Boston Globe sportswriter Nick Cafardo died tragically on Thursday at the age of 62. He was a friend — Nick had countless friends throughout the baseball community — and his Sunday Baseball Notes has long been a must-read. This column is dedicated to his memory.
Aaron Loup has forged a solid career since being drafted by the Blue Jays out of Tulane University in 2009. The 31-year-old southpaw has made 378 relief appearances — all but four with Toronto — and put together a 3.49 ERA and a 3.49 FIP. Seven years after making his MLB debut, he’s now a member of the San Diego Padres.
Had he not changed his arm slot, he probably wouldn’t have made it to the big leagues.
“I wasn’t getting it done over the top,” admitted Loup, who dropped down in high-A. “For whatever reason, my stuff went away. It kind of sucked. My sinker flattened out. My breaking ball became a dud.”
When you’re getting hit around in the Florida State League, you listen to suggestions. Especially strong suggestions. The lefty recalls being told by then pitching coordinator Dane Johnson, “Give it a chance, because what you’re doing now isn’t working.”
Sidearm worked. Not only that, it worked right away.
“I got on the mound and threw a little bullpen with him watching,” said Loup. “Everything took off. The sinker was diving again. My breaking ball was sharp. He said. ‘You do that, right there. Can over the top.’”
The rapidly with which he took to the new motion was matched by how quickly he put it to use in a game. It was the very same day. The fact that his arm didn’t fall off qualifies as remarkable.
“Having never thrown sidearm, I’d been working, working, working,” Loup explained. “I’d thrown a 35-pitch bullpen, and another 50 to 75 balls at this triangle they had on the bullpen wall at the park we were playing in. In my mind, it was like, ‘OK, I’m certainly not pitching today.’”
The bullpen phone rang in the middle innings.
“They called down and said, ’Hey, get Loup loose; we want to see him in a game,’” the erstwhile Blue Jay told me. “I’m thinking ‘whaaat?’ I mentioned the 35-pitch bullpen and those 75 balls at the wall. I said, ‘My arm is dead.’ They said, ‘Well, whatever.’ I went in and got three outs.”
A year later, he was getting outs in the big leagues. What allowed that to happen is no mystery. As Loup put it, “Going sidearm changed my whole career.”
Chad Bettis tinkered with a number of grips while learning a changeup. The one he settled on works like a charm. The average spin rate of the 511 change-of-pace pitches the Rockies right-hander threw last year was 1,377 rpm. How he’s able to take that much spin off of a baseball is a mystery.
“I can’t tell you,” Bettis responded when I asked for some specifics. “It’s a secret grip.”
He was being serious. How Bettis throws his signature offering is something he prefers not to share. Not with me, anyway.
The 29-year-old did say that the thought process behind the pitch is what allows him to get the movement he wants. Even so, the grip does appear to be unique. Based on a photo I found, his finger placement somewhat resembles a tripod. Not that a detailed view would be especially helpful to a would-be imitator.
“I have a hard time believing that people could go out there and try the grip I have, and be able to get the same kind of action,” opined Bettis. “I’m not saying it can’t be done. But everybody is different. It’s individualized. Somebody could come up to me and say, ‘This is my slider grip,’ and I could try it and it doesn’t work at all.”
Coincidentally, Bettis is working on a slider this spring. Following yesterday’s two-inning outing — one in which he surrendered a home run on a slider — he explained that he wants to “add a little more versatility” to his repertoire in order to not have to rely as heavily on his changeup. His mystery changeup.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
I asked Andy Green how he planned to utilize his starting pitchers this year. More specifically, will third-time-through-the-order considerations be much of a factor, and will he be careful to not overexpose some the club’s young hurlers.
“That’s something you can’t cleanly answer on this day in February,” the San Diego skipper said. “I think we have depth, (but) we haven’t really had guys separate themselves from that depth at this point in time. We had a couple of young guys last year in Eric Lauer and Joey Lucchesi, and we’d love to see them take a step forward. If they show us that, we’ll let them go seven, eight, nine innings. We won’t hold them back. If they don’t take that step forward, we’ll look to pull from that depth and be creative in how we put together a pitching staff.”
In other words, there isn’t a specific philosophy the NL West club will be adhering to? Based on his in-no-uncertain-terms response, there isn’t.
“Every intelligent team, and organization, looks at their personnel,” Green stated. “That’s what Tampa did so beautifully last year, and they were commended for it by everybody in baseball. You look at your personnel and say, ‘What’s right for us?’ We don’t have some magic formula that we think is right for all of baseball. We’ll try to figure out what’s best for us, based on where we are in this time frame, moving forward with a bunch of young pitchers. How we use guys will be unique to us.”
Pedro Gomez followed my questions by asking if there’s a chance of the Padres adding arms — presumably more-experienced arms — from outside the organization.
“I’m at four years now with AJ (Preller), and he never stops looking,” Green told the erudite ESPN reporter. “He’s probably looking under rocks right now to find whatever he can find. He’s relentless in his pursuit of finding great players.”
Needless to say, San Diego’s GM lifted up an especially shiny rock earlier this week. With Manny Machado now on board, Green can begin sketching out batting orders for the upcoming season. As of a few days ago, that had yet to happen — at least not seriously. Green told reporters that he hadn’t yet sat down with a napkin at Cracker Barrel to work on lineups. He did allow that the wheels have been turning.
Does Zack Greinke notice much of a framing difference from catcher to catcher? His answer to that question wasn’t entirely clear when I posed it to him on Friday.
