CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Late last spring, the Indians' player development staff gave Jordan Milbrath a choice: Learn to throw sidearm, or be released."Long story short," he said, smiling, "I ended up learning how to throw sidearm."It was an easy, potentially career-altering choice. The 6-foot-6 right-hander found success as a sidearm
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Late last spring, the Indians' player development staff gave Jordan Milbrath a choice: Learn to throw sidearm, or be released.
"Long story short," he said, smiling, "I ended up learning how to throw sidearm."
It was an easy, potentially career-altering choice. The 6-foot-6 right-hander found success as a sidearm reliever in the Indians' system last season, piquing the Pirates' interest, and leading them to select him in the Rule 5 Draft. Now, Milbrath has a chance to crack Pittsburgh's Opening Day bullpen.
"It was a good decision in the long run," he said.
Picked in the 35th round of the 2013 Draft, Milbrath spent the first four years of his career with an over-the-top delivery and uneven results. He moved to the bullpen in 2016, and put up a 5.43 ERA and 1.58 WHIP as a 24-year-old in the Carolina League. But the Indians saw value in Milbrath's athleticism and, more importantly, his untapped potential.
Milbrath had never thrown sidearm, or even considered it. But in pitchers' fielding practice, he occasionally whipped the ball from a lower arm slot. Cleveland's staff took notice.
At the end of Spring Training last year, Milbrath said the Indians had a meeting about adding sidearmers to their system. So he sat down with Minor League pitching coordinator Ruben Niebla, who had identified Milbrath as a candidate for the switch.
The whole thing was a gamble, but both sides agreed they had to fully commit to the process. There could be no turning back after a bad bullpen session or a rough outing.
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Milbrath remained in extended spring camp for a month, went to Class A Advanced Lynchburg for two months, and moved up to to Double-A Akron to finish the season. Overall, he put together a career-best 3.02 ERA and 1.29 WHIP with 63 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings.
"They could have just released me," he said. "They said, 'Hey, let's give him a shot throwing sidearm. Our bullpen could benefit from that if it works out. He could benefit in his career if it works out for him.' They gave me a chance to do it. I'm grateful for the opportunity."
Using data provided by the Indians, he learned his fastball had a below-average spin rate, which means the ball drops more than hitters expect. He switched to a two-seam grip to add even more movement. His ground-ball rate skyrocketed and, unexpectedly, his velocity spiked as high as 99 mph last year.
"You can't draw it up," Milbrath said. "Some things are just natural and God-given. That was one of them."
Both tendencies were on display against the Blue Jays Wednesday, when his fastball sat at 95-96 mph as he induced two groundouts and struck out Randal Grichuk on a slider in a perfect sixth inning at Dunedin Stadium.
"Love the velocity. Love the sink. Love the spin," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've just got to continue to give him the ball, and give him some good matchups against Major League hitters and see what type of development can take place."
Milbrath is not a lock for the Opening Day roster. His delivery makes it tough for right-handed hitters to pick up the ball out of his hand, but lefties have an easier time, making Milbrath's changeup an even more important pitch. Carrying Rule 5 Draft picks is often tricky, and the Pirates have a number of qualified candidates for their bullpen.
Before reporting to his first big league camp, Milbrath made a promise to himself: He would not put unnecessary pressure on himself based on an outcome he can't control. Still, the affable 26-year-old can't hide his enthusiasm about the opportunity that might present itself later this spring.
"It definitely gives me a little extra energy in my career. You work your whole life playing baseball for this exact moment," Milbrath said. "I say that I'm trying to keep an even keel, and I am, but it's still an exciting opportunity for me."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.