SCOTTSDALE, Ariz -- Like most white, suburban kids of my generation, I played Little League and Babe Ruth ball growing up. Despite not being able to throw the speed limit, I fancied myself something of a pitcher. I messed around with grips and change-ups (somehow, changing up off of a fifty MPH fastball was not effective). One time, I really needed a strikeout, so I dropped down sidearm, froze the batter, got my K, and figured "Ok, I'm a sidearmer now."
It turned out to be not that easy. Still, when we think about all the prospects who simply can't or don't make the leap to the Major Leagues, we think about "gimmicks" that might give a pitcher an edge. Dropping down sidearm, for instance. Or picking up a knuckleball. Anything for an edge, right? So why don't we see more guys do it?
For one thing, it's a lot harder than it sounds. Brad Ziegler talked to me about the process he went through as a minor leaguer, learning to drop down. In 2006, Ziegler was 26, and had put in a decent year as a starter at double-A Midland for the Athletics, but wasn't really a prospect on anybody's radar. Ron Romanick asked him if he'd be open to dropping down. The first thing anybody has to do is get past the potential stigma of such a drastic change, and be open to it.
"When they first asked me about it," Ziegler said, "I didn't want to do it.... I always looked at a conversion like that as a last resort. Honestly, the biggest thing the A's did was tell me that, if this doesn't work, we still want you back as a starter. Ok, so this isn't a last resort; it's an opportunity to advance, and advance quicker, and stick longer when I get there."
Then there's the actual process of relearning how to pitch. As Bradford pointed out, it was like starting over, it was trial and error, and it literally took years. "They started me at Chad Bradford low," he recounted, "releasing the ball at my ankles. And the first month of it, to learn the mechanics of it, I didn't even touch a baseball.... I was just trying to learn the muscle memory without putting a strain on my arm. I would constantly go through it over and over again with no ball in my hand.
"I went into Spring Training in 2007, and my velo wasn't where they wanted it, in the high 70s somewhere. Literally, the last bullpen I threw that spring, they suggested that I stand upright a little more, release the ball a little higher at your knee. Let's see what happens. And my velo jumped a little bit, and they said ‘Ok, that's where we want you to be. And so I got sent to double-A after just one bullpen session with the motion I was going to use. So the whole season was a work in progress.
And I shouldn't even say one season. It was more like five seasons. Because even after I got to the Majors, I wasn't comfortable. 2011 or 2012 was the first time I really got to the point where I didn't have to do my delivery every single day.... Even after that, for several years, I'd hit stretches where I'd lose a little bit of my delivery and have to go back and work on it. Because it's not natural to me. It still isn't.
Now I can do it, because I've done it more, but there are still keys that I have to get to. It's not just something where I just go and throw."
Counterintuitively, Ziegler says, it also isn't actually any easier on the arm. While it seems like dropping down would reduce the strain on a shoulder, "I think it's actually worse. I don't think my arm is any different, and the biggest reason is because if you take the position from my hand to my arm to my shoulder, in relation to the angle of my body, if you stand me straight up, I'm just throwing my normal overhand style. The only difference is that I bend at the waist. But because I'm doing that same violent motion while I'm bending at the waist, that puts extra strain on my hips that I didn't have when I was an overhand pitcher.... My arm is still way out away from me. There's still a good distance from my elbow to my wrist to my hips or my legs. The strain on my shoulder is no different. I still get sore the next day like any other pitcher does." That said, Ziegler hasn't suffered any major arm injuries since his debut in 2008.
Finally, it's important to remember that, when Ziegler needs help, he's, at least in part, on his own. Coaches don't generally know how to critique his delivery. "Videotape," says Ziegler, is the most important tool for him. And, given that his delivery requires regular maintenance and reflection, that could be a problem if he gets off track.
He remains unconcerned, however, "That's one thing about big league coaches. They may not know my delivery, but they can look at video from two years ago, when I was pitching really well, to the end of two years ago, when I wasn't pitching well, and compare the two and see what's different. And at that point, just looking at me, they don't know what to do necessarily. But looking at the video, they can see what might be causing it."
Baseball is a sport of mimics. We mimic our favorite pitchers and hitters in the backyard. Teams mimic the success of other clubs. We look to others to find success. Brad Ziegler didn't draw that inspiration from anybody else. He took a suggestion that he throw sidearm, and found the way that worked best for him. And maybe after eight years of success, guys should be looking to imitate him. But it won't be nearly as easy as it looks.