Mulder's retooled delivery impresses Angels
Mound sessions have club optimistic about left-hander's bid at comeback
ANAHEIM -- Countless times throughout the course of his 16-year career as a scout, Tim Huff has arrived at an abandoned field in the middle of the winter to point his radar gun in the direction of a former pitcher attempting a comeback. Sometimes he's there as a favor to the player, or to his agent, or to some general manager somewhere. And a lot of times, just before hopping back into his rental car, he feels compelled to tell them why it may be best to give it up.
Nov. 25 was different.
That was the day the Angels' special assistant joined representatives from the D-backs and Giants to watch Mark Mulder -- five years removed from his most recent professional appearance, 89 months removed from his most recent Major League win and even further removed from his days as a two-time All-Star -- throw two sets of 25 pitches off a mound.
About 10 pitches in, Huff turned to the other scouts and said, "Which one of us is going to get on the phone faster and call our GM first?"
And now, less than a week after the Angels finalized a Minor League contract with the 36-year-old left-hander, Huff sees a realistic chance for Mulder to complete a comeback few, if any, ever have.
"You can tell that he's on a mission to do this," Huff said. "I think he really believes he's going to come in and earn a spot in our rotation, and I think he has a chance to do that."
Mulder calls his decision to pitch again "a flat-out fluke." Some may call it divine intervention.
It happened on a random October night in the living room of his Phoenix home, when Mulder watched Dodgers reliever Paco Rodriguez pitch, acted out what it would feel like to separate his hands much higher upon his delivery, and came away intrigued.
A couple nights later, he grabbed a rubber baseball, went out to his backyard, handed his wife a cell phone and had her record footage of him repeatedly throwing pitches against the wall.
"And I was amazed that my arm was working the right way," Mulder said. "I never gave it a thought of coming back before then -- furthest thing from my mind, to be honest with you."
The last time Mulder had played catch was in March with Kyle Lohse, while his former Cardinals teammate was still waiting to get signed, and Mulder could barely throw. On the morning of Oct. 27, hours before attending a joint birthday for their daughters, Mulder shot Lohse a text message:
Bring your glove.
"He basically laughed at me, like, 'What are you talking about?'" Mulder recalled. "And I'm like, 'Just humor me.' I was at like 150, 200 feet, and he was like, 'You gotta be kidding me. What's going on here?'"
That was all the validation Mulder needed.
On Nov. 1, he consulted his former physical therapist with the A's, got the go-ahead and went to work, hitting the gym hard, reaching out to several current and former players for advice and throwing off the mound every two to three days for the next four weeks, sometimes ramping it up to 70 pitches in one session. He was shocked at how easily it all came.
"I haven't had the ball come out of my hand like this in a very long time, and it's fun," Mulder said. "I never threw like this in all my years in St. Louis. And I mean that. It was smoke and mirrors that first year in St. Louis. It was just sinker or split, because I had nothing else. My arm action was kind of deteriorating. And I'm gonna run with it. I'm gonna see what happens."
Mulder's deal with the Angels includes a Spring Training invitation and no other guarantees. He'll earn $1 million if he makes the team and can earn about $5 million more in incentives, though he'd basically have to be in the rotation an entire year to maximize the contract.
The Angels signed Mulder because they have very little depth behind the five current members of their rotation. They signed him because they met all the requirements, as a West Coast team with a potential opportunity. And they signed him because Huff, jaded by the process after years of witnessing failed comeback stories, came away so impressed.
At the end of these sessions, Huff will usually just shoot his general manager an email or a text.
This time, he made sure to call.
"Really, there is no downside for us," Angels GM Jerry Dipoto said. "This is all upside for us, and it's really all upside for Mark Mulder. Hopefully it's going to end up being one of the really cool stories of the year."
The Angels aren't really counting on Mulder, and they aren't even sure he'd accept an assignment to Triple-A if he doesn't make the big league team out of Spring Training. Heck, they may never need him if they add Masahiro Tanaka or Matt Garza. But it's a no-risk move.
