Cla Meredith’s MLB debut was inauspicious. Actually, it was an abomination. Called up to Boston less than a year after being drafted out of Virginia Commonwealth University, Meredith came out of the Fenway Park bullpen in the seventh inning of a tie game. The Seattle Mariners had one on and two out.
“When the ball left the bat, I took a few steps toward the dugout,” remembers Meredith, who threw the fateful pitch on May 8, 2005. “I thought I was out of the jam, but the ball just kept drifting and drifting, and pushing and pushing, and doink, it went right off the foul pole.”
Grand slam. The fact that it was a wind-blown fly ball that traveled little more than 320 feet was of scant consolation to the shell-shocked rookie.
“I wanted to dig a hole and climb in, man,” Meredith told me. “I felt overwhelmed. The weird part was, on any other day, with the weather different, and in any other ballpark, it’s a can of sh__ in Trot Nixon’s glove. If that ball is caught, it probably changes my career.”
Meredith made just two more appearances, each of them rocky, in a Red Sox uniform. He spent the duration of the 2005 campaign in Pawtucket, then was dealt to the Padres the following spring. San Diego proved a panacea. Meredith logged a 1.07 ERA in 45 relief appearances in 2006. and pitched 188 more times over the next two-and-a-half seasons before being flipped to Baltimore.
A few short years later, it was over. Rehabbing from Tommy John surgery – “In 2011, snap went my elbow” – he was diagnosed with SLAP tears in his labrum. Once again, he went under the knife.
“The doctors never really called it a death sentence, but it pretty much was,” said Meredith. “Coming back from both elbow and shoulder surgery is tough, so I made the decision to move on.”
In retrospect, it was just a matter of time.
“I was pretty much max-effort,” explained Meredith. “I had a violent delivery and put a lot of torque, and strain, on my arm. I’m not a Bible beater, but I think the good Lord gives you a certain amount of bullets, and when you use them all, that’s the end of the clip.”
To his credit, Meredith didn’t treat his debacle as the end of the world. But he did blow off some steam.
“After leaving the ballpark, I stopped at a bar,” said Meredith. “The game was being replayed on TV there, and I sat watching it, drinking beer. No one knew who I was. At that moment in time, I didn’t want anyone to know. Things hadn’t gone so hot.”
Jeremy Hellickson was dealt from the Rays to the Diamondbacks in November. It came as no surprise. The changeup-heavy right-hander had fallen out of favor in Tampa, in large part because his results went south. Strong in 2011 and 2012, he was anything but in 2013 and 2014.
An elbow woe hindered Hellickson, and a revival won’t happen without a return to full health. He alluded to that when I asked how he’s feeling.
“I haven’t pitched in a game yet, so I don’t have anything to compare to last season,” Hellickson told me on Friday. “But I do feel better than I did the last couple of years. I feel stronger. Last year was a lot about getting healthy again.”
One thing he didn’t do was get a lot of outs. The 27-year-old averaged fewer than five innings in his 13 starts, and his WHIP was a career-worst 1.445. A change of results won’t be accompanied by a change of approach.
“I’m not going to do anything different,” said Hellickson. “I’m not going to make up a pitch, or anything like that. I’ll still be the same guy, trying to get back to being the same consistent pitcher I was the first few years.”
The Rays weren’t interested in giving him that chance. By season’s end, it was pretty clear his time in Tampa had run its course.
“With how fast the trade happened, I guess they just couldn’t wait to trade me,” said Hellickson. “But I’m really happy with the new opportunity, and I don’t think I could have asked for a better spot to land.”
In other words, the change of scenery is for the best.
“I’d like to think so,” said Hellickson. “I think it will be.”
Vinnie Pestano shares things in common with Hellickson. In 2011 and 2012, the righty reliever was strong. In 2013 and 2014, he was anything but. Elbow woes played a role as he devolved from stellar set-up man to afterthought in the Indians bullpen.
