Jake Peavy has had a rollercoaster career. The 32-year-old righthander won the National League Cy Young award in 2007 while pitching for the San Diego Padres. A three-time all-star, he twice led the NL in ERA and strikeouts. He has also suffered a career-threatening injury. In parts of five seasons with the Chicago White Sox, he failed to put up the numbers he did in San Diego.
Last night, he did what the Red Sox had in mind when they acquired him at the non-waiver trade deadline: He made a quality start in a postseason game. Peavy talked about the evolution of his career — including mechanical changes related to the injury — late in the regular season.
Peavy on his 2010 injury: “I’ve changed quite a bit over my career. When you spend years doing what you do, you’re always looking for ways to better yourself. That’s whether it’s with new pitches, mental preparation or physical preparation. So much goes into what we do.
“Over time, your body and your mechanics change. You have to find out what works well with what you can physically do at each point of your career.
“I’d done the same thing basically my whole career, and then in 2009, I got hurt. I came back from that ankle injury trying to help our team make the playoffs. That was in Chicago, where I had been traded. I came back on a right ankle that wasn’t the best in the world.
“I mechanically changed, not really knowing it. Pitching on an ankle that wasn’t right caused me to stay a lot taller and not drive toward home plate. Therefore, my arm angle changed. I had been traded in the middle of the season, so I didn’t have coaches who had seen me for years and years. The White Sox didn’t know I was that much different.
“We didn’t really realize until about halfway through 2010 when we went back through some old footage of how I was throwing when I was in San Diego. It was a lot different than how I was throwing in Chicago, and it led to a pretty major arm injury.
“When I came back in 2010, I was hearing things from Coop — Don Cooper, the pitching coach over there — I hadn’t heard before. ‘Get on top of the ball; stay tall.’ It was different lingo from different coaches. Everybody has their own verbiage.
“I started realizing my stuff wasn’t the same, and that my arm was starting to hurt, in spring training. A few months into the season, we were looking at video. Juan Nieves was with us and he said, ‘You don’t look anything like this anymore.’ My arm angle was quite a bit different. I was standing tall and not using my legs. When you do something your whole life, you can’t suddenly change and not have soreness and problems with your arm. I had three or four MRIs and cortisone shots before I eventually blew out. I ended up having surgery nobody else in the game had ever had.” (A tendon and a muscle were reattached to his shoulder with a series of stitches and a titanium anchor.)
On his mechanics: “I was a low-three-quarters guy. People talk about how you kind of sling the ball — you’re kind of a sidewinder — and I don’t necessarily not like that [description]. At the same time, I’m not just slinging it and hoping it goes where I want it to go. There are certain mechanics behind the way somebody throws. Even though it sometimes looked like I was out of control, there was a lot of thought and precision going into what I was doing.
“Everybody in the world has a way they throw a baseball. They start that from the time they’re a youngster and go from there. You can look at guys who people say have the best mechanics in the world, and their arms may not last. You have other guys who throw in an unorthodox fashion and never have an arm injury. I don’t think anybody has it down to an exact science. But I also don’t think anybody is going to watch me and say, ‘Hey, son, watch the way Jake Peavy throws. Let’s mimic that.’ Not too many people are teaching their kids to throw the way I throw.
“Up until this point in time, I’ve been a little bit higher — probably about 6-8 inches higher — arm-slot wise than I had been back then. That certainly affects the way the ball moves out of your hand. It’s been a great thing for my health, for me to come back and keep my arm intact. But I’m in the process of getting down a little bit. Juan [Nieves] and I, and some of the other coaches, have been looking at my old video, wanting me to be as close as I can to that old arm angle. We dropped it down a little bit in my last start and saw some good results. At the same time, it was a little different controlling the ball. I had a few walks.
“Changes in your arm angle can change the action on the ball drastically. Where you throw the ball from is going to affect the way the ball is going to move. The ball is going to sink, slide, cut — it’s all about your arm angle and how the ball comes off your fingertips. It’s all about how the ball is going react when it comes out of your hand.”
On his repertoire: “My ball has straightened out a bit, but at the same time I’ve developed a cutter. It isn’t quite what it was when I was more down to the side. I started to throw a cutter when I was in San Diego, but I believe it’s something you’re able to perfect more a little higher. But like I said, we’re trying to get as close to the guy I was in San Diego. The cutter is something we’ve needed to be conscious of, because it’s very easy to get around a cutter lower than it is when you’re on top. You have to get on top of a cutter, and the higher your arm angle, the easier it is to get on top of the baseball when you throw it. You don’t ever want to be around a pitch.
“In today’s game, you have to mix it up. These hitters are so stinking good right now. The evolution of baseball, even since I’ve been in the league — I mean, all these hitters have so much talent. You have to use all of your pitches against lineup like these, so I don’t think it’s a case of needing to throw more sliders, or more cutters. It’s a case of needing to throw all of the above. If you’re going to get through lineups three or four times, you need to use all of your pitches.
