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03/09/09 9:55 PM ET

Giants trying to cut down on walks

Johnson helping Righetti preach the gospel of throwing strikes

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- To start a run at respectability, the Giants must stop the walks.

Their intent to rely on pitching won't carry them far if they again issue free passes at alarming rates. The Giants walked 652 batters last season, second-highest in the National League and third-most in the Majors.

"It's something we can't afford to do," pitching coach Dave Righetti said.

The Giants like to believe that they possess one of the National League West's top pitching staffs. But nothing spoils an otherwise admirable mound effort like a few untimely walks.

Meaningless as it was, the Giants' 8-6 exhibition victory Monday over the Milwaukee Brewers served as an example. Barry Zito worked four decent innings, but walked a pair of batters in the second as Milwaukee scored twice.

"Obviously, I could do without the walks," Zito said.

But cutting down on walks is about as difficult as trimming the national deficit. Everybody knows it must be done, but actually executing the plan is elusive.

"It can be a touchy subject," said Righetti, who likened a pitcher with shaky control to a basketball player who struggles with free throws. "If you harp on something that's kind of a negative situation, it seems to not really get better."

Righetti has tried to emphasize that allowing opposing hitters to put the ball in play isn't disastrous. Much more often than not, the batted ball will result in an out. But try conveying this message to the staff that set a Giants franchise record with 1,240 strikeouts last year.

Righetti experienced firsthand the value of pitching to contact. Playing for the New York Yankees, he led the American League with 108 walks in 183 innings in 1982. The following season, after realizing that a fastball doesn't always have to be blown by hitters, he walked only 67 batters in 217 innings.

"The strikeout gradually went down in my mind, unless I needed it in a situation," said Righetti, who occasionally encountered those situations when he became a closer in 1984.

Righetti has received some unsolicited help from Randy Johnson, the future Hall of Famer who said that he has preached the importance of throwing first-pitch strikes to fellow starters Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. As the NL's reigning Cy Young Award winner, Lincecum might be in less need of counseling. But he and Cain ranked 1-2 in the league in pitches thrown, so it behooves the Giants to do what they can to protect their valuable 24-year-old arms.

"I can't emphasize enough how important it is to throw first-pitch strikes," Johnson said. "Throwing strike one, the percentage goes up in your favor that good things will happen. Because now you can throw what you want on the second pitch and where you want it. Even if it's a ball, now you're even in the count. It's not 2-0.

"When I'm ahead or even in the count, I can throw what I want. The hitter is still on the defensive. But I know, as a lousy-hitting pitcher, that if the pitcher gets behind me 2-0, I'm going to swing the heck out of the bat because he's probably going to throw a fastball. It's no different from when I'm pitching against a good hitter. When I'm behind 2-0, I'm usually going to throw a fastball, and they know that."

Johnson went on to point out that every Major League hitter can mash a fastball, regardless of how hard it's thrown. Yet the fastball remains the foundation of most pitchers' repertoires, even for breaking-ball artists like Zito, who need to show hitters a variety of speeds. Thus, said right-hander Bob Howry, avoiding walks depends largely on a pitcher's ability to command his fastball.

"Some guys are quicker at being able to pick up command of their fastball," Howry said. "I know that as a young pitcher, I had trouble commanding my fastball and I walked a lot of guys. My problem was trying to throw everything and where it went, it went. Once you can at least command that first pitch, then you can work on commanding your others. You can really cut down on not only the walks, but the pitches you throw per inning and trying to get outs early in the count by letting them put it in play -- especially in the park we're playing in, which is more favorable toward pitchers."

The Giants should walk fewer hitters this season, if only because three of their new pitchers -- free-agent signees Howry, Johnson and Jeremy Affeldt -- averaged fewer than three walks per nine innings last year. The only Giants in that category among those who made at least 20 appearances in 2008 were relievers Vinnie Chulk and Sergio Romo.

Righetti's confident that maturity and efficiency ultimately will limit the walk totals of Giants pitchers.

"I think over time, you'll see it gradually come down," he said. "I don't know whether it'll be dramatic this year. I'd like to think it'd be a lot better."

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.