Pestano is with the Angels now, having been sent west last August in exchange for minor-leaguer Michael Clevinger. He’s in camp as “a bubble guy trying to win a spot,” and “knocking on wood” regarding his arm.
“I had medial elbow issues on the back side,” Pestano told me. “It was kind of like tennis elbow, and was bad enough that I was having trouble turning doorknobs, let alone throw sliders.”
Pestano tried making mechanical adjustments to compensate for the injury – “none of which really worked” – and in the process “got off the beaten path and struggled to find that bread crumb back to where (he) started.” Admitting he doesn’t have an orthodox throwing motion – “I don’t get extended as well as most guys, because my arm angle is more east-and-west” – he struggled to find himself.
Pestano did pitch well in limited innings last September, and his arm is feeling good this spring. He has an option left, so he could go to Triple-A if he doesn’t earn a spot in the Angels bullpen out of spring training.
T.J. McFarland grew up in south suburban Chicago, rooting for the White Sox. Jake Odorizzi grew up 40 miles from St. Louis, rooting for the Cardinals. Austin Jackson split his allegiances three ways – Mariners, Yankees, Rangers – during his formative years in the Dallas area.
They no longer cheer for their boyhood teams – at least not that they’ll admit to. Like most players, their perspectives were inexorably altered when baseball went from avocation to vocation.
“It really does change,” said McFarland, a lefty reliever for the Orioles. “Once you sign a contract, you have a team of your own. My family still roots for the White Sox, but I went from being a fan to an employee – an actual worker – within the profession.”
“You give up your loyalties,” agreed Odorizzi, a right-hander now with the Rays. “It becomes more about you and your career. I was drafted by Milwaukee, and they’re in the same division as the Cardinals, so it changed pretty quickly.”
That doesn’t mean players aren’t still fans. Jackson, an outfielder for the Mariners, said all athletes are to to some extent. Just like the rest of us, they check standings and scores. They also appreciate the theater of big games. Odorizzi attended Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, in St. Louis.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’ said Odorizzi. “As a player, there aren’t too many times you can go to a stadium and just enjoy a game. You’re usually watching from a dugout. Besides, being at a game of that magnitude was obviously pretty awesome.”
It’s also awesome to go head-to-head against players you used to watch on TV. I asked McFarland what the experience is like.
“Growing up, I was a big fan of Mark Buehrle and Paul Konerko,” responded McFarland. “I put them on a pedestal, and playing against them doesn’t completely take that away. Knowing I’m on the same playing field with guys I used to look up to is kind of a cool feeling.
“I’ve faced Derek Jeter a few times. It’s a surreal moment when that guy steps into the batter’s box. You can’t really think about it too much or it will faze you out, but after the fact you can kind of allow yourself to think, ‘Wow, I really just faced so-and-so.’”
“I met Torii when I was a junior in high school,” explained Jackson “I was with his agent, and he came over and introduced himself. I was like, ‘Man, this is Torii Hunter.’ He kind of became a mentor to me, and it would be awesome to do the same thing someday – meet a kid who’s playing in high school, then end up playing against him, or even with him, in the big leagues.”
Experienced coaches have keen eyes. They recognize subtleties unseen by most fans, from switched signs and tipped pitches to players’ postures. With enough attentiveness and expertise, a cleanly-caught ball could be indicative of a cross-up.
Last summer, Miami Marlins’ bench coach Rob Leary saw something different in a seemingly-simple called strike.
“Nate Eovaldi threw a 97-mph fastball, and Jeff Mathis thought a slider was coming,” explained Leary. “He caught it well, but I could tell he miscaught it. I said to Mike Redmond, ‘Did you see that?’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Matty just got crossed up. And I think it was his own cross-up.’
“Between innings, I asked Matty, ‘Did he cross you up?’ He said, ‘No, I thought I called a slider, but I called a fastball.’
