SAN FRANCISCO -- The "art of pitching" for many Major League hurlers involves changing speeds and locations of pitches to keep hitters off balance. But another weapon -- one being employed more by several Mariners this year -- is changing up the rhythm of their delivery to catch batters off guard or unsettled in their own routine.
It's a tactic employed liberally by Johnny Cueto, who the Mariners will face Wednesday when they take on the Giants in the second game of their upcoming Interleague series. And, indeed, Mariners reliever Casey Lawrence studied Cueto closely when Seattle played San Francisco in a Cactus League game this spring.
Lawrence is Exhibit A of the potential impact of being more deceptive in his delivery. A 30-year-old right-hander with a fastball that tops out at 89-90 mph, he'd never made an Opening Day roster in his professional career until this year, when he put together an outstanding spring, and then followed that up with 2 2/3 perfect innings in his regular-season debut on Saturday against the Indians.
"It's definitely helping," said Lawrence, who posted a 6.34 ERA in 27 outings with Toronto and Seattle last year. "You see different swings now. It's just another tool for the toolbox and adding that to the stuff I already had, hopefully it can take me to another level."
Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. urged all his hurlers to ponder the potential of disrupting hitters' timing by experimenting with "quick pitches" -- which typically means reducing their normal leg lift and delivering the ball sooner than expected.
Changing a delivery in that fashion is perfectly legal, but not easy for many pitchers who need to lock into their own rhythm to maintain the correct arm slot and delivery point. It's also possible to "bull rush" an opposing hitter by simply throwing before he's set in the box, though umpires do have the discretion to call a ball if they believe a pitcher is deliberately trying to catch a hitter off guard before he's reasonably ready.
Cueto is also famous for his "shoulder shimmy," where he wiggles his upper body during delivery to change what hitters are seeing. Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays is another known to toy with his timing. Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma is among many pitchers who often hold the ball longer when they set, or pause slightly in mid-delivery.
But even old dogs can learn new tricks, it seems, as longtime Mariners ace Felix Hernandez tried out a few "quick pitches" during the spring and used the tactic to strike out Bradley Zimmer in the fifth inning of his season debut on Friday.
"I got a good result, so that was good," Hernandez said. "It's something different. I've been in the league for a while, so they know me pretty good. I'm trying different things to make my career longer."
Lawrence admits he's learning as he goes and employed the tactics "a good bit" in his regular-season relief debut, particularly to a sixth-inning strikeout of Yan Gomes.
"He was swinging it pretty well, so I tried to get in there and screw up his timing and mix it in every now and then and use it in different counts," Lawrence said. "Just like anything, you stay away from patterns and it keeps those guys off balance and they can't sit on a pitch or be more prepared for a quick pitch. You just mix it in and keep them guessing.
"Honestly sometimes I'm out there and I don't even think about it, I just do it. The big thing with me is making sure our catchers are looking at me, so their head's not down or anything like that so I don't scare the crap out of them."
Lawrence, who pitched in the Minors for seven years after going undrafted out of Albright College in Pennsylvania, has enjoyed the mental aspect of messing with hitters. He knew he was on the right track when a few batters barked at him during Spring Training.
"It's almost more of a chess match now," he said. "You see what kind of swing they have, guys with leg kicks and this and that. You try to pare what goes well with certain guys, whether it's the quick pitch or bull rush or the hold or mixing it all in like I did with Gomes.
"It's just making those guys more uncomfortable and not sacrificing my stuff to the plate as well. I think if I don't know if I'm going to do it, there's no way they're going to know."
Lawrence got a kick out of seeing Hernandez employ the strategy to good effect in his debut. He admits it's been a learning curve for himself, determining what is acceptable or not and what works without disrupting his own timing to the plate.
But in the end, Lawrence says it's all about finding out what works in the endless battle of adjustments between hitters and hurlers. Even when batters know he likes to break their rhythm, just getting them thinking about that instead of their normal routine could be an edge.
"I think in today's day and age, with all the data and this and that, everybody is trying to get better and have an advantage," Lawrence said. "And this is just one way for pitchers to get an added advantage."