“I throw a two-seam circle, because I throw more two-seam fastballs than four-seam fastballs. It depends on the game plan, but for the most part, it’s more two-seams. I can also throw a four-seam changeup, and there are games where I throw more four-seam fastballs. You want your changeup to look as much like your fastball as you can.
“Say Chris Davis comes up and I’m throwing him three two-seam fastballs. I’m going to throw him a two-seam changeup if a changeup is the right pitch to throw. And vice-versa. If Adam Jones is up and I’m throwing four-seam fastballs, I’m more likely to throw a four-seam changeup.”
On his strikeout rate: “When you go from the National League to the American League, your strikeout rate is going to drop. Period. You’re not facing the pitcher, and the bottoms of lineups in the National League are different than the bottoms of lineups in the American League. That’s all there is to it. Changing leagues is certainly going to affect your strikeout rate, and then I had the surgery, and when I came back I had to change my approach. Instead of being a straight power pitcher… a lot of times, power pitchers throw a lot of pitches. With me, at this point of time, I want to be as efficient as I possibly can. Do I still think I can get guys to swing and miss, and leave guys stranded when I need that via the swing-and-miss? I believe I still have that.”
On his declining ground ball rate: “My lower ground ball rate has to do with a change of styles. In general, the low ball isn’t what it used to be. We used to be taught to pitch down, down, down; miss down, miss down, miss down. If you throw the ball up, bad things happen. But I don’t think the low ball is what it used to be. The swing they’re teaching is down and really through the ball. It is to stay in the strike zone as long as you can possibly stay in the strike zone. I think that makes hitters susceptible to balls up.
“As a right-handed pitcher, a lot of times I’m going to face six or seven lefties, and left-handed hitters like the ball down. Lineups have changed. When I first got to the big leagues, I’d face lineups that were pretty balanced. There would be maybe four righties and five lefties. Over the past few years, other than the Detroit team, with righties like Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta and Miguel Cabrera, I’d face the Minnesota Twins and they’d run seven lefties out there against me. I’ve faced the Cleveland Indians a few times where they had nine lefties in the lineup.
“For me to get left-handers to hit the ball on the ground — it’s just not something I feel comfortable doing. I’d rather pitch them high in the zone and get them to hit the ball in the air. I feel more comfortable getting outs that way. If you go back and look at the stats, I think they’ll show that. It’s kind of a change in philosophy and I think the game has just evolved to where, again, the low pitch isn’t the same. I throw as many balls with the intent to be up in the strike zone as I do to be down in the strike zone. That’s going to make my ground ball rate lower.”
On video and reports: “I buy into what my eyes see. I love numbers. I love all the information I can possibly get. But at the end of the day, I’m going to believe what my eyes tell me. That includes our advance scouts, our coaches, watching video. Today’s game has gotten so advanced. I can watch every last at bat a hitter has had over the last month. I’m going to watch him, and watch how guys similar to me attack him. I’m going to watch my history against him.
“From that, I’m going to go out there with a game plan that won’t be based solely on somebody saying, ‘This guy hit X on curveballs on 1-2 counts.’ I’m going to watch, because he may have lined out five times on curveballs; he hit every one of them hard. I want to — I have to — watch a hitter’s last 50 at bats off right-handed pitchers. Every single guy I’m going to face. At the end of the day, I’m going to believe what I see.”
On pitch selection: “The pitcher-catcher relationship is special, especially when you have somebody you’re comfortable with. Coming over here and having two veteran guys I know I can trust is nice. But with catchers anywhere, you’re going to have a game plan. You’ve talked to them and gone over that game plan, so you should be on the same page. You stick to that plan unless you see hitters adjusting. If they make obvious adjustments, you try to counterattack.
“At the same time, your catcher is on top of the plate, seeing things you maybe can’t see. He has a different perspective. Sometimes he’ll call a pitch you might not necessarily think is the right pitch, but he may see something, maybe some movement in the box. That goes back to catcher trust. He calls a pitch and it’s like, ‘We talked about not doing that.’ So you shake him off, and he calls it again. Then you realize he’s a veteran back there, like David Ross or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, so he has a reason. You believe in him and go with what he calls.”
On pitching to the ballpark: “I don’t think you can play a ton to the ballpark. I think you figure out how you’re going to defend somebody within the parameters of the ballpark. You pitch to that, but you also can’t let the ballpark factor in too much.
“At the end of the day, you don’t want to get away from throwing the right pitch to get the batter out. You have to trust that the eight guys on the field can get the job done. You get in trouble when you start over-thinking. You don’t want to dwell on, ‘I want the ball hit to the right side.’ You can say that in your head, and hope it gets hit there, but you can’t try to force it. You have to play to your strengths as a pitcher and find the best plan of attack against that hitter. We’re looking at his charts — where he hits the ball — and positioning our defense accordingly, but outside of that you can’t really pitch to the ballpark. You have to pitch to who are, and that‘s what I do.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.