Author Archive

Darren O’Day Talks Pitching

Darren O’Day isn’t your typical submariner. While most pitchers with down-under arm angles live down in the zone, O’Day features a lot of four-seamers up, and he’s thrived while doing so. Over his 12 big-league seasons, the 37-year-old right-hander has logged a 2.55 ERA and fanned better than a batter per nine innings. Since the start of the 2015 season, his K/9 is an eye-opening 13.1.

O’Day, whose best seasons have come with the Baltimore Orioles, is currently with the Atlanta Braves. He discussed his pitching M.O., and explained why his “Jenny Finch” is such an effective weapon, in a recent phone conversation.

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David Laurila: You’re atypical in that you work up in the zone from a low arm angle. How did that come to be?

Darren O’Day: “When I was a rookie — kind of a scared rookie — I did what the team told me to do. My short time with the Mets, as well. I pitched down in the zone, because I’m a sidearmer, a submariner, and they wanted groundballs. They didn’t care about strikeouts as much back then; they just wanted quick outs, which was kind of the philosophy of the game.

“Then I bounced to my third team, the Rangers, about a year after [breaking into the big leagues]. I kind of said, ‘Forget about that. I’m going to pitch the way I want and figure out if I’m good enough to be here.’ That’s when I started pitching up in the zone, in 2009, and you saw the strikeout numbers go up a little bit.

“That’s really been the big paradigm shift in baseball, and it’s kind of ‘the chicken or the egg’ — did the high damage come first, or did the need for the swing-and-miss come first? But that’s what everybody wants, even if it costs you a couple more pitches per inning.” Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Kyle Boddy is Bullish on Hunter Greene

The Cincinnati Reds have been eagerly awaiting Hunter Greene’s return from Tommy John surgery. And for good reason. Prior to going under the knife 15 months ago he was hitting triple digits with his heater. Drafted second overall by the Reds in 2017 out of a Sherman Oaks, California high school, Greene is No. 77 on our 2020 Top 100 Prospects list.

According to Kyle Boddy, his return is nigh. Cincinnati’s pitching coordinator recently spent time with Greene in California, and he deemed the 20-year-old’s rehab “basically done.” Throwing in front of a Rapsoto, Greene was “an easy 97-plus [mph], reaching 100-101 when he was rearing back.”

More than a return to health is buoying the return to form. With the help of technology — “he’s really getting into the metrics and analytics” — and a former Chicago White Sox pitcher, Greene has made a meaningful change to his delivery. What had been “long arm action with a big wrap in the back” is now a shorter-and-cleaner stroke.

“That’s a credit to people like James Baldwin, who was the rehab coach and is now our Triple-A coach,” Boddy told me. “JB has worked with Hunter extensively, leaning on materials from Driveline Plus. Hunter has had a tendency to cut his fastball, so we’ve relied on a lot of video to show him how to fix that and get more carry.” Read the rest of this entry »


Ryan O’Rourke on Life in the Minor Leagues

Ryan O’Rourke experienced life in the big leagues. The recently-retired left-hander appeared in 54 games with the Minnesota Twins between the 2015 -2016 seasons, and in two with the New York Mets last year. But the bulk of his career was spent in the minors. A 13th-round pick by the Twins in 2010 out of Merrimack College, O’Rourke toiled down on the farm in each of his 10 professional campaigns.

He experienced a lot. The minor leagues are an adventure, and while often fun, they are by no means a bed of roses. The pay is bad, the travel and accommodations are arduous, and for the vast majority of players, crushed dreams are inevitable. Moreover, success and failure aren’t always dictated by talent alone.

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David Laurila: How would you describe professional baseball at the minor-league level?

Ryan O’Rourke: “Now that I can look at it from a helicopter point of view, I’d say that it’s a crapshoot in the truest sense of that word. If you don’t end up with the right organization, and your development isn’t a priority, your path to the big leagues is so much more difficult than it already is.

