There are certain jobs that should come with a warning label like you find on prescription medication, which promises it will cure you but also advises that the side effects could leave you blind, maimed, crippled or plain struck dead.
Pitching for the Texas Rangers, for example. With Rangers Ballpark in Arlington notorious as a hitters' paradise, and with the Texas heat in August enough to choke a Clydesdale, being a Rangers pitcher is the kind of hazard duty that takes years off a man's life while adding runs to his ERA. At least that's been the reputation.
But change is a-comin'. A third of the way into the season, the Rangers are in first place in the American League West, a position they've occupied for 32 days and counting. That's the longest they've been in first without an eviction notice since 1999, when they led the pack for the last 139 days before winning the division.
And while the Rangers can still bash with the best of them – even without injured slugger Josh Hamilton(notes), they are tied with the Yankees for most home runs in the majors with 87 – the most noticeable difference in the Rangers is that their pitchers no longer behave as if they should be performing with blindfolds. No team in the big leagues is getting more innings, on average, out of its starters than the Rangers (6.15 innings per outing), and the starters' 23 wins are tied for second in the league.
This was no easy feat, which is why Rangers owner Tom Hicks merely recruited the most famous Texas thrower of them all, Nolan Ryan, to become club president prior to the 2008 season and change the team's culture. By his own account, Ryan sat back last season and played mostly observer while the Rangers' staff posted a 5.37 ERA, the worst in baseball.
But before his players scattered for the winter, Ryan conducted a few exit interviews. A particular target was Kevin Millwood(notes), the ostensible ace of the staff who in Ryan's pointed opinion was guilty of excessive underachievement – two straight seasons of sub-.500 records and plus-5.00 ERAs – and of having a slothful attitude toward conditioning.
What he had to say to Millwood shocked the pitcher, Ryan would later say. But the message took. Millwood showed up for spring training in better condition than he had been in years.
"I think for me to be a leader, I need to perform well, I need to do what everybody else is doing,'' Millwood said Saturday. "I knew if I came in good shape and was able to run outside with everybody, then it makes it easy for me to push those guys.''
Millwood has pitched at least seven innings in nine of his 12 starts this season and his 85 innings rank second in the league. The 34-year-old right-hander has a modest 5-4 record, but his ERA of 2.96 ranks eighth.
"The main thing is he made up his mind that he was going to make a change,'' said Jose Vazquez, the team's strength and conditioning coach. "A few people talked to him, but he made the commitment himself.''
That included a decision to change his diet. The Rangers added a nutritionist this winter; Millwood was her first client.
"He cut out the beer,'' Vazquez said. "And when he does drink, it's minimal. And he's been consistent with his workouts, which he never was before. He has seen early results, he looks healthier and he's pitching better. All those things have come together. Let's hope they continue.''
Signed to a four-year free-agent deal for $48 million before the 2006 season, Millwood is well on his way to a $12 million option for 2010 that kicks in if he pitches 180 innings this season. But of even greater importance to the Rangers is his impact on a young staff. Mike Maddux, the pitching coach hired by Ryan, came in preaching pitching to contact, throwing strikes and working quickly. With Millwood committed to the program, the kids have followed suit.
Brandon McCarthy(notes), who came to the Rangers from the White Sox in the Jon Danks deal, is 5-2. He turns 26 in a month. Right-hander Scott Feldman(notes), who was drafted by the Rangers in the 30th round, is 5-0 and holding opposing hitters to a .224 average. He's 26.
Matt Harrison(notes), the left-hander who was among the prospects Rangers GM Jon Daniels scored from Atlanta in the Mark Teixeira(notes) deal, won four games before going on the DL with a sore shoulder. He's on rehab assignment now and should be back fairly soon. He's 23.
The closer, Frank Francisco(notes), has converted all 12 of his save chances in his first full season with the job. He's 29. And in the wings is the team's No. 1 prospect, 20-year-old Neftali Feliz(notes), who is in Triple-A and could be summoned to work in the Rangers' bullpen until manager Ron Washington is ready to cut him loose in the rotation.
"Anything less than competing this year would only be a disappointment,'' said Michael Young(notes), an All-Star shortstop who moved to third base, initially with reluctance, to make room for star-in-the-making Elvis Andrus(notes). "We feel like we have things lined up where we can field a good quality club for years to come. It's exciting,''
The Rangers' pitching, Maddux said, has benefited from a noticeable improvement in the team's defense.
"When the results are behind you,'' Maddux said, "it's very easy to buy into what we're doing. Guys bought into it right away because we catch the ball.''
Young, who has made a seamless transition to third, said this may be the best defensive team he has played on. Andrus' range is exceptional, second baseman Ian Kinsler(notes) leads the majors in chances, assists and double plays, and first baseman Chris Davis(notes) had not made an error until Friday night, showing a great facility for stretching for throws.
"The fun part about it,'' Young said, "is guys taking pride in it. The defense and pitching staff are feeding off each other. It's definitely our two biggest strengths.''
Any regrets about making the position switch?
"We're winning,'' Young said. "Winning solves everything.''
There remain potholes, one being pitcher Vicente Padilla(notes), who was placed on waivers after his last start but went unclaimed and draws a start against the Boston Red Sox on Sunday. Padilla led the staff last season with 14 wins, one fewer than he had for the Rangers in his first season in Texas in 2006, but he has a bloated 5.57 ERA, not the kind of return the Rangers expect for the $12 million they're paying him this season.
Padilla's performance is one of those red flags to potential free-agent pitchers who might consider coming to Texas, but Millwood said the staff is proving that The Ballpark's reputation as a pitcher's hellhole is overblown.
"I think the thing about the ballpark playing too small is all in people's heads,'' said Millwood, who is 3-1 with a 2.59 ERA at The Ballpark this season, while the team ranks 11th in home ERA at 4.50, almost a full run less than last year's 5.47. "There are a lot of ballparks out there now that play a lot smaller than Texas does.
"We've got it going now where we've got a good plan working and we've shown this year you can pitch in any ballpark and pitch well. You know you're going to get runs scored behind you and we're playing good defense, so it’s a really good place to go. It wasn't the ballpark. We just didn't pitch well.''
What would Maddux say to a pitcher considering Texas as a future employer?
"I would say, 'You want to win?' " Maddux said. "That's what it's all about. If you want to pitch numbers, go pitch at Petco. It's as simple as that. Come here if you want to win."
- Rangers Ballpark in Arlington