We all know the baseball saying, "If you are not getting better, you are getting worse." That anti-complacency mantra is repeated religiously every spring, and I've always been impressed that some of the best in the business are committed to taking their game up a notch. True, if you have the comfort of a long-term deal, you can go into camp with a certain amount of complacency. But those who work on improving some aspect of their game reveal themselves not only as great players, but as great leaders who may be around for a long time.
San Francisco ace Tim Lincecum is spectacular yet not satisfied. During spring training, Lincecum expressed how he wanted to get a different tilt on his breaking pitches. Two Cy Young awards aren't enough. He probably uses those trophies to hold up his Xbox 360 or PS3 (not sure what he plays).
Keep in mind that Lincecum is a young pitcher. This isn't a veteran entering the twilight of his career who has watched his fastball top out at 98 mph and now only flirts with 87 mph. This isn't a guy coming off major surgery who assumes he can't reach back and fire anymore. This is a guy with a long future in front of him and some of the "body feel good" years to come.
Sure, his un-pitcher-like frame and unorthodox delivery, along with his stats, separate "The Freak" from his fellow hurlers. But he's also special because of his will. Dominant as he is, he feels the need to keep getting better.
The Cardinals' Brad Penny has also made adjustments. I faced him many times when I was with the Phillies, and he proudly threw the ball in an effort to take the catcher's hand off. There was no mystery; he reared back, fired and if he hit the glove, that was a bonus. He enjoyed plenty of success in that mode and probably didn't see the need to change much until he got hurt.
The Penny I see today is different. He now uses his head as much as his arm. Working with Dave Duncan, the Cards' super-prepared pitching coach, he has added a nasty sink to his fastball. Just as before, hitters are missing his fastball -- but this time because of deception, not velocity and explosiveness. Yes, his fastball can still reach the mid-90s, but it is no longer necessary.
A lot of pitchers now sitting at home never figured this out, and many pitchers today could extend their careers if they learned from Mr. Penny. He has found comfort in just getting an out, even if the hitter is getting himself out.
I don't know what is going on, but these newcomers are throwing some of the oldest "don'ts" in baseball out the window. I remember how taboo it was for a left-handed pitcher to throw a left-handed hitter a changeup. Coaches would have a near heart attack if they saw a southpaw throw one. The vast majority of left-handed hitters have low swing paths, making them low-ball hitters. So their comfort zone is below the belt, down to the knees. Since a changeup will fade to that same hot zone for lefties (down and in), even if the batter is fooled, his default bat path will give him a good chance to keep the fat part of the bat in the picture.
Even with my engineering mind, I never fully believed that theory. Doesn't the fact a pitch is 15 miles per hour slower make a difference?
Maybe it is scientific reasoning or maybe it is youthful ignorance, but from what I see, the changeups from pitchers like Braden, Danks and Matusz are eating lefties alive. There's nothing more difficult to hit than a ball you think is going 93 mph that is in fact going 80 mph. I don't care what your swing path looks like in the video room or in the old dusty baseball tome in the basement.
Speaking of changeups, as if CC Sabathia needed another weapon, his changeup is nothing nice. He runs it down and away from right-handed hitters, and combines it with a mid-90s fastball to keep them honest. It puts hitters in a miserable rocking chair. Hard up and in, or soft down and away. No one can cover it all, and if you guess wrong, you are either in for some heavy dental work or for back surgery to get your body out of that new pretzel shape.
This is the beauty of baseball. Veterans like Sabathia and Penny learn to outthink as well as overpower their opponents. Phenoms like Lincecum keep working on their games. And a new generation comes along, respecting the culture and the past, but taking the game to another level.
As hard as it is to make the big leagues, it is even harder to stay there. Sometimes you have to make adjustments even when you are the best, and sometimes you have to take "conventional wisdom" and gently throw it into the fire.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His forthcoming book "The Game from Where I Stand" will be released on May 11.