The Big Shift
How the rise of the one-inning arm is changing baseball
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 23, 2012 Body Issue. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 23, 2012 Body Issue. Subscribe today!
ON JUNE 12, A's reliever Sean Doolittle came into the sixth inning against the Rockies. The first two batters reached, and Doolittle was in a mess that could have overwhelmed a pitcher with lesser stuff: the tying runs on base with nobody out, the thin air of Coors Field, a slider that didn't seem to be working and Rockies star Carlos Gonzalez in the hole. But Doolittle kept it simple, pounding the strike zone with mid-90s fastballs, getting the first two outs on the ground and striking out Gonzalez swinging. Then again, Doolittle had to keep it simple. He wasn't a pitcher until 11 months ago.
Doolittle is an extreme example of a trend seen in bullpens throughout baseball: the transformation of failed position prospects into dominant relief pitchers. Once a first baseman -- excellent defense, enough power to get on the organization's depth chart -- Doolittle had lost more than two seasons to knee and wrist injuries and was quickly losing his chance to make the Show. As he rehabbed the wrist in 2011, the A's had him throw long-toss drills while he wore a cast from his knuckles to above his elbow. The coaches just wanted a distraction to keep Doolittle from sitting in the sun and getting bored. Garvin Alston, Oakland's minor league rehab instructor, saw the long tosses and was impressed by the carry on each throw. Doolittle had pitched in college four years earlier but wasn't considered a pitching prospect thanks to a squat motion and a high-80s fastball. But now, with his wrist taking longer to heal than anticipated, he spent hours at the field and in his apartment doing "pump drills" and "stick drills," repeating motions to build his mechanics and get used to the proper weight transfer. Soon, he and Alston saw a second career for the first baseman.
Doolittle is an extreme example of a trend seen in bullpens throughout baseball: the transformation of failed position prospects into dominant relief pitchers. Once a first baseman -- excellent defense, enough power to get on the organization's depth chart -- Doolittle had lost more than two seasons to knee and wrist injuries and was quickly losing his chance to make the Show. As he rehabbed the wrist in 2011, the A's had him throw long-toss drills while he wore a cast from his knuckles to above his elbow. The coaches just wanted a distraction to keep Doolittle from sitting in the sun and getting bored.
Garvin Alston, Oakland's minor league rehab instructor, saw the long tosses and was impressed by the carry on each throw. Doolittle had pitched in college four years earlier but wasn't considered a pitching prospect thanks to a squat motion and a high-80s fastball. But now, with his wrist taking longer to heal than anticipated, he spent hours at the field and in his apartment doing "pump drills" and "stick drills," repeating motions to build his mechanics and get used to the proper weight transfer. Soon, he and Alston saw a second career for the first baseman.
"With him, it was easier because of two things: He can pick things up easily, and he was a blank canvas," Alston says. Doolittle stood on the mound for the first time on the last day of the 2011 season, at an Arizona Rookie League game, striking out two but allowing a run. After a winter in which he honed his mechanics, he emerged this year as a reliever, skipping across three levels before debuting with Oakland in June. The guy who occasionally threw 90 mph in college now hits 97.
"I haven't seen any [conversion] that has been this fast," says Keith Lieppman, Oakland's director of player development. "This kid has about 27 innings." Actually, he had 26 before he was called up.
So how does a failed first baseman turn into a dominant reliever in less than a year? The answer has less to do with Doolittle than with how modern teams think about their pitching staffs.
THE LINE BETWEEN position player and pitcher has always been like the line separating fair and foul -- thin enough for players to hop over. Bob Lemon was a minor league infielder when he left to fight in World War II; he returned as a pitcher and made the Hall of Fame. The A's converted a minor league infielder named Matt Keough into an All-Star pitcher in the 1970s. And of course, Babe Ruth made the conversion in the other direction; you might have heard about what he did after that.
But those were rare cases. Now bullpens throughout baseball are anchored by players who were position guys with little future in the sport. Thirty-year-old Jason Motte, a catcher until he was 24, threw the final pitch of last year's World Series for the Cardinals. Kenley Jansen was a catching prospect with a big and uncontrollable arm -- he threw out 38 percent of baserunners but committed 14 errors during his final full season in A-ball behind the plate, in 2008. Last season, he set a major league record with the Dodgers by averaging 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings (with 96 K's in 56 innings pitched). The record he broke had belonged to the Cubs' Carlos Marmol, a converted catcher and outfielder. Joe Nathan of the Rangers, the Rockies' Rafael Betancourt and Sergio Santos of the Blue Jays are among those who found success as major league closers or setup guys after nearly washing out as failed hitting prospects.
