. He's very quick and agile. He's great at bunts, and he throws to the bases well when he has to."

Most Likely to Stick One in Your Ear: Wood. "He doesn't care--in a good way. He's not a guy who will try to hit you in the head. But he likes to pitch inside. And if we have to hit somebody, he would have no problem. Tremendous teammate."

Funniest: Mike Trombley. "Trombley would say things on the mound and you'd just crack up. One time, Tom Kelly went out there and said, 'This guy's a good breaking-ball hitter.' So Mike goes, 'So I should throw him a bad one?' "

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