Ferrer wants to improve slider while soaking in major league experience

PHILADELPHIA – It was an easy move for the Nationals to make when they found out Patrick Corbin needed to go on the bereavement list for a family matter.

Corbin had just pitched a gem Wednesday in Seattle, leading the Nats to a 4-1 victory over the Mariners. His spot in the rotation won’t come up again until Tuesday against the Reds, so the Nats could add an arm to their bullpen for this weekend series against the Phillies.

Luck would have it Triple-A Rochester was playing a little over an hour away against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate. And with Jose A. Ferrer already on the 40-man roster, he could easily be activated to take Corbin’s spot on the active roster during the veteran starter’s time away from the team.

So it was that the Nats recalled Ferrer and had him meet the team in Philadelphia on Friday. After spending much of the season with no lefties in the bullpen, now Davey Martinez has two: Ferrer and Joe La Sorsa.

Ferrer flew up the Nats’ farm system last year. He went 3-2 with 11 saves, a 2.48 ERA, 0.995 WHIP, 78 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 65 ⅓ innings over 48 relief appearances between Single-A Fredericksburg, High-A Wilmington and Double-A Harrisburg last year. Among Nationals minor leaguers, the 23-year-old was third in saves and appearances.

In 22 games from June 5 to Aug. 11 with Wilmington, he went 2-0 with six saves and a 0.86 ERA (three earned runs in 31 ⅓ innings). That stretch included an 18 ⅔ scoreless-innings streak from June 5 to July 10, the longest such streak among South Atlantic League pitchers in 2022.

Now he’s trying to carry that success over to his first stint at Triple-A.

“At first I had to deal with a couple of changes with the zone in general,” Ferrer said via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "But I was able to adapt and I feel like I did well.”

Before his call to the majors, Ferrer was 4-3 with a 3.83 ERA, 1.550 WHIP and 33 strikeouts in 40 innings over 34 appearances. He came to the Nationals riding a six-inning scoreless streak over his final five outings with nine strikeouts while holding opponents to a .158 average (3-for-19).

Despite already reaching the majors at 23 after just reaching Triple-A to start this year, Ferrer still has some things he wants to work on to help him stick with the Nats.

“Work on my breaking pitch,” he said. “I feel like that's what's been holding me back. And I just need to get it nastier and get it more consistent.”

Ferrer calls it a slider, and he wants it to have the same release point as his fastball so it can be tough for hitters to distinguish between the two.

“Trying to just focus on my release point, be very similar to the fastball and try to keep it short. Break late and keep it short,” he said.

The Nationals acknowledge Ferrer has that pitch in his arsenal and that he wants to improve it. But they don’t want him to get away from his heater.

“For me, it's more about throwing strike one with his fastball first,” Davey Martinez said. “He's got a really good changeup, too. And I've talked to him earlier about utilizing that pitch a little bit because it's almost the same arm angle. Everything's the same with his fastball. I don't want to put too much in his head, but the biggest thing I told him, 'Hey, attack the hitters. Throw strike one. Forget about your secondary pitches. Just get ahead and if on chance you do have to throw a slider, don't be afraid to throw it. Just let it go.' And we'll see where we go from there.”

Whatever pitch he throws, Ferrer has been struggling with command as he adjusts to Triple-A hitting. His walks-per-nine-innings rate has increased from 1.5 over three minor league levels last year to 4.5 with Rochester this year, and his strikeout-per-walk rate has decreased from 7.09 to 1.65.

He’s still taking time to adjust to a tighter Triple-A strike zone, not to mention the automated balls-and-strikes system the International League implemented this year.

“Because they're using the machine,” he said, “so it's a little different.”

Ferrer has benefited from the major league experience that his Rochester teammates - and opponents too - bring to the table.

“A lot of things have changed," he said. "But the good thing, I guess, is playing with teammates in Triple-A that already a lot of them have big league experience. So you learn a lot. And also facing guys that have big league experience has taught me a lot as well. Just how to approach the game.”

Now he can even learn from his own major league experience.

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