Just last night, it struck me that I’ve done four stories in less than a week involving players who have hired their own coaches and/or personal trainers to make some pretty radical shifts in the direction of their overall game and approach to it.
Blake Beavan is the latest I’ve written about and you can read the story in today’s print edition about how he spent a month working with University of Texas pitching coach/guru Skip Johnson in order to generate a more downward plane on his offerings. You all remember Doug Fister and how his downward angle on pitches from a 6-foot-8 height made it extremely difficult for hitters to make solid contact and do much more than pound balls into the ground.
Well, that’s what the 6-foot-7 Beavan is aiming for. He and Johnson worked three days a week — with Beavan sleeping over at minor leaguer Chane Ruffin’s place — at the Austin, TX campus of the U of T altering the pitcher’s delivery. The idea is for Beavan to create more downward angle and then to repeat his delivery so that it becomes consistent and enables him to disguise what’s coming. In the past, Beavan struggled to repeat the same mechanics when he switched from a fastball to a breaking ball. That’s a no-no in pitching — especially in the majors — because the hitters today are so smart and skilled that they will easily pick up on any slight change. So, if you know Beavan does things differently when he throws his breaking ball, you can just sit back and wait for it. Ditto on the fastball. And since Beavan’s fastball wasn’t generating any downward plane, the hitters who sensed it was coming would hit it a long, long way if it flattened out on him.
So, anyhow, that’s what Beavan has taken it upon himself to try to change. You have to admire the thought process, though the execution is a whole lot tougher to pull off than I’m making it sound. A pitcher altering his mechanics is no easy thing to pull off at the MLB level. It takes weeks and weeks of repetition to gain the confidence to use the tweaks in a game and then months, sometimes years, afterwards to hone it to perfection.
It may seem, sometimes, as if we’re constantly writing about players making tweaks and serious changes. Fact is, we are. This is a constant part of life at the higher levels of baseball, where raw talent alone is rarely enough to get you by forever. The players are just too sophisticated in how they attack opponents these days, studying traits and tendencies well in advance and now having high-speed computers as well as ample video to help them out.
The “classroom” part of MLB is the stuff fans never see. The stuff off the field. It’s a constant battle — part of an ongoing, never-ending war — to emerge on top of all comers. But just because we can’t always see it doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore it.
There is too much money at stake for players not to do this extra work, put in the preparation. Frankly, any player who isn’t constantly trying to stay ahead of “enemies” trying to get the better of him is an idiot.
We saw last year just how quickly Dustin Ackley, everybody’s flavor-of-the-week in 2011, went from hero to zero once opposing pitchers figured him out a bit and exploited his weaknesses. Now, he has to adapt.
So, as camp has progressed, we’ve done our best to tell you what some Mariners are planning in order to try to improve. As always, it’s the process we’re interested in at this stage. The results come later. And as we all should know by now, a process alone in baseball is no guarantee of results.
We’ve already heard this spring from Jason Bay, who talked the other day about how all the constant tweaking of his swing that he did with the New York Mets — in a bid to show the fans of New York he wasn’t washed up — wound up hurting him more than helping. Bay flat-out forgot how to swing a bat the way he did back when he was crushing baseballs for the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates. Now, in camp, he’s trying to revert to what made him a once-feared hitter in the first place.
Remember, even a slight tweak in mechanics by hitters or pitchers is a serious deal. Tough to get down-pat and it’s no guarantee of success.
But you have to try it if you’re a player, especially if you’re one still coming into his own. Because for every player we think we have figured out below the age of 30, there’s always another who surprises us.
Fister surprised everybody. And he made some significant changes to his repertoire beyond the perfecting of the downward plane to his pitches. He’s now more of a sinkerballer than he was early on.
In Beavan’s case, generating more downward plane on his fastball and disgusing his breaking stuff better could be what he needs to vault from a 150-innings guy in MLB to a capable 200 innings type. We saw Jason Vargas pull that off by perfecting his changeup in recent years and now he’s a guy paid $8.5 million this season by the Los Angeles Angels.
So, yeah, the process matters. It’s all we have at this stage. We’ll see as camp progresses and when the games start, whether the process leads to results.
What the Mariners will be eyeing this spring with Beavan is whether he can consistently repeat his delivery and generate the downward plane on his pitches. Whether he can disguise the breaking ball in games the same way he does in live batting practice and bullpen sessions (he didn’t throw many breaking balls the first Cactus League game). They won’t care if some hitters get lucky this spring and wallop a few home runs into the dry desert air. But they will care when the games begin.
And then, they’ll have to judge whether Beavan is succeeding or failing. He’s a former first-round pick, after all. If he is able to generate downward plane and disguise his pitch selection, his raw stuff should be good enough to get ground ball results. If he still can’t do that, then it’s possible his mental thought process — his ability to be a thinking pitcher — may be off. That can take years for a young guy to develop and he’s still only 24. Beavan has had problems in the past with his selection of what pitch to throw during games and where to locate it.
Like I said, this whole baseball thing isn’t easy to figure out, which is what makes it a great game. But what separates the big leagues from the minors, or college and high school ball, is that everybody up here was usually the best player in their town or district by a country mile. Everybody at this level was once a superstar. Raw talent will only get you so far in the majors if you aren’t willing to tweak or change. The opponents are too good and they will get you if you’re caught sleeping at the wheel.
Or, you can put in the work and try to catch them. Try to surprise the pundits and be something more than you were supposed to be. Or, try to stay on top and be that superstar everybody thought you were going to be in Year 1. We saw how far Ackley fell so early on in Year No. 2. Today, in the Angels game, we’ll get a look at Mike Trout. I’m very curious to see how pitchers adapt to his game and whether he’s put in the needed work to stay on top.
Even Albert Pujols has to constantly tweak in order to remain among the game’s finest hitters.
For Beavan, this is all part of the process.
And the process matters. This time of year, it’s pretty much the only story that really matters in spring training. Come the regular season, we’ll start looking at results. And if you see some results you like, you’ll better be able to understand why they came about because you’ll have had a sneak peek at the process behind it. And if it fails, you’ll better know the details of the process and can have a better undersatanding as to why an approach that worked for one guy may not have panned out for somebody else.
Just like the process used by front offices, if the results aren’t there, you at some point have to adapt and change. There is no one “right” answer, only a world of possibility for those willing to work at it.