Pitching is supposed to be complicated. It's supposed to take years for a pitcher to learn how to pace himself, to stay healthy, to adjust to batters, to get the feel of touchy secondary pitches. But the modern bullpen doesn't reward finesse and strategy as much anymore; it thrives on heat. Pitchers can enter a game for the seventh, eighth or ninth, blaze a dozen fastballs near the strike zone and never worry about developing a changeup or stamina. In an earlier era, someone like Jansen might have spent years learning secondary pitches. In this one, he pumps fastball after fastball -- 94 percent fastballs in 2012 through June 25, according to FanGraphs.com. By the time hitters catch up, he's out of the inning.
This reliance on one-inning arms has teams looking at every strong thrower in their systems and on amateur fields around the country. Third basemen and catchers, in particular, intrigue scouts because they tend to have short, accurate throwing motions. Tom Kotchman, a longtime scout and rookie-ball manager in the Angels system, discovered one future major leaguer when he was scouting a Florida high school game and his radar gun glitched. Instead of picking up the pitcher's 70 mph changeup, the gun grabbed the catcher's flat-footed 89 mph throw to second base. Based on that throw, the Angels signed Greg Jones for $100,000. He spent parts of four years in the Angels bullpen. Now, Kotchman estimates, nearly every team tries to convert a failed position prospect every year.
"It's not always easy," says Kotchman, who was Troy Percival's manager in Class-A ball when Percival began the conversion from a catcher who couldn't hit to an All-Star closer. "But the reward is a bullpen of guys like Jansen, Motte, [Orioles reliever Pedro] Strop and Nathan."
PERHAPS THE MOST impressive conversion is Brandon Beachy. In 2008, Beachy was an unexceptional third baseman for Indiana Wesleyan University. He pitched occasionally -- about 25 innings in high school and about that many in college his junior year, when his ERA was 6.58. He says no teams ever scouted him. Beachy, a prelaw student, didn't pay attention to the 2008 draft.
That spring, he joined a collegiate summer league in Virginia. In June, a Braves scout named Gene Kerns brought his wife and grandson to a game. The talent on the field was dismal; Kerns' wife and grandson went home early. But in the ninth, Beachy came in as a reliever. His first warmup pitch shocked Kerns: a 93 mph fastball from a big body, with an athletic frame and clean mechanics. Beachy followed it with a nasty top-bite curve -- and three consecutive strikeouts. "I have seen a lot of good ones," Kerns says, "but I have never seen anyone with better arm action than this one."
Kerns, who has scouted for 42 years, didn't know that Beachy was a third baseman. He didn't care. Beachy had the arm, and he had the body; Kerns knew a major league organization could do wonders with them. "We've got to sign him," Kerns told his boss after watching Beachy again the next night, "or I might as well go home."
Four years later, through June 26, Beachy led the majors in ERA. Fluke? Not even close. Beachy, unlike the other conversions, is a starter. Last season he led all NL starters in strikeouts per nine innings, perhaps the most important measure of a young pitcher. And coming into this season, Bill James' projection system forecast Beachy to have the second-lowest FIP in the majors. (FIP, fielding independent pitching, is an ERA-like measure that controls for luck and defense.) The only pitcher James' system liked more was Clayton Kershaw.
And it is exactly Beachy's inexperience on the mound that has helped him succeed, says Rocket Wheeler, who managed Beachy at Class-A Myrtle Beach in 2009.
"He's not afraid of contact," Wheeler says. "And he wasn't afraid of contact back then. Being a hitter coming in, he knows how hard it was to hit, and he can attack the guys and stay ahead of them. He took that mentality with him on the mound."
Just as inexperience, counterintuitively, could be a good thing for Beachy, a lack of innings could be a bad thing for his longevity. In June, Beachy partially tore a ligament in his throwing elbow and had to undergo Tommy John surgery; he'll be out until next season. Scouts and team officials say a young arm is unpredictable and can be overwhelmed by the unnatural strain of pitching.
With that in mind, the A's have been particularly cautious with Doolittle, working with him for many weeks before he even stood on a mound. They have no plans to turn him into a starter, something that would require years of building up his stamina and secondary pitches. Right now, his arm is too valuable in the bullpen.
And Doolittle's experience as a hitter gives him an edge.
"I'm not sure pitchers understand how difficult hitting is," Doolittle says. "When you can really put together a two- or three-pitch sequence and execute it, they don't have a chance."
He is also, in some ways, making it up as he goes along. The final pitch Doolittle threw to Carlos Gonzalez in mid-June:
Was it a slider? A curve? A slurve?
"It started as a slider, but it's starting to look more like a curveball," he says. "I don't know when that happened. It could look totally different in two weeks. I'm not sure what I was doing to make it look like that."