“Sometimes catchers will look good, but for some reason the umpire doesn’t call a strike,” Greinke said. “Other times it doesn’t look good, but for whatever reason you get strikes. It’s kind of crazy how it works out.”
The five-time All-Star answered with a “That’s true” when I posited that some catchers frame certain areas of the zone better than others. He added that former D-Backs backstop Jeff Mathis was “good at almost everything.”
I also asked Greinke about the extent to which he actually sees the hitter he’s facing, given that a pitcher’s primary focus is on the target.
“It’s peripheral vision type stuff,” answered Greinke. “You’re not looking at the batter, but if he changes something, a lot of times you’ll see it. Sometimes the catcher will tell you if they changed something, in case you didn’t see it. You’ll notice if their swings are late, on time, or early. I couldn’t tell you exactly what happens, but you do notice a little bit.”
Shawn Murnin has been hired as the new play-by-play voice of the Bowling Green Hot Rods. The Midwest League team is a Tampa Bay Rays affiliate. Murnin spent last season broadcasting games for the Hagerstown Suns.
Blaine McCormick — currently a senior at Arizona State’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication — will be calling games for the Boise Hawks this summer. Boise is a short-season affiliate for the Colorado Rockies.
Milt Welch, the last surviving member of the 1945 Detroit Tigers, died recently at the age of 94. His contributions to that year’s World Series championship team was miniscule. Welch came off the bench and went hitless in two at bats in what turned out to his only big -league game. The pitcher he caught that day was future Hall of Famer Billy Pierce, who was just 18 years old at the time.
The Eastern League announced earlier this week that they are changing to a split-season format. As was already the case in several other minor leagues, the winner of each half will advance to the playoffs. If the same team wins each half, the second playoff berth will go to the team with the second-best overall record.
The schedule is now set for the SABR Analytics Conference, which will be held in Phoenix on March 8-10.
The subject of shifting came up when Craig Counsell met with the media on Thursday. I followed his answer by asking if the Brewers shift throughout all levels of the minor leagues.
“Yes, but it’s a completely different equation,” said the Milwaukee manager. “The historical information is way less. We’re still becoming more precise with shifting — ‘positioning,’ I should say — and there’s not as much information for them to be as precise in minor league baseball.”
Fair enough. But given that the primary goal of the minor leagues is development, shouldn’t strategy be a secondary consideration? Shouldn’t players get familiar with moving around the field in much the same they will upon reaching the majors?
“We’re not going to position wrong just for the sake of sending a third baseman to the other side,” Counsell said in response to my suggestion. “It has to be done strategically, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. The players are going to be looking at you like ‘whaaat?’ Pitchers would definitely be looking at you like that.”
Counsell was also asked about Keston Hiura’s swing. He said his first impression was that it reminds him of his former Arizona Diamondbacks teammate, Greg Colbrunn — not so much the swing itself, but how Hiura has both a toe tap and a leg lift. He said it was almost identical.
“There’s more than you see going with most guys,” Counsell added. “But he has a great sense of timing. (Timing) is the Holy Grail of hitting.”
I was interrupted while talking pitch framing with Carson Kelly in the Arizona Diamondbacks clubhouse on Friday morning. It was more entertaining than bothersome. Zack Godley and Andrew Chafin were the culprits.
Chafin had a video camera. Godley, microphone thrust forward, asked Kelly what type of questions he as being asked. “I’m being asked about catching,” he told his teammate. “Why? You’re a third baseman,” Godley claimed. “Sometimes,” countered Kelly, who played the hot corner early in his minor league career with the Cardinals.
I suggested to Godley that he’s better at conducting interviews than I am. “I know,” he responded. “That’s because I don’t have to care.”
Godley then asked Kelly a question that wasn’t really a question. The young catcher didn’t take the bait, but Godley nevertheless told him that he’s supposed to “just walk away” in such scenarios.
He then asked an actual question: How do you spell ‘Rzepczynski?’
After initially saying that he simply called their new teammate ‘Zep’ — Marc Rzepczynski signed with the D-Backs on February 8 — Kelly gave it a shot: “R-Z-C-P-Z-Y-N-S-K-I”
Godley told him he’d come closer than anyone he’d asked thus far. Chafin thanked him for his time. They went on their merry way.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
TCU’s head coach isn’t a fan of a new pitching rule being implemented in college baseball this season. Drew Davison explained why at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
At The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Derrick Goold wrote about why the spine of the Cardinals defense will be together early, and often, this spring.
Over at FiveThirtyEight, old friend Travis Sawchik weighed in on how foul balls are the pace-of-play problem nobody is talking about.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
NBA legend Michael Jordan stole 30 bases for the Double-A Birmingham Barons in 1994. He was caught 18 times.
Prior to his 30th birthday, Astros outfielder Cesar Cedeno had 1,576 hits, 158 home runs, and 475 stolen bases. His adjusted OPS was 130 and he’d been awarded five Gold Gloves.
The Tigers had 15 extra base hits and no stolen bases in the 1968 World Series. The Cardinals had 17 extra base hits and 11 stolen bases (seven of them by Lou Brock). The Tigers won in seven games.
In 1929 , Mel Ott hit 42 home runs and struck out 38 times. In 1932, he hit 38 home runs and struck out 39 times. He led the NL in walks both years.
According to his SABR BioProject entry, Schoolboy Rowe once described his preparation for pitching as: “Just eat a lot of vittles, climb the mound, wrap my fingers around the ball and say to it, Edna, honey, let’s go.”
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.