When velocity dips, it's time to get crafty on mound
All pitchers transition from power to finesse; a select few reinvent themselves entirely
LOS ANGELES -- There was a time when he could hit 97-98 mph on a radar gun, but that was so long ago Dan Haren has a hard time recalling what it even felt like. He settles in comfortably at 88-90 mph now, figuring out how to muzzle hitters with movement, guile and deception -- not heat.
The transition from power to finesse, from force to intellect, is a challenge pitchers inevitably face. There was only one Nolan Ryan, throwing in the mid-90s in his mid-40s. Mortals are forced eventually to either adapt with finer-tuned instruments or make a golf course their new home away from home.
"Acceptance of what we have, that's the key," Haren, the Dodgers' veteran right-hander, said. "If I was to go out and pitch like I did when I was throwing 93 [mph], I would get hit all over the place.
"There came a point in my career where I came to grips with the stuff I had to deal with. My command got better. I learned where I could go with a pitch and where I couldn't. It became all about making quality pitches, even in hitters' counts. In a 2-0 count, you can't throw 88 down the middle. You have to sink it, make it move. It all comes down to acceptance of what you have."
At that crossroads, the pitcher who stops trying to be what he was and focuses on what he is, using the tools at his disposal, is the one who endures.
"I had a year where I touched 97, 98 on the gun," said Haren, who began his career as a Cardinals reliever before blossoming in Oakland in 2005 as a starter. "The year I started the ['07] All-Star Game [in San Francisco as the Athletics' ace] I pitched in the low 90s. As my fastball declined, I developed a cutter. I needed something to move them off the [four-seam] fastball.
"So, that became my big pitch. People adjusted to it and started hanging over the plate, which meant I now had to adjust to that. It's a game that goes on and on, constant adjustments."
At 33, Haren is 7-4 with a 3.54 ERA in 14 starts for the Dodgers, helping keep them in the National League West race in a season of underachievement thus far.
Perhaps no pitcher in the game gets more mileage out of less gas than Jered Weaver, Haren's former teammate with the Angels.
The 6-foot-7 Weaver, one of the most dominant college pitchers ever at Long Beach State, began to experience shoulder issues early in his career -- in part owing to an ill-advised baserunning adventure in Interleague Play at Dodger Stadium. In order to thrive, he had to learn how to pitch -- not just reach back for the heat and unleash it.
Weaver's ability to hide the baseball in his highly unconventional crossfire delivery has factored into his success, but it goes beyond that, to intangible qualities found in all great athletes.
"We all threw hard when we were young," Weaver said, grinning. "You have to learn how to adjust, how to adapt to hitters and game conditions. Deception is part of it, sure, but you have to know what you're doing out there and learn how to not beat yourself.
"I'm a very competitive person. I don't like to lose or give a bad performance. I think that drive to compete is a big part of any athlete's success."
When Weaver, a 20-game winner in 2012 and MLB's strikeout king in '10, was struggling early in the season, Angels manager Mike Scioscia expressed no concern over a dip in velocity. He knew it was a matter of time before his ace would start hitting his spots and making hitters disappear.
"Weave has great deception and command," Scioscia said. "He's throwing with the basically the same velocity he had when he won 20. He moves his fastball to both sides of the plate, and he can change speeds as well as anybody."
Haren, who uses his split as his changeup and has retained remarkable control, has a 4.07 strikeouts-to-walks career ratio, among the game's best. He marvels at Weaver's ability to deliver a curveball 15 mph slower than his fastball, which lives in the 86-88 mph neighborhood -- on good days.
"Serious deception and keeping hitters off-balance by changing speeds and location -- that's what makes Weave who he is," Haren said.
Weaver's resume supports his claim about rising to meet the pressures of big games. In three postseason outings he's 2-1 with a 1.88 ERA.
Chris Young, in the midst of an impressive comeback with the Mariners, is an even larger version of Weaver at 6-foot-10. His deception comes from an uncommonly high release point, creating discomfort for hitters, and a fastball with late life, even if it comes in at a pedestrian 85-87 mph.
After sitting out 2013, Young has revived a productive career in which he has held hitters to a .225/.301/.383 line.
Young, who attended Highland Park High School in the Dallas area a decade before Clayton Kershaw, echoes Weaver's sentiments about the value of a game face that conveys serious business -- and an attitude behind it. In San Diego early in his career, Young worked alongside Jake Peavy, famous for his intensely competitive nature.
"When I was in college, playing basketball," said Young, who turned down an offer to play center for the NBA's Sacramento Kings after a stellar career at Princeton, "I seemed to play my best games against the best teams, like Kansas. It's the way I've always been -- and I think I've carried that into my baseball career."
In the 2006 NL Division Series, Young dispatched the eventual World Series champion Cardinals, 3-1, for the Padres' lone victory. Going 6 2/3 innings in Game 3, he blanked the Redbirds on four hits and two walks, striking out nine hitters.
And he did it with a fastball that topped out in the high 80s.
"I've been on teams, like the Angels, that were loaded with fastball hitters," Torii Hunter said. "The guys who gave us trouble were the soft-tossers. They'd have us coming back to the dugout grumbling.
"Those guys who know how to work the corners and keep you off balance, they're tough. If you throw a straight fastball, big league hitters eventually are going to crush it -- no matter how hard you throw it."
Excluding knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, his Toronto teammate, Mark Buehrle had the slowest average fastball in the American League last season at 84.2. Weaver, Doug Fister, A.J. Griffin, Hisashi Iwakuma and Bartolo Colon each came in below 90 mph.
In the NL, Haren tied Travis Wood for third slowest average fastball at 88.9, behind Eric Stults (86.7) and Bronson Arroyo (87.2). Dillon Gee, Kris Medlen, Kyle Lohse, Jhoulys Chacin and Kyle Kendrick all averaged below 90 mph with their fastballs.
Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine never impressed anyone with their radar readings.
In the dugout during a lull in the action recently, Haren had a question for teammate Zack Greinke.
"With scouts leaning so much on the [radar] guns now," Haren said, "where do you think I'd be picked [in the First-Year Player Draft] if I had this stuff right now in college?"
Greinke, admired in the players' fraternity for his honesty, told Haren he'd probably be selected in the third round.
Haren's response: "Really? That high?"