FORT LAUDERDALE – Sometimes you have to leave the nest before you can prove to yourself–and everyone else–what lies within.
That was the case for Rick Kranitz, who spent 22 largely anonymous years toiling in the Cubs organization before one season with the Marlins put him on the map as one of the game’s most successful pitching coaches.
For his work in guiding a rookie-laden pitching staff to heights no one could have imagined, Kranitz was selected as Baseball America’s Major League Coach of the Year.
“I had been in the Cubs organization for so long, I felt like, ‘Golly, am I ever going to leave? Am I ever going to get an opportunity to go someplace away from the comfort zone I was in?’ ” Kranitz said. “When I did, it felt pretty good. It felt right to be around those young guys and to see how much they improved.”
Kranitz, who replaced the respected Mark Wiley, nearly got away from the Marlins at season’s end. He was prepared to follow longtime friend Joe Girardi back to Chicago if he got the Cubs job. The Nationals were after them as a formidable entry as well.
Much to the relief of new Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez and a pitching staff full of admirers, Kranitz opted to return to Miami. Calls from Gonzalez, owner Jeffrey Loria and general manager Larry Beinfest also persuaded Kranitz to stay put.
His salary was bumped from $80,000 to $110,000, which still leaves him near the low end of the big league scale. But Kranitz, 48, isn’t worried about that. The laid-back California native and Arizona resident cares about getting still more from a talented young staff.
“I’ve said all along it’s not often you get five young arms with the kind of ability we have,” he said. “I looked at what they accomplished as a group and decided I would love to be there to see this through. The job isn’t done yet.”
Veterans Need Not Apply
In 2006 the Marlins became the first staff in history to field four rookies with 10 or more wins each. That included rookie righthander Anibal Sanchez, who on Sept. 6 threw the majors’ first no-hitter in nearly 28 months.
It wasn’t just the kids who thrived under Kranitz’ tutelage. Veteran closer Joe Borowski, who worked with Kranitz in the Cubs system, completed his comeback from shoulder woes with a 36-save season.
And Dontrelle Willis, the old man of the rotation at 24, overcame a miserable start to finish 12-12 with a respectable 3.87 ERA.
“I think we were the most prepared team in all of baseball,” Willis says. “If I didn’t make this pitch and they hit a home run, I understood why. I wasn’t in the dark about anything. We knew exactly what we needed to do and when we did it, it was absolutely because we were prepared. There were no surprises.”
Girardi–a stickler for preparation–noted the same commitment in Kranitz, whom he first met in 1986 as a newly drafted catcher out of Northwestern. Kranitz was in his first year as a full-fledged coach, having spent the previous two years in a pitcher/coach role.
“He (was) outstanding,” Girardi says. “Number one, I think he’s used to working with young guys. Number two, Kranny’s outstanding mechanically and he’s very prepared and has a plan. He loves what he does. He’s a tireless worker.”
Rookie Marlins reliever Taylor Tankersley, who was called up from Double-A Carolina in early June and quickly worked his way into a prominent set-up role, praised Kranitz for his ability to break down opposing hitters.
“It’s like a chess match with him,” Tankersley said. “He just breaks down a hitter’s swing and says, ‘This is how we can get him out quickest and easiest.’ Our scouting reports all year were dead on.”
With little experience and a revolving door in his bullpen, Kranitz kept his pitchers’ confidence up, even during some potentially crushing slides. While Girardi received plenty of credit for the Marlins’ turnaround after an 11-31 start, Kranitz’s role with pitchers was just as vital.
“The thing I’m proudest of is we had some times where we stumbled through the season, some guys had some rough times, but they always bounced back,” he says. “You always find out what the character is when things aren’t going right. The character with this group is second to none.”
Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco overcame early stints in the bullpen to earn rotation spots by mid-May, then seemed to get better with each start. Rookie Scott Olsen had his moments of doubt and frustration, but the brash lefty turned a corner in late May and wound up tying for the club lead with 12 wins and leading the Marlins with 166 strikeouts.
Rookie relievers Logan Kensing and Carlos Martinez ascended to prominent roles before each fell victim to season-ending elbow injuries. But Kranitz was able to plug Matt Herges, Randy Messenger, Renyel Pinto, Sergio Mitre and others into a no-name bullpen that had no business being so successful.
A Big Learning Experience
Kranitz considered everything that happened in 2006 a learning experience, both for him as a rookie big league pitching coach and for the 13 rookies who passed through his care.
“If you look at the organization you want to pattern yourself after, it’s the Atlanta Braves,” Kranitz says. “Well, if you look back, those guys really struggled early. Smoltz struggled his first couple years. Glavine did too.
“Not that these guys with the Marlins are never going to struggle, but they learned through some of their rough spots. The sooner you’re able to do that, the better you are and the sooner you’re going to be a much better major league pitcher. If you’ve never gone through it, it’s going to be lot tougher for you to work past.”
Kranitz never pitched in the majors but he knows what goes into the craft. A righthander who helped Yavapai (Ariz.) Junior College to a national title in 1977, Kranitz pitched two seasons for Oklahoma State before the Brewers drafted him in the fourth round in 1979.
Five seasons in the Brewers system followed, including a no-hitter with Class A Stockton in 1981. He topped out in Double-A before closing out his career with two player/coach seasons in the low levels of the Cubs system.
“You don’t learn about yourself in one season,” Kranitz said. “It’s a constant learning process. But the more they can learn, the better off they’ll be.
“You talk to any major league pitcher that’s been around 10 or 15 years, they’ll say, ‘If only I knew myself then like I know myself now.’ That’s the process we’re in.”
Though improvement was exponential in 2006, Kranitz realizes life isn’t about straight lines and unimpeded progress. Nonetheless, it’s his job to help his young staff buck those trends.
“They’re learning what they do best, learning their body, what they can and can’t do,” he says. “I tried to stick with what they can do, what their strengths are and attack on the basis of what their strengths are. Pitchers are creatures of habit. They’re going to fall back into what they’re comfortable with.”
It certainly didn’t take the young Marlins long to get comfortable with Kranitz.