“I was fortunate to be with the Twins, who were very good about taking care of people, but I’ve heard horror stories from other teams. If you’re a nobody — anyone outside the 10th round is probably a nobody — and don’t show promise right away… let’s just say that guys who get big money in rounds one through 10 are given countless opportunities over someone who may have deserved it more.

“That’s the sad nature of the minor leagues, which, from a business standpoint, I do understand. If you gave one guy $400,000 and another guy $4,000, it’s obvious who you’re keeping. And sometimes it’s a matter of a coach liking you or not. Sometimes you’re cut because you didn’t impress one guy.”

Laurila: How much jealousy and resentment is there of high-round guys? For instance, Byron Buxton is a talented player but he also got a $6 million signing bonus. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Jim Deshaies Can Deal With the Remote; He’ll Miss the Camaraderie

Jim Deshaies will be experiencing a first this summer. Along with his TV partner, Len Kasper — this assuming the season goes off as planned — Deshaies will be calling road games remotely. The Cubs duo won’t be alone. Per reports, broadcasters across both leagues are slated to do the same.

Deshaies hopes to be in Wrigley Field for the entire 60-game schedule. Rather than broadcasting away-action from a studio, the pitcher-turned-analyst envisions doing so, alongside Kasper, from the friendly confines of their home booth. He doesn’t see safety being an issue. As Deshaies put it, “Up there we’re in a wide open, well-ventilated space, and there wouldn’t be anyone else around. Plus, it would give us a little more of a ballpark atmosphere.”

Regardless of where they’re perched, things won’t be business as usual.

“It’s going to be kind of surreal, and weird,” said Deshaies, who is heading into his eighth season in Chicago after 16 in Houston. “I’ve never done [games remotely], but our tech people, producers, and directors are all really good. One thing they’ll need to make sure of is that we have monitors, and camera shots that will give us a live view. We’ll want to be able to see who is walking into the on-deck circle, who is warming up in the bullpen, and things like that.”

The nuts and bolts of the broadcasts will in some ways be the same. Read the rest of this entry »


A Conversation With Former White Sox and Orioles IF/OF Don Buford

If you’re not familiar with Don Buford, perhaps the first thing you should know is that he was quietly very good. He averaged 4.5 WAR from 1965-1971, and in the last three of those seasons he logged a .405 OBP for Baltimore Orioles teams that captured American League pennants. A speedy switch-hitter who spent the first half of his career with the Chicago White Sox, Buford had a 117 wRC+ and 200 stolen bases from 1963-1972. He played on three 100-plus-win teams, and four more that won 90-plus. A spark plug throughout his career, he never played for a losing team.

Prior to breaking into pro ball in 1960, Buford excelled on both the diamond and the gridiron at the University of Southern California. USC’s first African-American baseball player, he followed his 10 big-league seasons with four more in Japan. Then came Stateside stints as a coach, manager, and front office executive, as well as time spent running MLB’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California.

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David Laurila: You played both baseball and football at USC. Where did you see your future at that time?

Don Buford: “I was leaning toward baseball, because of my size. I was 5-foot-7, 150 pounds, so I didn’t see much of a future in football. I had an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers — they were interested in me as a kickoff and punt return guy — but I wasn’t interested. That’s the suicide squad in football.”

Laurila: What do you remember about breaking into professional baseball?

Buford: “Coming out of college, I thought I was well-prepared as far knowledge of the game, because I’d had such an outstanding coach in Rod Dedeaux. He was a legendary college coach. We won the NCAA championship in 1958.

