Rick Kranitz Talks Pitching

Rick Kranitz knows the art of pitching. Now in his third season as the pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves, he’s been tutoring hurlers for over three decades, with roughly half of those years spent at the big-league level. Prior to assuming his current position in December 2018, the 62-year-old “Kranny” served in that role for the Florida Marlins, Baltimore Orioles, Milwaukee Brewers, and Philadelphia Phillies.

Kranitz talked pitching when the Braves visited Fenway Park last week.


David Laurila: Pitching has never been better. Does that make a pitching coach’s job any easier?

Rick Kranitz: “I wouldn’t say it’s easier. Number one, this is a very hard game. A lot of it is built on failure — you can make a good pitch and something doesn’t happen quite right — but you still have to go out there and execute. The biggest thing for me is getting them to believe in who they are and what they can do. It’s a lot of mental stuff, having them prepared to execute what they need to execute.

“A lot of hitters — in recent history, for sure — have the same swing paths, which we can attack similarly. But there are also guys… like this Boston club we’re playing now. They’re very difficult, because they do a lot of different things. They have a lot of situational hitters who look for pitches, so you can’t just do the same thing over and over again. But I think I know what you’re alluding to. Back in the day, it was ill-advised to throw three of the same pitches in the same area. Nowadays, with the swing path, you can get after that a little bit more against a lot of guys. For sure.”

Laurila: Is that a big part of why your staff dominated the Cincinnati Reds last October?

Kranitz: “You know what? It was crazy, right? I don’t think they were swinging the bat particularly well coming into that series. They had opportunities to score early and they didn’t, which was huge for us. Like last night [against the Red Sox]. When you don’t get a starter early, he can settle in and be tough. And we got on a great roll [against Cincinnati]. Each guy was throwing the ball particularly well at that particular time.

“But yeah, I think what we saw… when you see guys that maybe aren’t swinging the bat well, you can get after some of their weaknesses. That’s especially true if it matches up with your starters’ strengths. We executed well.”

Laurila: Were the Reds not vulnerable to a specific attack plan?

Kranitz: “Well, like I said before, it’s about convincing guys that they can get going on their strengths. You never want to go too far away from your strengths. And a lot of times, you just trust what you see and go from there. I’m a big believer that you have to speed up and slow down a hitter. You have to control their bat speed.

“What I think we did particularly well is when we threw soft on a hitter’s count, they didn’t get what they were looking for. When you’re able to throw a breaking ball 1-0 and get a strike, that adds to your success. Our guys were really humming along with what they can do. So, basically, I think it was more about what we could do, as opposed to what they could or couldn’t do.”

Laurila: A lot of people feel that pitchers don’t command the ball as well as they once did. Do you feel that’s accurate?

Kranitz: “Well, if you want to be a complete pitcher, you better command the baseball, right? For as long as this game has been evolving… you know, the swing-and-miss on the fastball has always been [on pitches] up. I mean, 10 years ago we realized that. With the new swing, a lot of guys are basically low thigh to middle in, uppercut swing. We can expose up a little bit more with guys that can do it.

“When you look at somebody like Ian Anderson, I thought our minor-league people did a wonderful job of getting him to out-stuff guys up in the zone. Way back, we never thought of that: just going from jump. But we see it now more than ever, because of the swings. To me, the toughest hitters are the guys that have an approach. I mean, look at how we end up winning that series in Cincinnati. Of all things, Freddie [Freeman] got a slider and just kind of dumped it into left field. He just needed a base hit. He changed his swing because he needed to get that run home. Those are the tough guys to get out.”

Laurila: Do you see hitters trending that way?

Kranitz: “It depend on the hitters, and we have seen it. Certain guys on certain teams… like I said, this Boston team is littered with guys like that. They’re smart. They’re not afraid to use right field. If you’re over-shifted, they’re not afraid to hit a groundball for a base hit with two strikes. We have to recognize who those guys are, and pitch accordingly. You have to do specific things to this team in Boston that maybe you don’t with other teams. But a lot of young guys nowadays are really just staying in their approach. They don’t get out of it, so if you can command the baseball you can exploit that to a certain degree.

“You can’t out-stuff [the Red Sox]. You just can’t. The big thing is, you can’t be predictable. If you’re predictable, good offensive teams will hurt you. You’ve got to be able to throw a breaking ball in a 2-0 or 3-1 count. You can’t give in to the count. And you also have to control the lineup. You have to know who is swinging really well. If guys are swinging well, you need to make better pitches, whereas if they’re not you can be a little more aggressive with your stuff. And sometimes… shoot. For me, it’s not who you play, it’s when you play them.

“I’m big on swing paths. I look at swings and try to place, in my mind, where guys on the staff will be effective with their stuff. With the scouting report, it could be, ‘You can go here and here,’ but that’s going to be with your stuff. You don’t ever want to have a guy trying to go someplace he’s not comfortable going, or that he’s not successful going, even if it’s a weakness for a hitter.”

Laurila: Are some pitchers guilty of trying to out-stuff hitters in part because they’re paying too much attention to their StatCast data?

Kranitz: “It’s possible. Yeah. I mean… it’s weird, right? I was just talking to a couple of guys the other day. Back when I got to the big leagues, we’d do reports on all the pitchers and the average fastball was 89 [mph]. Once it creeps up, the hitters will adjust. They’ll get started early, and they have to. That’s where a lot of breaking balls are coming into it. The hitters have to cheat. They have to get started. Guys chase because of the attention they pay to somebody’s fastball.

