Jesse Biddle is better than the 5-14 record and 5.3 BB/9 he logged last season with Double-A Reading. A lot better. As a matter of fact, the 22-year-old lefthander is on the verge of breaking into the Philadelphia Phillies starting rotation.
Biddle battled health issues in 2013. Diagnosed with whooping cough in April, he doggedly took the mound at less than full strength the entire season. In August, he toed the rubber with a case of plantar fasciitis.
A first-round pick in 2011 out of Germantown Friends School in suburban Philadelphia, Biddle has one of the best curveballs in minor league baseball. He also has a surprising role model. His stuff is that of a power pitcher, but Biddle is a big believer in the ways of Jamie Moyer.
Biddle on Baseball America comparing his curveball to Barry Zito‘s: “He’s somebody I watched a whole lot growing up, so I don’t know if I subconsciously emulate him, or what have you, but to be compared to him is incredible. The shape of my curveball… I don’t want to compare it to his, but it’s got a pretty big break and is a little slower than most people’s curveballs. I don’t try to throw it that way. I throw it as hard as I can and that’s how it comes out of my hand. It’s usually anywhere from 65 to 74-75 [mph].
“The grip isn’t unique. It’s a pretty standard, the same one I’ve used since I first threw a curveball when I was 13. I think it’s more the way I pronate my hand. I kind of wrap my hand around the ball and it kind of pops out. I think that’s what gives me that big velocity differential.”
On where he aims his curveball: “With a curveball, you’re not really throwing to the glove. You’re throwing to the catcher’s shoulder, or to his facemask, or to the hitter’s front hip. You have to learn what kind of break you’re getting, and you have to do it over and over again before you can master it.
“At the beginning, especially when I first got drafted, I probably put too much focus on that. I used a lot of energy just seeing that spot and throwing my curveball to it. Now that I’ve thrown it a lot, and it’s become my go-to pitch, it’s more of a feel thing. I just kind of know what I have to do to get it somewhere.”
On command and Baseball America saying he has a tendency to come out of his delivery when throwing his curveball: “It’s my most consistent off-speed pitch, but it does vary somewhat game to game. Whether I can always throw it for strikes, or do whatever I want with it, isn’t always going to be the same. That’s how every pitcher is. But it’s pretty rare for me to not be able to command it at all. I definitely need to be able to at least show it to have success.
“[The Baseball America report] could be referring to… I don’t know. I came out of my delivery — I maybe didn’t even have a consistent delivery at all — toward the end of last season. My scouting reports are probably all over the place, just like my pitching was.”
On how health impacted his performance: “I think that’s the million dollar question, and it can only be answered in 2014. It’s something I’ve tried to figure out. During the season, I thought I was feeling healthy every five days. I thought I was doing okay. But once the offseason came and I was finally able to kind of relax, and give myself the proper rest, I realized I hadn’t been healthy. I wasn’t feeling good all year.
“There were some heath issues. There were some concerns I had, but you never… at the end of the day, it’s up to me when I take the ball. I wanted the ball, and I’m always going to want the ball. Maybe I let my team down by doing that, especially late in the season, because I wasn’t healthy enough to succeed a lot of the time.
“It’s just growing pains, learning how to figure out my body. When you’re 16, 17 years old, playing in high school, you feel great all the time. When you’re playing 144 games and are at the field every day, it’s not that easy. It was a good learning experience.”
On the rest of his repertoire: “My curveball has become my signature pitch, but you don’t want to just be known as, ‘Oh, that guy has a good curveball.’ You want to be known for having a couple of good pitches. Right now, it’s a matter of getting my slider, changeup and fastball up to the level of my curveball.
“My changeup has grown the most since I started playing pro ball. When you’re in high school, you barely throw it. I was basically just a fastball-curveball guy who would mix it up with a slider once in awhile. As soon as I got to pro ball, that changed. I had games early in my career where they said I had to throw X amount of changeups, or that on every second pitch to a hitter I had to throw a changeup. Stuff like that. You don’t want to do it, but you learn from it. My changeup has grown exponentially. Even so, I still have a long way to go with it.”
On his changeup grip: “I went through a period where I probably used a different changeup grip every week. I just couldn’t get comfortable with it. One day, right before a spring training game in 2012, I made up a new grip. I threw three strikes in a row with it, in the bullpen, and it’s been my grip ever since.
“It’s almost like a split. My two fingers… it’s almost like a Vulcan change, but it‘s modified from that. I have my pointer and middle finger on the side, on the laces, and then I have my other two fingers on the other side of the ball.
“My fastball is a four-seam, so I originally tried throwing a four-seam changeup, and to some extent it was fine. It just didn’t have the velocity differential I wanted. It was a little too hard and the hitters were making adjustments to it too easily. Now I’ve figured out how to slow the ball down pretty good.”
On his fastball and slider: “There are some days [my fastball] feels like it’s coming out pretty good, and I turn around and see on the board that it’s 88 [mph]. Other days it doesn’t feel like it’s great and it’s 93. It’s funny that way, but that’s just how baseball is. You have to work with what you’re got every day. But I’m not too big on velocity. I just want to get outs, which is something my coaches stress to me.
“As of now, my slider is my fourth pitch. It’s coming along and started to become more effective toward the end of the season. I changed my grip on it a little bit, and it’s become a lot tighter. I didn’t want something that was a similar break, or similar speed, to my curveball. I wanted something a lot harder and sharper. My coaches like my slider and think it can be a good pitch for me. We haven’t talked about adding a cutter.”
On his high walk rate: “I could pin it on 20 different things. The fact is, I wasn’t always in the right mental place. The cause of that could have been anything, but what it came down to was that I was on the mound and didn’t feel like I do when I’m pitching well.
“As a pitcher, you’re supposed to feel at home on the mound. You’re supposed to feel comfortable and strong. I didn’t feel that way. Whatever the reason, I didn’t feel that same sensation I normally do. Whether it was doubt, or whatever you want to call it, it showed in my performance. My walk rate bothered me to no end.
“Everything is a motivator, and when I look back at my career, I don’t want to see 2013 as a place I lost momentum. I want to see it as a place I gained momentum, because I learned and gained traction going into the rest of my career.”
On his 5-14 record and focusing on the positives: “There are obviously a lot more intricacies to baseball than just wins and losses. I understand that. But as a pitcher, when you take the ball, you want to win. If you throw seven innings and give up one run, and your team gets the loss, 1-0, what happened was the other guy pitched better than you. The other team beat you. That’s hard to deal with. The losses were very frustrating to me. No matter how well I pitched, if I didn’t get the win, I felt like I didn’t do the job that day.
“I wasn’t happy with a lot of the things I did last season. I did throw some good games, some memorable games. I know I need to focus on the positives and not the negatives. That’s something important I’ve learned in pro ball. It’s all too easy to focus on the five walks you had, but let’s think about the 10 strikeouts. Let’s think about the things that are going to make you better. I’m trying to learn from some of the negatives, but at the same time focus on the positives.”
On his role model: “I recently had a chance to talk to Jamie Moyer for about an hour and a half. It was a great experience. Hopefully I’ll be able to do so again, and just talk pitching. What you can learn from somebody like him is invaluable. In terms of competitiveness, his ability to stay calm and out-think hitters… his whole approach to the game is unbelievable. Will him, everything is so well thought out. He’s really the definition of what I want to be as a pitcher.”
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.