“I had offers from the Dodgers, the Yankees, and the White Sox. The Dodgers and Yankees were offering such a minimum — a $1,000 bonus and a $400 salary — and coming out of college, I said, ‘No way; I could make that teaching school.’ That’s why I selected the White Sox. Hollis Thurston and Doc Bennett were the scouts who had followed me, and they felt I had the ability to make it.” Read the rest of this entry »


Carter Capps on His Controversial Delivery (and Triple-Digit Heat)

Carter Capps didn’t begin his pitching career in a conventional manner. The North Carolina native was a catcher in high school and didn’t move to the mound until he matriculated to Division II Mount Olive College. He didn’t become a newsworthy big-league pitcher in a conventional manner, either. Capps had a 100 mph heater, but he’s best known for an unconventional delivery that elicited no shortage of controversy, and ultimately a rule change.

Capps worked out of the bullpen for the Seattle Mariners and Miami Marlins from 2012-2015, missed 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and returned to pitch for the San Diego Padres in 2017. Along the way, the now-29-year-old right-hander struck out 184 batters in 147-and-two-thirds innings. He’s now coaching at Driveline.

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David Laurila: You didn’t start out as a pitcher, but rather a catcher. How did that come to be?

Carter Capps: “I wasn’t very fast, and I could always catch and throw, so I figured, ‘Shoot, I’ll do that.’ I was a pretty good defensive catcher — at times I could hit well — and because I got to be involved in every play, it never got boring. I really liked that part.”

Laurila: Did you pitch in high school at all?

Capps: “I probably pitched seven or eight innings in my senior year. That was kind of as-needed, and only as a reliever.”

Laurila: Do you know how hard you were throwing?

Capps: “I went to a showcase, and as things were wrapping up they said, ‘Does anybody else want to try throwing off the mound?’ I looked around and nobody was raising their hand, so I figured I’d try it. I was like 89-91 [mph], so it wasn’t crazy velo. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing.”

Laurila: When, and how, did you start throwing hard? Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Jose De León Is in Cincinnati With a New Arm

When I first wrote about José De León — this in a May 2015 Sunday Notes column — he was a 22-year-old prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. He was also a shooting star. Piggy-backing on an emergent 2014 season, De León was dominating the hitter-friendly California League to the tune of a 1.69 ERA, and 50 strikeouts in 32 innings. His heater was a crisp and clean 94-96 mph.

Misfortune has followed those halcyon days. De León went on to debut with the Dodgers in September 2016, then was dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays four months later. Shortly thereafter, things began to go haywire. First it was discomfort in his forearm. Then came a lat strain followed by elbow tendinitis. The coup de grâce came in March 2018 when he was diagnosed with a torn UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery. Out of action until last May, De León took baby steps upon his return. He hurled just 60 innings, four of them at the big-league level, over the course of the campaign.

“The last few years have been rough,” admitted De León, whom the Cincinnati Reds acquired from the Rays over the winter in exchange for a PTBNL. “But I’ve grown a lot. I’m way stronger mentally, and I basically have a brand new arm, as well.”

His “new arm” doesn’t feel foreign to him. The Isabela, Puerto Rico native recalls former Tampa Bay teammates Alex Cobb and Nathan Eovaldi saying that theirs did feel different after surgery, but he hasn’t experienced that sensation. What he has experienced is a velocity rejuvenation. When I talked to him a few days before camps were shut down, De León told me that he’d been 95-96 in his most-recent outing, the firmest his heater had been in years. Moreover, he didn’t recall ever throwing that hard, that early. Read the rest of this entry »


A Conversation With Miami Marlins Southpaw Caleb Smith

Caleb Smith has been a pleasant surprise for the Miami Marlins since being acquired from the New York Yankees prior to the 2018 season. That’s not to say the NL East club didn’t recognize his potential upon making the deal, but at the same time, he wasn’t exactly prominent on prospect lists. A 14th-round pick in 2013 out of Sam Houston State University, Smith was — and still is — a southpaw with underwhelming velocity and solid but nothing-special secondary pitches.

His path from New York to Miami included brief stops in Milwaukee and Chicago. The Brewers took Smith in the December 2016 Rule-5 draft and promptly flipped him to the Cubs. The following spring he was returned to the organization he was no longer all that enamored with playing for. Following a stellar Triple-A season that included a big-league cameo, he was off to his new baseball home.

