Baseball is, as the popular saying goes, a game of inches. Those inches can decide who wins and loses, but sometimes they assert their importance in a different way.
Sometimes they can help rejuvenate a career.
Take C.J. Nitkowski. When a 39-year-old pitcher gets sent to Triple-A, it's typically a bad thing. When Nitkowski joined the Mets' Buffalo affiliate on Monday, it was a promotion -- one that came partially from the several inches of distance Nitkowski put between his old delivery and his new one.
The old one, left-handed but conventional, made him a first-round pick in the 1994 First-Year Player Draft and took him through parts of 10 Major League seasons. The new one, dropped into a sidearm slot, has him on a path toward his first big league action since 2005. After starting at Double-A Binghamton about three weeks ago, Nitkowski already has traversed half the distance.
"I knew I needed to bring something new to the table," Nitkowski said by phone a few days before his promotion. "I'd always wanted to try sidearm, but I didn't want to be done with baseball without having tried it full-time."
That was late in 2010. Nitkowski had spent a second season in South Korea, part of his journey through the Minors and foreign leagues since June 7, 2005, when he threw his last pitch for the Nationals. The next year, he underwent stem-cell treatment to breathe life back into his damaged throwing shoulder, then began his attempt to come back as a lefty specialist.
It's a role he'd filled before, but not in the same way.
"You know, I would almost equate it to a knuckleball," Nitkowski said of changing deliveries. "You do it to extend your career and keep pitching, just [to] find another way."
Nitkowski auditioned for the Mets this past spring. They didn't sign him at the time, but they liked him enough to keep him in mind for when a spot opened up in the summer. The Mets told him he would get a couple of weeks to show what he could do.
After all, Nitkowski was affordable, low-risk and potentially a difference-maker in one important aspect. As a southpaw with a newly deceptive arm angle, he might provide a continuously sought-after asset: an antidote to powerful left-handed hitting.
"It's huge if you can get a guy who's good against lefties," said Glenn Abbott, Binghamton's pitching coach and a former big league hurler. "There's always that monster left-hander that comes up in the eighth or ninth inning, so you need that lefty who can get lefties out. That's something that's hard to find anymore. ... It's invaluable to an organization if you've got a guy that can do this."
The search for that pitcher -- sometimes referred to as a "LOOGY," or "lefty one-out guy" -- doesn't stop, even for contenders. The Dodgers picked up sidearmer Randy Choate from the Marlins in the Hanley Ramirez trade. The Giants claimed Jose Mijares off waivers from the Royals, and the Cardinals quickly scooped up Brian Fuentes after the A's released him.
It's not hard to figure out why. This season, left-handed batters have a collective average nearly 30 points lower and an OPS nearly 100 points lower against southpaws.
When matched up against Choate, through Thursday, they were hitting .151 with three extra-base hits, four walks and 25 strikeouts in 80 plate appearances. Now 36, Choate has employed a sidearm delivery since he was in the Minors with the Yankees in the late '90s.
"It has given me a better opportunity. It makes me a lot tougher, left on left, for those guys to pick up," he said.
"It just felt really comfortable to be slinging it from there, and my arm has always been able to respond well."
Getting comfortable and repeating the delivery were the first obstacles Nitkowski had to hurdle when he dropped down. But the transition has gone smoothly.
The ninth overall Draft pick by the Reds in 1994, Nitkowski compiled a 5.37 ERA in 336 career games, mostly as a reliever, for eight different teams. Lefties have hit him for a .257 average.
The sample size is tiny and comes against Minor Leaguers, but the sidearm-throwing version of Nitkowski surrendered one hit, while striking out eight, in 4 2/3 scoreless innings at Double-A. He gave up one hit and an unearned run while striking out one in his Triple-A debut on Monday. Lefties have gone 1-for-12 with one walk and seven punchouts.
Nitkowski scrapped his cutter and altered the grip on his changeup to go along with a two-seam fastball and curveball. Filtered through the lower arm angle, everything moves different than before, making his arsenal almost brand new.
"I've been really pleasantly surprised with how I've felt, and the reaction I've got from hitters," Nitkowski said. "More swings and misses than I expected, so that's obviously a good thing.
"The goal for me when I came [to Binghamton] was to test the sidearm out and see what kind of reaction I would get from the hitters, and the things that I needed to see were swings and misses from lefties and ground balls from righties, and so far that's happening."
Abbott said the Binghamton club always tried to put Nitkowski in a position to face lefties, in preparation for his eventual big league role should he make it that far. He was impressed by the results.
"A lot of those hitters will tell you about the kind of stuff a guy has sometimes by how they swing against him," Abbott said, "and lefties haven't liked him too much."