Cliff Lee, Jamie Moyer and 5 Successful Pitching Approach Changes
Pitchers change their approaches to battle for a myriad of reasons. For some, their age has stolen critical miles-per-hour from their dominant fastball, and they must adapt. For others, injuries or ineffectiveness lead to strategy shifts.
Sometimes these adjustments don't take, and the pitcher flounders with the same approach for years without success. The great ones implement the changes and recreate their game as new and improved versions of themselves.
The next few slides will hit on a few examples of pitchers who changed their tactics and reaped the benefits.
Vance Worley and the Cutter
In four minor league seasons, Vance Worley was 25-23 with a 3.80 ERA and a 6.9 K/9. He had been hyped as a future ace coming up through the minors, with some flaws.
When Worley got to Philadelphia, he buddied up with Phillies third ace Cole Hamels, where he learned a cutter, a pitch that has been the backbone of Hamels' success thus far. Worley mastered the pitch, and in 2011, at 23 years old, he posted an 11-3 record, 3.01 ERA and 8.1 K/9 over 131.2 big league innings.
Worley enters 2012 having replaced Roy Oswalt as the Phillies No. 4 starting pitcher, poised for another big season as part of the best rotation in the National League.
Cliff Lee, 2008 and More Strikes
This list will not be comprised entirely of Phillies, but Cliff Lee owes his elite status to one of the most drastic but simple changes ever seen from a starting pitcher between seasons.
In 2007, Cliff Lee was booed off the mound of a particularly horrendous outing, sarcastically tipping his cap to the fans on his way out, and was sent to Triple-A that same night. At 28 years old, Lee had hit rock bottom.
Indians pitching coach Carl Willis visited Lee in the offseason and worked on basics, including a new, aggressive approach to pitching. Lee won the fifth rotation spot in 2008 and went on to win his first six starts on his way to a 22-3 season.
Indians catcher Kelly Shoppach said they had to begin planning balls to keep hitters honest because Lee was challenging them on every pitch, working his fastball on both sides of the plate and throwing his off-speed pitches in the zone.
Lee's 5.0 K/BB ratio was nearly double his previous career high, and since 2008, Lee's K/BB is 5.65. In 129 games (125 starts) between his debut and 2007, Lee had a 4.64 ERA, a 1.375 WHIP and a 6.7 K/9. In the four years since, his ERA is 2.83 with a 1.098 WHIP and a 7.7 K/9.
John Smoltz to the Bullpen
Between 1988 and 1999, John Smoltz made 356 starts, all for the Atlanta Braves, winning 157 with a 3.35 ERA and establishing himself as a member of one of the greatest rotations in baseball with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
Smoltz missed all of 2000 after Tommy John Surgery at 33 years old, and many in baseball questioned his future with the Braves. Smoltz came back in 2001 and struggled mightily to regain his prior effectiveness.
At a crossroads in his career, the Braves prepared to move forward without Smoltz in the rotation, and the veteran made the decision to accept a move to the open closer job. Smoltz enjoyed a career renaissance coming out of the bullpen late in 2001, and in 2002, he became one of the best in the game.
Between 2002 and 2004, Smoltz saved 144 games with a 2.47 ERA, a 1.003 WHIP and a 9.7 K/9. After three years pitching less than half the innings he'd been used to as a starter, Smoltz moved back into the rotation and enjoyed three more successful years with Atlanta, winning 44 games in 100 starts at ages 38, 39 and 40.
C.J. Wilson, from the Bullpen
Many teams have moved ineffective or aging starters to the bullpen in an attempt to find their comfort zone. The transition has proven successful, especially for veterans looking to extend careers.
However, the Rangers took C.J. Wilson from mediocre bullpen arm to ace of their staff with the exact opposite move.
Wilson had been moved to the bullpen in 2006, following an elbow injury in 2004 and an 0-5 season of 16 starts in 2005, but after 74 relief appearances in 2009, the Rangers decided Wilson could be most valuable to them in the rotation.
In 2010, at 29 years old, Wilson made his first start in five years and went on to throw 204 innings, notching 15 wins and a 3.38 ERA. Wilson continued to grow in comfort and produced a career year in 2011, winning 16 games with a 2.94 ERA and an 8.3 K/9.
Jamie Moyer, Ageless One
Jamie Moyer hopes to break into 2012 spring training with the Colorado Rockies at the age of 49. Moyer was 33 years old in 1996 and hadn't topped 160 innings since 1988. Some saw a pitcher winding up his career, perhaps expecting Moyer to hang onto a long-relief spot for a year or two more.
But Moyer came back in 1997 with refined control and a new aggressive approach, intending to challenge hitters and trusting his defense. The result was a six-year run in which he averaged 207 innings, dropped his BB/9 to 2.0 and bumped his K/BB ratio up to 2.76.
Cutting down the walks lowered his WHIP, which was 1.533 in 1996, to 1.200 over that six-year stretch.
Moyer has continued to improvise in recent years, battling an injury that cost him 2011 and attempting a return in 2012. Moyer sits at 267 career wins, and those who have followed Moyer's career know not to bet against the left-hander finding opportunities to stay in the game for the next three to four years it would take to reach 300.