SARASOTA, Fla. - Spring training is a time for preparation, a time for players to reenter their comfort zone and get ready for a long and grueling season. But it also lends itself to experimentation.
Ramon Martinez, hired by the Orioles as special assignment pitching instructor, taught left-hander Wei-Yin Chen a new grip on his changeup that more closely resembles a palm ball. Darren O’Day is trying again to master his own changeup after ditching the one he briefly tried last spring. Tommy Hunter has been toying with a split-finger fastball and is encouraged by the early results.
Hunter hadn’t allowed a run or hit in his first five innings this spring, including two against the Puerto Rico Development Program, before serving up a three-run homer yesterday to the Twins’ Kennys Vargas.
Earlier in camp, Hunter was reluctant to talk about his new mystery pitch and joked about it being a knuckleball. It’s best described as a splitter, though some may argue.
“It’s kind of like a split,” Hunter said. “I guess you can call it a split, but people call it a changeup. Whatever you want. It’s kind of like my curveball. Half the people call it a slider and half the people call it a curveball because it’s harder than other people’s curveballs.”
We’ll go with splitter.
“Just separating these fingers and putting it deep in the ball and trying to throw it and maybe change the speed on it a little bit,” Hunter said, demonstrating it at this locker yesterday morning. “I’m throwing it every game. I guess it works. Couple swings and misses here and there. A little thing to tinker with.
“I’ve never really been able to take speed off a pitch. This one was pretty good, so we’ll see what happens with it. I’m going to go with what works when push comes to shove, but it’s definitely something that I think I’m going to be able to throw out there every once in a while and make people a little more conscious of, I guess, I’m actually not a bad pitcher. I would hope to say that, you know?
“Just another little something to wrinkle somebody’s feather. Try to keep it going. We’ll see in the next couple of days how it works and just keep rolling with it.”
How Hunter discovered the pitch may be the best part of the story.
“Oliver Drake actually showed me,” Hunter said. “We were on the back field and I watched Ollie throw a bullpen and I was like, ‘Dude, what is that?’ It looked like a left-handed curveball, and he goes, ‘Just this right here.’ And I was like, ‘Let me see that.’ So I did a spin move and he was at second base and it fell off the table. I was like, ‘Whoa. OK, let’s see what happens.’
“That was the day I was throwing my live BP for the first time and I went over there and threw it in the live BP and been throwing it ever since. Kind of a quick learner. I guess I’m coachable. But, yeah, that’s where it came from.
“Every single game I’ve thrown it. It’s coming in 86-89 (mph) and got a little movement, so might be effective. I’ve got like five swings and misses on it, a couple takes. I think I’ve thrown like 15 of them, probably 10 of them for strikes. I’ve thrown a couple in the dirt. Trying to work on it, trying to be a better person, trying to be a better baseball player.”
The guy cracks me up.
Hunter has received a few encouraging words from pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti.
“They say it might play,” Hunter said. “That’s pretty much it. It’s kind of a figure it out on your own type of deal. It’s hard for anyone to tell you, ‘This is the way that you’ve got to do it.’ It’s kind of like you’re just going out there and playing with it and you’re trying to manipulate it as much as you can and then just having the nerve to throw it in a game. That’s basically what it boils down to. I’m not scared in spring training of throwing anything out there.”
O’Day, who tossed a scoreless inning yesterday and hasn’t allowed a run in four innings, is taking another stab at the changeup.
“I just figured out a way to take a little more speed off it,” he said. “Last year, the speed was really inconsistent. It’s gotten a little better this year. That’s the idea of it.”
O’Day didn’t adjust the grip.
“It’s more so having a looser wrist,” he said. “I can’t really explain it. It’s kind of a wrist adjust, looser wrist. It’s just not a natural movement for me, so it’s taken a lot of practice to learn.
“It’s not a finished product, but it’s better than it was before, so I’m excited about that aspect of it.”
O’Day is challenged by the pitch due to his submarine style of throwing. Former Orioles reliever Todd Frohwirth, who had the same delivery, tried to assist him last spring, but O’Day quickly gave it up.
“This one is a little different than he had last year,” manager Buck Showalter said. “Knowing Darren, I know he’s tinkered with it from the time the season ended until now and he feels pretty comfortable with it. Much like Chen.
“It would be a really nice weapon for him. He’s gone through periods where he’s really gotten left-handed hitters out, which is unusual for those guys.”
Left-handers have posted a career .239 average against O’Day and batted only .189 last season, but they hit .309 in 2013.
“A lot of guys would use that excuse and have a nice living and do real well, be able to pitch until their 40, which he would, but Darren wants to be more than that,” Showalter said. “He wants to be all things. We’ll see.
“When you bring in a guy like him and it’s right, left, right, the guy that can defend himself against the left-hander between the two rights is key. It doesn’t mean he gets them out, it means he keeps them in the ballpark. I think that’s what Darren’s looking for. He wants to be more than just a right-on-right guy, which he’s been for us this year because of the four-seam fastball that he kind of invented out of that slot that you don’t see much, which is where he gets a lot of his strikeouts.
“He got close to being confident in (the changeup) last year. Todd was great and he had a good one, but it’s not something you can just ... Every one of those guys is different. Some people take it off with the grip, some people take it off with, God forbid, the arm speed, which you never want to do.
“It’s another one of those things, I don’t care how good they feel about it down here, the first couple of times you use it in the big leagues, if you don’t get some return, good luck. Good luck.”