My own experience as a volunteer pitching coach for the Braves consists mostly of sitting in a press box, grinding my molars and muttering, “For the love of all that’s holy somebody please throw a strike sometime before the polar ice caps melt and we are all washed away.”
Guess there must be more to it than that, else anybody with a birth certificate could do the job for pay.
Enter Rick Kranitz, an energetic, almost wide-eyed sexagenarian hired in November to bring order to the chaos of youth that occupies the mound for the Braves. Under the dismissed Chuck Hernandez, this group did a lot of good things last season, finishing fifth in National League ERA and assisting in a rather shocking climb to the top of the East.
But there were the walks. So many walks. Nobody in the National League yielded more. So many free passes the mound took on the look of a friends and family will-call window.
Kranitz did not arrive at Braves camp endorsing a one-size-fits-all, just-throw-strikes solution. His will be a much more individual approach. Although, he said, “collectively I would like to see that first-pitch strike increase with certain guys.”
Accentuating the positive, he dialed up one encouraging Braves pitching stat from last year, noting, “The slugging percentage was way down. Yeah, the walks were high but the (opponents’) slugging percentage was low (lowest in the NL). To me, I thought the Braves did a phenomenal job staying out of some damage situations.”
It was a familiarity with the Braves personnel and their output that really helped Kranitz, 60, land this job. He got bumped by Philadelphia when the Phillies decided they had to promote his 37-year-old assistant Chris Young in order to keep him from the clutches of rivals (yes, the Braves were reportedly among those interested). All that, oddly enough, occurred about the same time Krantiz’s prize pupil, Aaron Nola, finished third in the Cy Young voting.
Coming late to the job market, Kranitz gained all kinds of ground when it came time to interview. He just seemed to have such a firm grasp already on the Braves’ young staff, as well as a wealth of ideas on how to bring it to maturity.
Some of that knowledge was naturally acquired during his time in the division with Philadelphia. “I was lucky enough to know most of the guys — we saw Atlanta 19 times,” he said. “I got to see some things, how I could come over and possibly make some suggestions to try to help them.
“I do that all the time anyway. I watch the game and I look at somebody and think he should be doing this, should be doing that. I think I had a head start on that.”
He filled in the rest with some studious preparation. “I absolutely looked at video. I checked the numbers and stats to understand these guys a little bit more,” he said.
Kranitz talks a lot about pitchers “knowing themselves,” that without recognizing their strengths and weaknesses there’s nothing much a coach can accomplish. And on first impression, he said the Braves pitchers as a whole, “seem to understand themselves better than the guys I’ve seen in the past, youth-wise.”
Conversely, some of his players were forming first impressions before even meeting Kranitz.
“I know Aaron Nola really well and talked to him a lot about Kranny,” starter Kevin Gausman said. “He was sad they parted ways with him in Philly.”
And what was the scouting report? “A good guy. Keeps it loose but he’s a fierce competitor. He’s going to push you, which is what you need. With a lot of these young guys, that’s maybe one of the reasons they brought him in,” Gausman said.
“I’ve known him a little bit over the last few years,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “I think he’s going to bring a lot of good things to the table. Preparation, game-calling, those type of things. He’s had the luxury of seeing us from a different perspective than we see ourselves. He’s a different voice for a lot of these young players, too. Sometimes hearing the same thing in a different fashion can click.”
Chipped in the boss, manager Brian Snitker, “It’s unbelievable the unsolicited (positive) texts and emails and calls I got about him.
“I can tell he’s already establishing relationships with the pitchers. He’s going to bring a really good element here.”
Young pitching was at the core of the Braves rebuild. So, nurturing and developing that talent became paramount. Roger McDowell held the pitching coach job for 11 seasons — a veritable lifetime in a gypsy profession. But he was fired in the name of finding someone better at bringing seedlings to harvest. Hernandez made it two seasons before he was sacrificed on the altar of young arms. Now along comes this newest upbeat mentor. This is a restless quest.
Everyone knows where these pitchers need to improve.
But finding the right person to wring out that improvement hasn’t been so obvious.
Yelling, “Just throw strikes!” apparently isn’t all that’s required, the AJC has learned.