Crafty pitchers not left behind

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

The left-handed junk-ballers, the good ones, reflect and nod and pitch.

And they survive.

"We're still going out there and thinking and relying on location and changing speeds," Tom Glavine said. "That's pitching. To me, that's fun to watch. It's a shame baseball has gotten away from that."

They are the soft-tossers, the finesse pitchers, the standard-issue, off-the-outside-corner and on-the-hands lefties, the pitchers true velocity forgot.

Baseball hasn't completely left them, though.

Not when Mark Buehrle can no-hit the Texas Rangers on a Wednesday night in mid-April.

Not when Jamie Moyer, 10 days ago, at 44½ years old, can take a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Florida Marlins.

Not when Glavine himself is seven wins from 300, and Barry Zito can pull $126 million in free agency, and Mark Hendrickson can step from a forgotten place in the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen to a 1.08 ERA in their starting rotation, and Randy Wolf can hold a job beside him, and Doug Davis can post a 2.36 ERA through seven starts in Arizona.

"You're seeing a kind of change," said San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers, who has a matched set of veteran finesse pitchers in left-hander David Wells and right-hander Greg Maddux, both over 41. "For years it was geared more toward the 95-, 96-mph guys. More and more, clubs see guys who locate their pitches and go deeper into games and have success up there. Personally, I like strike-throwers. … The more I've been up here, the more I've looked at even the amateur guys who can locate."

They pitch on an edge narrower than the rubber on which they stand, with no put-away fastball, no power anything.

Chances are, if slow's not working, they try slower. If the corner's not working, they slip two more inches away, or an inch closer in. They pitch to the bat, but away from the barrel, a cutter cloaked in red.

"That's the one thing I do lack, the put-away pitch," Davis said. "I think we all lack the put-away pitch. We pitch to contact, but stay off the sweet part of the bat."

As left-handers, they're not so much odd personalities, as the typecast goes, but just crazy enough to throw an 83-mph fastball on a 2-and-1 count.

"For the most part, these guys are fierce competitors with no fear," Towers said. "That's one of the intangibles. To be crafty, you can't have any fear."

That's the thing, really. They pitch to an infield's alignment, to an outfield's strength. They pitch to a hitter's insecurity and away from his expectation. All of which changes from hitter to hitter, pitch to pitch.

To that, Glavine quotes an old finesse left-hander and 363-game winner: "Warren Spahn captured the essence of what guys like myself do when he said, 'Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.' "

Glavine's grin crinkled the skin around his eyes and mouth. He is 21 seasons into a pitching career, 22 if you consider the full season he's pitched in the playoffs, and now he's been told he's trendy again.

He hasn't had his good fastball in years. But, he's pitched to the corners with his slider and fastball and changeup. And when QuesTec took away the horizontal strike zone, he pitched top to bottom with his curveball. When pitchers came with artificially-enhanced fastballs, and hitters answered with artificially-enhanced swings, Glavine took a little more off, bait-and-switched 'em again. When they dove, he came inside, sometimes with his changeup, making it up as he went.

"You stick around long enough," he said with a chuckle, "everything that was in style comes back."

Glavine's teammate, Shawn Green, has played 15 seasons and is known for studying pitchers and hitters. He theorizes that some hitters set themselves up. In pitching history, we live in the era of the cutter, which is like a slider, but with less bite. Mariano Rivera, for one, is going to the Hall of Fame because of his cutter. In Green's view, hitters now sit back and dive less for fear of jamming themselves on cutters, allowing finesse pitchers to spin balls away.

"Changeups are a little more effective because of that style," Green said. "It's kind of like a slow transition. Not the individuals, but the reasons for it. So, for these pitchers, there's probably even more of a place for them now than there was before."

It doesn't follow for every pitcher. The Arizona Diamondbacks' Davis, for one, relies on his cutter in to right-handed hitters. Glavine, too, has reworked his game to include more inside pitches, far more than when most of the Atlanta Braves' staff basically defined the outside corner for a whole league. Buehrle would take either side, but tends to the outer half.

"To me, it's all related to the strike zone and QuesTec," Buehrle said. "For guys like us, we need to nibble. That why the no-hitter surprised me, because I'm around the strike zone. And we're in trouble if we're not getting the corners. We need those corners."

If they're not there, well, they'll try something else. It's what survivors do.

"We're going through an extended stretch where it's been about power, both for hitters and pitchers," Glavine said. "What guys like myself do, there's value in it. In the end, you get back to those guys, still figuring out ways to get people out."

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