In two seasons with the Marlins, the 28-year-old hurler has made 44 starts and logged a 4.52 ERA over 230.2 inning. Featuring a high spin rate fastball that gets good arm-side run — a pitch he augments with a slider and a changeup (with a curveball soon to join the mix) — Smith has fanned 10 batters per nine innings since coming to Miami.

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David Laurila: You were drafted in 2013. What did scouts like about you at the time?

Caleb Smith: “They liked how I used my fastball and my changeup. I didn’t really have a breaking pitch — I didn’t have a curveball or a slider — but they liked the life on my fastball. I think that’s it. They didn’t really say anything else to me.”

Laurila: Were you asked to make any specific adjustments upon reaching pro ball?

Smith: “What the Yankees wanted was for me to pitch down in the zone. That was their focus, and it was always a problem for me, because I have a hard time doing that. My ball just naturally stays at the top of the zone. Eventually I got better at it — I was able to work down in the zone a little bit more — but not as effectively as they wanted me to. I knew I could get outs at the top of the zone, but they just weren’t into that at the time.”

Laurila: What hinders your ability to work down in the zone? Read the rest of this entry »


A Conversation With Brandon Mann, Who Has Been Around the Block

Brandon Mann has had a fascinating career. Drafted out of a Seattle-area high school by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2002, the now-36-year-old southpaw has played for six major league organizations, and he’s had multiple stints in both independent ball and NPB. His big-league experience consists of seven games with the Texas Rangers in 2018. With the Chiba Lotte Marines last year, Mann rejoined the Rangers this past offseason, only to be released on June 1.

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David Laurila: You’ve been in pro ball for nearly two decades, with almost none of that time spent in the majors. Why have you kept at it?

Brandon Mann: “I’ve asked myself that question a lot. Pretty much every year I go into the offseason thinking, ‘Man, this might have been my last one.’ But I’ve always had that desire. I know that I can pitch in the big leagues, so I’ve just never felt ready to walk away. Every time I’ve been released has kind of built up the ‘I’ve got to prove somebody wrong’ mentality that I have.

“Over the years I kept training harder and harder, and as I got older I actually started throwing harder. Meeting Driveline, and a lot of the right people, has been a big part of that. But it’s a great question, because I’ve contemplated it many, many times.”

Laurila: How much money have you made in baseball? Read the rest of this entry »


Kendall Graveman on the Pitch He Lives and Dies By

Kendall Graveman has lived and died by his sinker since breaking into the big leagues in 2014. (He’s also spent a lot of time in injured-list purgatory, but that’s another story.) The 29-year-old right-hander has thrown his signature pitch nearly 60 percent of the time over 446 career innings, all but a handful of them with the Oakland A’s. Graveman is now with the Seattle Mariners, who inked him to a free agent contract last November.

This past March, I approached the Mississippi State product in Mariners camp for an overdue discussion about his sinker. It had been nearly five years since we’d talked pitching. That back-and-forth focused mostly on his cutter, with a glimpse at his approach and TrackMan usage sprinkled in for good measure. We only briefly touched on the pitch that got him to the big leagues. The time had come to rectify that earlier omission.

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David Laurila: When did you first learn to throw a sinker?

Kendall Graveman: “There’s a coach back home who used to work at Central Alabama Community College, and he came over and was teaching the pitching aspect at a camp I was attending. This was in the small town of Alexander City, and I was probably 12 years old at the time.

“A two-seamer was kind of a different — it’s something I‘d never seen — but I was able to pick the ball up and make a move. Ever since then, I’ve been able to manipulate it. Going through high school, I was a groundball pitcher — I was the same guy I am now — and didn’t strike out a lot of guys. Over the years I’ve been able to develop that pitch more, and have been able to create early contact, soft contact, and groundballs.”

Laurila: How does one go about manipulating a sinker? Read the rest of this entry »