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Sports/--Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants makes his Spring Training pitching debut against the Chicago Cubs at HoHoKam filed in Mesa, AZ Thursday March 1, 2007. Zito pitched two scoreless innings during his start. (Kent Porter / The Press democrat) 2007

Depending on your aim, watching the radar gun can be bad or good

SAN FRANCISCO - Like any good manager, Bruce Bochy was looking for an edge. He found it, of all places, on the scoreboard.

Bochy was managing the Padres against the Dodgers, whose pitcher Bochy knew was a little radar-gun happy. The pitcher would check his velocity on the scoreboard after every pitch.

"So (Bochy) said in the first inning, 'I want (the radar gun) turned down,' " recalls pitcher Alan Embree, who was with the Padres at the time. "It was down a few miles an hour. After the first inning, (Bochy) comes in and said 'I want you to turn it down.' So they dropped it even more."

Suddenly, fastballs that were supposed to be 93 were showing up on the scoreboard as 86 or 87.

"You could just see the pitcher getting more and more frustrated," Embree said. "He was pumping fastballs, looking up, pumping fastballs, looking up. He was out in five innings instead of seven or eight."

Embree called it "psychological warfare. If you can get a guy sucked into it, it may work to your advantage."

Bochy, now the Giants' manager, sheepishly admitted to that bit of gamesmanship, although he insisted it was a one-time occurrence.

It is an example of how ballpark radar guns -- now standard equipment in the majors and even many minor-league parks -- can have an impact on the game between the lines.

Technically the pitch-speed readings are just a part of the ballpark entertainment, like dot racing or a big furry mascot. In reality, they are so much more.

"The gun is a major factor" in the way the game is played, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "It has a big-time impact."

Pitch-speed readings began popping up in ballparks in the mid '90s, and since then they have become a favorite of fans and the bane of pitching coaches and other pitching purists.

Overblown statistic

"I think it emphasizes a statistic that is completely overblown and has nothing to do with pitching," said Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, a former big-league pitcher. "A guy may throw a 99 mph fastball and everyone is impressed with it, but a 99 mph fastball isn't necessarily going to get someone out. Look at Barry Zito and Jamie Moyer and Tom Glavine. They laugh at those things.

"It's sensationalistic. I like it, but I don't think it has a lot to do with what is going on down there."

The most common complaint about the presence of the pitch-speed readings is that pitchers can become obsessed with their velocity and forget about pitching.

"Some are more casual about looking than others," Giants pitcher Matt Morris said. "Some are finishing their pitch and looking at the radar gun. Definitely, players get caught up in it."

When former Giants closer Armando Benitez was a young, hard-throwing pitcher with the Orioles, he used to pump his fists when he'd hit 100 mph, Embree said.

"A pitcher's focus should be on making a quality pitch and putting the ball where he wants, not on how hard he's throwing," Bochy said. "Unfortunately, some pitchers do get caught up in the radar gun. It's right there where they can see it. Some use it in the right way. They say 'I don't have the same velocity' and they pitch more. Another guy may just try to throw harder."

Games people play

The other issue is that the combination of a gun-happy pitcher and a devious opponent creates great opportunities for tricks like Bochy's.

"I don't suspect it goes on, I'm very much aware of it," Astros pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "It goes on . . . There is always gamesmanship going on."

Krukow said it "absolutely" happens, and he cited the example of former Giants pitcher Jerry Spradlin. Spradlin was enamored with his velocity, and when the Giants went back to Philadelphia -- where Spradlin had played and not been well-liked -- the gun was mysteriously showing 91 mph instead of 96 mph.

"He tried to throw harder and harder and got all screwed up," Krukow said.

Added Righetti: "Teams know what pitchers are gun-happy. They might drag it up there on somebody or drag it down, especially the teams that play each other a lot. We don't do it. At least, I'm not involved in it."

The Giants have been accused at least once, though.

In April 2004, Dodgers closer Eric Gagne was waging what would become an epic battle against Barry Bonds. The AT&T Park scoreboard radar gun was showing Gagne's pitches at 100, then 102 and even 103 mph. Bonds battled him, yanking one foul into McCovey Cove. Then he finally hit a home run on a fastball that registered as 102 mph on the scoreboard.

Gagne said the gun readings were fiction, an attempt to goad him into throwing fastballs instead of his devastating curve or change-up.