While seeing video of Mulder's throwing sessions, Dipoto noticed "a pitcher executing a good delivery with a clean arm stroke, and the ball was coming out of his hand pretty easy."
"What that all means, I don't know," Dipoto cautioned. "I don't want to read anything into it other than I'm excited for Mark to make a comeback.
"I don't have unrealistic expectations. I know it's been a long while since Mark has competed aggressively at this level of play. But what I do know is you're getting a high-level athlete who's still in great shape, you're getting a high-level competitor who hasn't lost his competitive edge, and you're getting a guy who really wants to do what he's doing and is driven to do it."
Mulder calls the 2008 season finale "one of the best days ever, because I didn't have to go to the field the next day and work for nothing."
His final start that year -- and still his most recent start in any sort of competitive environment -- came on July 9 at Citizens Bank Park and lasted only 16 pitches.
Mulder had been the second overall pick by the A's in 1998, had won 21 games in 2001 and had established himself as one of the game's premier left-handers over a five-year period in Oakland and -- for one solid season -- St. Louis. But he pitched only 12 2/3 innings from '07-08 -- his left shoulder relenting to two rotator cuff surgeries -- and the game stopped being fun.
"I was so miserable the last few years of St. Louis because I knew that no matter what I did, it wasn't getting better," Mulder said. "So each day I'd go to the field, working as hard as I could, with me knowing deep down inside I wasn't coming back. I really knew that I wasn't coming back."
At 31, Mulder had basically moved on. He tried his hand at professional golf, became an analyst for ESPN and, for the better part of a half-decade, never even dreamed of a comeback.
"I didn't miss the game," Mulder said. "I really didn't. I missed the guys. I missed that hangout. I missed the dinners on the road. Those kind of things, I missed. I think it would've been different if I left the game because I wasn't any good anymore. I think that would've been harder than the way I went out, because I went out because I physically couldn't do it."
Huff saw Mulder throw one more time, on Dec. 18, but got all the validation he needed during his second set of 25 pitches on Nov. 25. For most guys who haven't pitched in a while, their stuff has a tendency to erode after taking a break. Mulder's velocity stayed the same; his command and precision got better.
|"I was so miserable the last few years of St. Louis because I knew that no matter what I did, [my shoulder] wasn't getting better. So each day I'd go to the field, working as hard as I could, with me knowing deep down inside I wasn't coming back. I really knew that I wasn't coming back."|
|-- Mark Mulder|
Mulder's fastball sat between 89-92 mph in that first showcase, a few ticks faster than where he was at the tail end of his career, and Huff felt Mulder commanded five pitches. His changeup, a pitch the lefty hardly ever utilized in the past, has become his second-best pitch, just behind the sinker. And the new delivery is working wonders.
Mulder was inspired by watching Rodriguez, who vaults his throwing hand in the air just before firing a pitch. But unlike Rodriguez -- or, similarly, former Angels pitcher Tommy Hanson -- Mulder doesn't really have a hitch in his delivery. It's a lot smoother, easier to repeat, and puts more pressure on his lower half than his shoulder.
"He's able to get extension and finish pitches, which he really wasn't able to do the last three or four years of his career," said Huff, who's in his second year with the Angels after spending seven years each in the Rays' and Blue Jays' scouting departments. "It's allowing him to do things with the baseball that he wasn't able to do previously."
On New Year's Day, shortly after his deal with the Angels was finalized, Mulder's command finally returned.
Now, he's pushing his arm to new limits.
On Sunday, Mulder threw an intense simulated game at Chad Moeller's baseball facility in Scottsdale, Ariz., consisting of four 25-pitch sessions in which he told hitters what was coming. On Saturday, he'll do it again. Five days after that, he'll do another one. Then he'll back off and give his arm a break for the start of Spring Training, when he'll look to make a comeback befitting a Hollywood script.
"I don't know what's going to come of it," Mulder said, "but I just know that I'm very confident in what I'm doing, and I'd like to think that when the Angels people see me throw, I'm going to hopefully turn some heads."