Ernesto Frieri is magic on the mound
The Angel's deceptive delivery has confounded the AL's best hitters
ANAHEIM -- Where Ernesto Frieri is from, flying carpets are real, ghosts come back to life because they can't stand the solitude of death, and a man spends his entire life enveloped in a cloud of yellow butterflies.
Those things happen in the fiction of Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose stories were inspired by listening to his grandmother's stories as he was growing up on the humid coastal plains around Cartagena, Colombia. That same area, against all odds, produced the man who has been the most dominant reliever in the American League for the past month.
The literary form has come to be called magical realism, which is the perfect description of Frieri's impact on the Los Angeles Angels' bullpen.
Just as fans' hopes began to die off like swarms of locusts, a former tamale vendor who could throw baseballs from impossible angles -- from behind his head? from his chest? -- arrived from a nearby city and ignored physics. Instead of sinking, as the law of gravity suggested, his pitches levitated. They ran away from bats, darting off like frightened birds.
From that day forward, everything changed.
Deception might be the most underrated tool in a pitcher's bag.
"I've never seen anything like it. I can't explain it," said veteran reliever Jason Isringhausen. "He hitches it behind his back and it seems like it comes out of his chest. I play catch with him and I can't pick it up until it's halfway to me. Hitters, I believe, look for a release point, and they can't find it off him."
Some of the best hitters in the American League -- Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton, for example -- have looked like children swatting at flies trying to hit Frieri's fastball. It's not just how fast it's moving. Those guys have hit plenty of 94 mph fastballs over walls. It's his funky delivery and the movement, a running action, that makes 94 mph "play up" to 97 or 98. He often has little idea where the pitch will end up, but it rarely ends up anywhere other than the catcher's mitt.
"He looks like he's throwing from behind you," said Angels catcher Chris Iannetta, who has four career at-bats (and three hits) off Frieri. "He's got a little bit of run, enough to miss your barrel."
Frieri has faced 57 batters with the Angels and struck out 30 of them. Who does that? He has given up one hit and saved four games. The Angels were six games under .500 when they acquired him and they're six games over since he got here.
I've never seen anything like it. … He hitches it behind his back and it seems like it comes out of his chest. I play catch with him and I can't pick it up until it's halfway to me. Hitters, I believe, look for a release point and they can't find it off him.” -- Angels reliever Jason Isringhausen
Rarely has a team solved a problem this promptly, this definitively. General manager Jerry Dipoto had been stalking Frieri for years and, spurred to desperation, he got Padres GM Josh Byrnes to acquiesce on May 3: Frieri for minor league utility guy Alexi Amarista and a pitching prospect named Donn Roach. You can judge the trade in a couple of years if you prefer, but Dipoto didn't have a couple of years. His expensive team was sinking, largely due to a leaky bullpen.
Without Frieri, the Angels didn't have a closer. Now, they have two. Without him, they might still be languishing in last place.
Sincerin, Colombia, a village of 500 homes populated by ranchers and fishermen, isn't exactly teeming with major league baseball scouts. Teams have built glistening academies in neighboring Venezuela, but Colombia is still mostly virgin ground. Frieri is one of three active major leaguers from that country, where kids aspire to play soccer and where most of the big cities are tucked high enough into the chilly Andes that baseball is only a rumor.
Frieri owes a lot to a man named Marcial del Valle, a former catcher on the Colombian national team, who saw a glimmer of promise in a mediocre 14-year-old third baseman who couldn't hit but could zing the ball across the diamond.
He invited Frieri to a little academy the Padres were starting up in Cartagena. Frieri stepped on a mound, windmilled his arm a couple times and threw 88 mph. Soon, he was throwing 90, then 92. The training wasn't exactly state of the art.
"Nobody taught me how to pitch over there. He didn't know anything about pitching," Frieri said. "He used to tell us, 'Run 20 minutes and play catch.'"
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Three years later, Frieri signed with San Diego for $10,000.
"I was like, 'Wow. That's a lot of money,'" Frieri said. "It's still a lot, but then it was a lot a lot."
He just kind of stuck with what worked, and the Angels are now reaping the benefits of one of the most effective homemade deliveries in baseball.
Pitching coaches have been suggesting changes to Frieri for years. His motion, in which he throws "across his body," in the jargon of the trade, puts extra stress on his shoulder, they say. But nobody can argue it isn't effective. In 119 major league games, he has a 2.05 ERA. The Padres slotted him into the middle innings largely because they worried about his walks, but if you strike out the next three guys, who cares if you walk the first two?
Frieri points to his right shoulder and says, "You see that? It's strong as iron." And, for that, he can thank his grandmother, Zoila, who cared for him and his nine brothers and sisters. His mother worked as a shopkeeper abroad to make money to send back home. His father, he says, was rarely around. It was Zoila who used to wake him at 4 a.m. to grind the corn for the tamales she sold.
"I used to get so tired, I had to change hands," Frieri said. "If I have a boy, I'm going to make him do that."