According to Leary – a former catching instructor – Mathis was able to receive the ball adroitly because he’s adept at locking into pitches and staying with them all the way into the mitt. As for Redmond not noticing Mathis’ sleight-of-hand, that was a matter of priorities.
“If Mike wasn’t managing – if he was the bench coach and I was managing – it probably would have been the other way around,” said Leary. “Everyone is looking at different things at different times, depending on what their responsibilities are. You’re watching the game, but you’re also looking at first- and third-base coaches, and managers in dugouts. There are all these different things one of us might pick up. And if we don’t see it live, we might pick it up when we go inside and do our video review.”
Huston Street can calculate FIP and negotiate his own contract. The Angels’ closer is no fan of the former, but the latter is something he actually does. That makes him unique among his ball-playing brethren. According to GM Jerry DiPoto – per MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez – Street is possibly “the only active major-leaguer without an agent.”
Intrigued by Gonzalez’s article, I broached the subject with Street earlier this week at Tempe Diablo Stadium. The 31-year-old righty confirmed he’s in the process of negotiating an extension, and previously negotiated his last contract with the Padres.
Despite his do-it-yourself approach, he’s not committed to being a lone wolf. Street recognizes the value of representation and is “probably going to start interviewing agents” if he heads into free agency at the end of the year. While he knows and trusts Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto, he doesn’t know every GM for every team.
Regardless of the route he goes, Street should get a good deal. He’s averaged 27.5 saves over 10 seasons, and while some scoff at the statistic, it’s what a closer gets paid for. In Street’s opinion, saves transcend simple numbers.
“If you go 40 for 40 in saves and have a 6.00 ERA, I don’t care,” said Street. “You did your job every game. Certain numbers are potential indicators for future success, but a closer’s job isn’t to strike out guys, it’s to finish the game. To me, a closer’s ERA is fluff.”
Street doesn’t like FIP – “It’s the only stat I can’t stand” – which isn’t too surprising. His FIP has been roughly twice as a high as his ERA in each of the past four seasons. But unlike players who don’t understand stats that show them in a poor light, Street doesn’t lack comprehension skills.
“Baseball is measured to the 1000th of a degree, and FIP is only measured to the single digit,” said Street. “It’s home runs being worth 13, walks worth three and strikeouts worth two. Then you measure it against a league constant, which means if you’re terrible, you get the benefit of all the best players. And if you’re one of the best players, you have to deal with the worst.”
Street also has a strong opinion on velocity, which is far from his forte.
“The average starting pitcher throws 91 mph and has to get 21 outs,” said Street. “If you trust that guy to get 21 outs, why would you not trust a guy who throws 91 to get three outs? At the end of the day, the game knows. If you’re good, you’ll be good.”
The wind was whipping when Robbie Ray took the mound at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on Friday afternoon. Afterward, a reporter asked the Diamondbacks hurler if the wind was a factor.
“It’s more a factor for the hitter,” responded Ray. “He’s standing in the box and his eyes are drying out a little more. That’s something, as a pitcher, you take notice to. A guy is standing in the box too long, getting dry eyes.”
I suggested slower pitch clocks might be preferable on such occasions.
“Definitely,” said Ray. “On windy days, you take your time.”
A scout I spoke to likes Yasmany Tomas‘ potential with the bat. He doesn’t like his chances of staying at third base. In the scout’s opinion, Tomas’ feet look “heavy.” He also said the D-Back’s Cuban import appears to be pressing.
I was also told by a scout that Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is in the best shape of his life (Yes, such a thing actually does exist.) According to the source, CarGo avoided alcohol and hired a personal chef this offseason.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The 1965 Chicago White Sox went 95-67 and balance was a big reason why. Eight players hit between 10 and 18 home runs – the team total was 125 – and five starters won between nine and 14 games. Eddie Fisher won 15 in relief and saved 24 more. Hoyt Wilhelm had 21 saves.
On this date in 1946, the Indians beat the Giants in Tucson. It was the first ever spring training game played in Arizona.
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.