"I don't throw that hard," Gagne said the next day. "I throw 96, 97, maybe 98 on a good day. But 102? No way. I think they were pumping them up a bit. They wanted me to throw a fastball probably."

The Giants denied any manipulation at the time. John Tyler, who runs the scoreboards at AT&T Park, said that the readings go directly from the gun to a computer that displays them on the board.

The gun is calibrated each day for accuracy, Tyler said.

At the Coliseum, they can calibrate the gun up or down if its readings are consistently off, according to David Rinetti, the A's vice president in charge of ballpark operations.

During a game, though, there is no way to change readings for one pitcher and not another, Rinetti said.

"There is no human involvement," he said. "The radar gun is in a box (inside the backstop). Whatever that radar gun reads will show up on the scoreboard. We don't have any human involvement in it at all."

Holster the gun

Rinetti said it is the team's policy to turn it off if an A's pitcher requests it. Mark Mulder used to have the readings turned off when he pitched because he believed the gun wasn't accurately reading him. The A's would also turn it off on those days for the visiting pitcher as a courtesy.

Rinetti said he was unaware of any written rules or guidelines about the use of ballpark radar guns, but Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney said there is a bulletin sent to clubs each year.

"Clubs are prohibited from manipulating the pitch-speed readings that are displayed on ballpark scoreboards or displaying data selectively that would offer an advantage to one of the competing clubs," the bulletin reads.

If a club is suspected of such manipulation, Courtney said, the matter goes before baseball disciplinarian Bob Watson. Courtney said teams have been fined for such violations, although he wouldn't identify them or even say how frequently it has happened.

Giants first baseman Rich Aurilia said he's been suspicious at some parks.

"I know there are some parks that shut it off when certain guys come in," he said. "There have been places I've played where it would be on for our pitcher and off for their pitcher."

The Giants, in fact, selectively turned off the radar gun when Robb Nen pitched during the 2002 World Series. They were trying to hide the fact that Nen was pitching hurt, and his velocity was down.

Righetti said that was not his call, but he said: "I think it's silly to now turn it off. Doesn't that kind of heighten the awareness of people who are paying attention?"

Guns can backfire

Another reason for pitching coaches to detest the gun is that it can help the hitters.

A's shortstop Bobby Crosby said he checks it all the time to get an idea of what he's facing.

"I like to see how hard a guy is throwing because a guy can look deceivingly fast or slow," Crosby said. "A guy can look like he's not throwing that hard till you get up there. You can look at a gun and see 'Hey, this guy is throwing 95.' Look at a guy like Rich Harden. If you look at him from the side, you think he's maybe throwing 90. Everything is easy and it just jumps on you. (The gun) helps you gauge how much you need to gear up."

That's why Giants lefty Jack Taschner said he prefers the ballparks where the gun is not accurate.

"I'd rather it be turned down," he said. "I know how hard I throw. If a guy is looking for 86 and you are throwing 93, they can't adjust to that."

Inaccurate readings may have nothing to do with intentional tinkering, but simply be a product of the technology. A radar gun that is focused on a fixed point will get different readings from pitchers with different release points.

"I remember years back when Robb Nen was throwing a legitimate 98 and the gun would read him at like 92," Aurilia said. "Then Felix Rodriguez would come in throwing 97 and it would read 97. I think it picks up deliveries different."

Ignore the gun

The solution, of course, is just to convince pitchers and hitters to ignore the radar gun.

A's catcher Jason Kendall has had to say as much to his pitchers plenty of times throughout his career: "A pitcher looking at the gun is a guy getting caught up in not doing his job. When you are at this level, it really doesn't matter how hard you throw. It's about location."

Embree said he learned that lesson a long time ago.

"Early on in my career I caught myself doing it," Embree said. "Then I'd look at it and if I see a lower reading than I actually felt, it's time to get outs with my offspeed stuff because I don't have my good fastball. Now I'm at the point where I don't even look at it, because you can't tell (if it's accurate). You look at the hitters' swings."

Now Embree has a message for young pitchers when they get to the big leagues and start checking the gun.

"You know what your stuff is and you know what you need to do to get outs," he tells them. "You don't need to look at that gun, because you got here without looking at it."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeff Fletcher at 521-5489 or jeff.fletcher@pressdemocrat.com.

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