“If a fastball is beating a hitter, or it he’s paying enough attention to it, it’s like, ‘Holy cow, I better get this thing started a little bit sooner.’ Then they start to chase, because they have to be ready to hit the heater. When hitters can wait, they become very good. Especially the guys that can wait and foul off tough breaking balls. They grind out at-bats, fouling off pitches until they get one they can do damage on. That’s why this team is good, why the Yankees and Dodgers are good. Our own team. We battle and fight until we get a pitch we can handle. That’s why it’s so important for a pitcher to command the baseball.”

Laurila: You mentioned Ian Anderson. One thing I’ve noticed looking at his StatCast data is that he doesn’t spin the ball all that well.

Kranitz: “No, but he’s got a very unique delivery. He’s very aggressive. And for a young pitcher, he’s pretty much in control of his emotions. I always say it’s like a boxer. The first inning was a little tense for Charlie [Morton] last night — even the second inning — but once you don’t get those guys, look out. Once they get into the flow of the game… it’s like a boxer coming out and getting popped in the first round. He’s got to hold on. He’s got to throw his changeup. He’s got to throw his breaking ball. He’s got to rope it up. If he comes out throwing harder after getting stunned, he’s probably going to get knocked out.

“Young guys need to learn how to hold on like that. They need to use their other pitches; they need to really concentrate on making their pitches, rather than blindly throwing the ball as hard as they can, hoping for a swing-and-miss.”

Laurila: What makes Anderson’s changeup as good as it is?

Kranitz: “Well, it’s all three of his pitches. They all come out of the same area. When you have a fastball that’s 95-96 [mph] and it’s got life to it, and then you throw your changeup off of it… I mean, it looks like the same pitch. The batter sees fastball when it’s a change and he’s ‘Oh, no!’ And then you’ve got the curveball. When that thing’s rolling… like he did in his start here last year. He got his curveball going and he really rode it for a while. That’s what good pitchers will do. They’ll ride that one pitch they know they have.

“When you’ve got a guy like Ian that has all three pitches going — three pitches in any count — that’s really hard for hitters. And like I said, when you don’t give in to the count… that’s what I love about him: he doesn’t give in to counts. He pitches. He’ll use his changeup in different counts, and he’s got enough fastball to hold the hitters back to where they’ve got to respect it. When hitters respect that heater, the change really comes into play.”

Laurila: How does Josh Tomlin get guys out?

Kranitz: “You know what? He’s the ultimate pro. He’s a command guy from jump street. He’ll throw any pitch in any count, and there you go. A lot of guys want to sit soft on him, and then the 90-mph fastball is by them. They’ll look at the numbers and say, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s going to throw this, so I better wait.’ The next thing you know, the fastball has beaten them. It doesn’t matter how hard you throw. It really doesn’t. It’s a matter of being able to throw the right pitch at the right time.

“You don’t want to dilute your best weapons. Especially him. I mean, we all know that he likes to throw the cutter, and he’s got a very good curveball, but he’s got to use his fastball. He has to, and he does. That’s what makes him so special. He knows how to get guys out. He’s been around the league a long time, and he gets it. There’s no panic. There’s just, ‘I’m going to make my pitch, and if he hits it, well, I’m going to just keep making my pitches.’”

Laurila: It looks like he’s not throwing many changeups.

Kranitz: “Not right now. Sometimes out of the bullpen it’s a little tougher to do that. In spring training, we build him up like a starter so he had an opportunity to use all of his pitches. And he’s had a couple of outings where he’s gone longer. One time this year he threw four-plus innings and really saved our bacon.”

Laurila: Tucker Davidson is a pitcher I don’t know much about. What can you tell me about him?

Kranitz: “Tucker had been fastball/curveball/changeup, and then was introduced to the slider. Our minor-league people put that pitch in his hand, and it’s really been a difference-maker for him. Max Fried, two years ago, started [throwing a slider] and it was a difference-maker for him. Certain guys add at the right time, and for both of those guys the slider has been big.

“With Max, the two-seamer… we’re seeing a little more usage there. You add according to what you need. But Max’s slider has really come into play. Everybody knows about Max’s curveball, and then you add in the good fastball that he throws 93-95 with really good life. That’s a good two-pitch mix, but it’s also something where hitters could eliminate one or the other. And maybe Max doesn’t have the curveball that day, so he’d get pinned down. But now he’s got the slider that he can throw for a strike; he can use all three of his pitches to go for the kill, just like Ian.”

Laurila: You mentioned a two-seamer. That’s a pitch we seem to be seeing less and less of.

Kranitz: “I actually think it’s coming back. Everybody got enamored with the high fastball, because it’s swing-and-miss, but we’ve always been there. We’ve been high fastballs for swing-and-miss from as far back as I can remember. But there’s a lot of room for that two-seamer, for that sinker. A lot of room.

“Every pitch has its place. For some guys with a four-pitch mix, maybe the curveball is the point guard. It’s assisting the other pitches. You’re basically using it to feed the other guys for the kill. Right? So it’s about learning who you are and how your pitches work. And if one of your pitches is really sharp on a given day, you might lean on it a little more. That’s the art of pitching: understanding what you have that day. And again, you have to go about your business of attacking. These hitters are good — the mistakes go a long way — but home runs aren’t hit, they’re thrown. When you’re making pitches, you have the advantage.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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1 year ago

Excellent interview! Plenty of broad AND detailed info from a dude who’s been around the block.