Schmidt's slow transition

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

LOS ANGELES – For a guy supposedly a mile per hour or two from putting his glove on the other hand and starting his pitching career over, this time with his left arm, Jason Schmidt was uncommonly composed in the Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse early Monday evening.

At the conclusion of an afternoon in which he allowed seven hits and four runs in a little more than four innings, left the game because of dehydration on a 70-degree day and took his first loss under a three-year, $47-million contract with the Dodgers, he was not at all concerned with the machinery – anatomical or technological – that purportedly put him in this spot.

He said his arm is fine. He said the radar readings are unimportant. He said he is the pitcher he's always been, with slight modifications in perspective and rationale. Yes, at 34 years old. Yes, with a fastball that sometimes seems to return from the catcher at greater velocities than he delivered it.

"Last year I didn't throw as hard as now," Schmidt said, "and the year before was even less."

So there you go. He actually is gaining velocity.

It has been a couple seasons of scouts shaking and re-reading their radar guns, however. And then he came to Los Angeles, where everyone remembered the power pitcher with the electric fastball and came to find out he still is pitching off his fastball, only it doesn't sound or look as hard. He started Monday's game against the Colorado Rockies with two 78-mph fastballs and gave up a first-inning home run to Garrett Atkins on a fastball that arrived at 82, all according to a Dodger Stadium gun reputed to be one of the slowest in the game.

"In this park, you just don't look," Schmidt said. "It can mess a guy up if you really pay attention to it."

Still, Atkins maybe couldn't decide whether to hit it over the left-field wall or catch it and throw it back.

He chose to give the Rockies a 1-0 lead in what ultimately became a 6-3 win.

A major-league scout behind home plate said his gun had Schmidt's fastball between 84 and 90 mph, averaging 87. Another scout who saw him in San Francisco in September said Schmidt averaged 93 then and occasionally humped it up to 96. There was none of that Monday against the Rockies, against whom Schmidt once touched 90.

"I've been hearing this for three years," Schmidt said. "It's kind of like, 'Hey, the adjustment came three years ago.' "

It was then, after a decade of having the arm speed that generated the backspin that caused the baseball to rise – or, OK, appear to rise – through the strike zone, Schmidt said he momentarily lacked what he called "that late life."

The Giants, he said, were unconcerned. He, Schmidt said, was a wreck.

"I had a thing three years ago," he said. "I was throwing, I didn't know what it was, but it wasn't right. The natural instinct was to throw harder and harder and harder. … And it kept going slower and slower and slower. I thought, 'All right, I've got to hit my spots and pitch and quit putting so much emphasis on velocity.' "

Last August at Dodger Stadium, in one of the enthralling games of the season, Schmidt and Greg Maddux matched each other with eight-inning shutouts. Schmidt allowed five hits, Maddux two.

"Neither one of us," Schmidt said, "touched 90."

Well, certainly Maddux didn't.

"It's pitching," he said. "That's why you use the fastball. You add and subtract, and those are two totally different pitches."

Now, he insists, he again throws a fastball with late movement, even at something less than career velocity. He was seven games better than .500 in his final two seasons with the Giants, pitching with what he has now, which he developed by studying the likes of Curt Schilling and John Smoltz. He sharpened it in more than 800 innings over the past four seasons.

His changeup still is one of the five or 10 best in the game and still is the pitch that haunts hitters in strikeout counts. And he believes he can control a lineup in the mid- to high-80s, just as he once did in the 90s.

"I don't know if he can make the transition. No one really knows," one scout said. "In making that transition, he's got to be OK being that guy and not being the power guy at game time."

Schmidt insists that he can make it and, in fact, that he already has. The Dodgers will go along. At a time when there are high-end starters on disabled lists all over baseball – Chris Carpenter, Chien-Ming Wang, Bartolo Colon, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Cliff Lee, Kenny Rogers – speaking again to the fragility of such wealth, it is enough to know that Schmidt's hamstring cramp was only that, meaning he'll take the ball again in five days and give them a reasonable chance to win.

If the velocity comes and goes, it really won't matter as long as the results don't ebb and flow with it. If they overpaid at $47 million for a reasonable chance to win, well, the price for guaranteed victory apparently was closer to $126 million.

It's a fastball. Schmidt will make do. The radar gun can say whatever it wants, but he won't be listening.

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