Trevor May is a thinking man’s pitcher. He’s also a strikeout pitcher, which is something Minnesota has lacked for several seasons. Where he will deploy those traits — the rotation or the bullpen — is one of the biggest questions in Twins camp.
A starter by trade, May moved into a relief role last July. It was a switch dictated more by circumstance than performance, and the 26-year-old right-hander is hoping to once again assume an every-five-days work schedule. Based on his thought-process and his repertoire, it’s where he feels he’s best suited.
Originally drafted by Philadelphia, May came to Minnesota in December 2012, along with Vance Worley, in exchange for Ben Revere. His 2014 10-game cameo was rocky, but he was solid last year in his dual-role. In 48 appearances — 16 starts and 32 relief appearances — he logged a 3.25 FIP and a 8.93 K/9.
May talked about his continued development, and the cerebral approach he brings to the mound, last week in Fort Myers.
Trevor May on his pitching philosophy: “I have a specific philosophy. I try to make it a step-by-step process with every pitch. There are three things you do every time you throw the ball.
“First, you figure out which pitch you’re going to throw. That’s based on your game plan — the research you’ve done before the game — and the in-the-moment. Second, you lock in your focus on the task at hand. Third, you execute the pitch. That’s the physical part of it.
“It’s rinse and repeat. As a starter, you’re doing that 100-plus times a game. You can’t be successful if you don’t do any of those three steps well. That’s something I’ve taken in and ran with.
“The focusing part — the locking in and staying in the present — hadn’t been a very strong area for me. I’ve made a lot of progress there. A big focus now is advancing that first step: the game plan and reading hitters.”
On sequencing and one pitch at a time: “I don’t specifically know which pitch I’ll want to throw in a given situation. My fastball, curveball, changeup and slider are all strikeout pitches. I don’t have an 0-2 pitch for all hitters, or that would change with an individual hitter. I have multiple options. For me, it’s mostly one pitch at a time. I try not to think about the next one until I’ve thrown the one I’m throwing right now.
“Based on what I know about a hitter, and if that holds — kind of how the natural progression of his swing goes — that can help with the decision of whether you’re going to throw something with a bigger break, a smaller break, a changeup, or just a straight heater. A lot depends on what they show you.”
On variations within his repertoire: “I have a couple of variations with my curveball. My slider is pretty consistent. With the heater, it’s location variations more than anything, although I do throw a two-seam as well as a four. Maybe 20% of my fastballs are sinkers. That’s as a starter. As a reliever, I probably threw five all year.”
On feel and how the ball comes out of his hand: “Right now, two weeks in, I want to feel that my arm strength is there. I want to feel that I’m getting the tightness out of my hand, to where the ball feels like it is going to spin correctly. The other day, it felt like the break of my curveball was pretty good, even when I was behind on it. If you’re casting, it usually doesn’t break at all. I was able to throw some from up there that still came back pretty hard. That means it was coming out tight, and coming out of the hand good.
“I’m thinking more about finger pressure and how you naturally throw pitches. How your hand is made. For instance, the two main fingers I use for throwing (index and middle) are almost the same length. A lot of guys have huge differences in their fingers. That affects how they land on the laces and how the natural movement is on their ball. I’m not sure if that has been studied, but it’s something I’ve been interested in looking at — guys who throw a natural-cutting ball, or how they hold the ball and where their fingers are on the seams.
“If you’re able to put pressure on different places than other people, the ball is going to come out differently. Sometimes you start to shift the ball — you turn it just slightly — and find the ball cutting on you, or sinking more. It’s, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ It’s because you were putting more pressure somewhere on the ball, where you weren’t before.”
On studying other pitchers and Statcast data: “A guy I would watch is someone who elevates well — a guy with a perceived rise ball. He has good four-seam spin rate, so gravity doesn’t affect his ball as much. I’ll look at a guy like Marco Estrada, who lives up in the zone. He’s spin guy No. 1.
“I haven’t really delved too deeply into [Statcast], but I do pay attention to it. Like I said, I want to get better at the analyzing area of my game. I’ve talked to our advanced-stats guy, Jack Goin, about it. Glen Perkins is in on that, too — the existence of rise-ball guys and sinker guys, and how locating down and away doesn’t mean the same for everybody, because of the way their ball stays in the zone or leaves the zone.
“Kyle Gibson and I are very different pitchers. He’s 100% sinkers, and sliders, and [down in the zone]. I’m [more up in the zone] — 12-6 curveball, rise ball, a straight change that looks like a heater and stays up.”
On channeling locations: “A lot of hitters can see the difference between a two-seam and a four-seam. Just playing catch, the laces look different. I throw a four-seam changeup, so if I can locate a four-seam heater down, maybe in the first pitch of an at-bat, that opens up the changeup down. If I throw all four-seams up, then try to throw a four-seam changeup down — that’s not where I throw my fastball, so there won’t be that deception. I want guys thinking fastball there.
“If you throw a changeup below the zone to a veteran hitter, he’ll take it, even if it’s really close. He’ll eliminate it, because that’s not where he was looking for a four-seam fastball. What makes a changeup good is when the hitter is looking for a fastball.
“Marco Estrada will throw a belt-high changeup and guys will swing through it. That’s because he throws his four-seam there all the time. Gibby throws his sinker at the bottom of the zone, so he can throw his changeup down below, too. It looks like the same pitch.”
On the third time through the order: “I started to get better at that toward the end of my time starting last year. I began realizing I didn’t need to change my sequences as much as I needed to know what I’d been throwing well all game. I’d pitch off of that.
“I try not to think about setting guys up. In my mind, that gives them the power. When you begin worrying about how you’re going to pitch to a guy later in the game, you have a tendency to get away from what you do well. That’s not something anyone should do consistently. It will get you trouble more often than it will get you in good water.”
On considering himself a strikeout pitcher: “That’s a big part of my game. I’m confident that I can get one when I need one. As a starter, I feel that I could be in the double digits pretty consistently.
“Strikeouts are a larger part of my game, as opposed to being, say, a ground-ball guy. Fly balls and strikeouts… if you’re a fly-ball guy, you have to rely a little more on strikeouts. If you’re both a ground-ball guy and a strikeout guy, that’s pretty special. (Target Field) is fairly good for fly balls. It’s probably in the top 10 for fly-ball guys.”
On starting versus relieving: “Circumstances dictated me going to the bullpen last year. That wasn’t a demotion to me. It was an opportunity to help the team, and to continue to build on what I was building on. I continued to learn in one-inning stretches. If I can take those one-innings-at-a-time into starts, and throw the whole game that way, it should make me a better pitcher.
“I think my repertoire is a starter’s repertoire. The progress I’ve made, and am still making — preparing and analyzing what I need to do — is coming along. I think it will translate to really good stretches as a starting pitcher. In my brain, I know I can do that.”
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.