The right-hander and 2005 fifth-round pick spent a good portion of his 2006 season working on the development of his off-speed pitches and getting himself accustomed to a full, 140-game season in the minor leagues.
You began the year in Extended before getting called up. How would you put into words the year you had?
I was pretty happy with the season. Once I got called up to Peoria, I was really excited. My game plan was basically to just throw strikes, and that's pretty much what I did. If you throw strikes and aren't walking a lot of people, you give yourself a good chance to win. I owe pretty much all of the success I had this year to my defense. They won a lot of games for me. I didn't strike out a ton of batters this year and that's something I'm working on going into next season, maybe having a better strikeout pitch. There were situations where I felt I could have picked up more strikeouts, so I've just got to stick to my game plan and be more aggressive. Even in those 0-2 or 1-2 counts, I'd still be coming with a fastball whereas a lot of other guys would probably go to an off-speed pitch and get a lot of strikeouts.
When we last talked to you, you were focusing on refining some of your secondary pitches (slider, changeup). How would you grade your progress there?
The slider was something where I knew a lot of times the hitters wouldn't make solid contact. It wasn't a big "miss pitch" for me, but I could get them to put it in play and then use my defense. Toward the end of the year, my changeup came on really strong and I started getting it across and really working on my motion. I've never had a problem throwing it for strikes, but I just worked on my mechanics and with keeping that one fluid motion the same as my fastball. It all came together in the end. I got consistent with keeping my mechanics the same and I'm just trying to be more deceptive to the hitter.
I wasn't working my changeup in a lot. I sat down with my pitching coach (Rich Bombard) and there were really no problems. Toward the end of the year, he wanted to see my progress with working that pitch into my game a little bit more. Toward the end when I was at a 100-pitch count, I want to say I tried to get in at least 10 changeups a game. If I was able to do that in the right situation, it was a good thing. It's an on-going process.
So the changeup is the pitch you're most focused on now?
Definitely. The whole year, I pretty much went through the entire Midwest League on a fastball-slider combo. I had success with those two pitches and in the off-season, I thought back and realized there were so many games where I never really got beat up. When I did, it would only be for about one inning. It wasn't like I would give up a run every inning. I'd go three or four shutout innings and then by around the fifth inning, the wheels would come off in some games. I found myself thinking about those innings. You can always "what if" this game, but I feel if I could go through this league again, even with the command I started to feel toward the end of the year, if I could have had that, I feel I could have had a little bit more success. I'm looking to work in all three pitches next year.
One of the things we wanted to ask was how your arm and body felt after logging all the innings you put in.
Coming into this year, your first full season, you're so worried about everything else. There are so many things you have to deal with that the last thing you really think about is that first game with you on the hill. People told me, "Oh, it's your first full year. You're not really ready for it." People can tell you, but until you go through it, you really don't know the grind to it. Toward the end of the year, I could feel my legs getting a little weak so I know the preparation it takes to be strong in those late months.
Throughout the whole year, I never had any arm problems and I didn't have any injuries. I came down with a really bad blister that I pitched through half the season, so I pitched through a couple of starts that were really tough. Aside from the blister and some minor aches and pains, that was pretty much it. It's the name of the game. You ask anybody and when you look across the board, you don't look at anybody on the team and feel they're so much better than you, nor anyone that you're better than. You're all in the mix and if you stay healthy and get your opportunities, you have a shot. That's the name of this game pretty much: staying healthy and when it's your turn, you get the job done.
As the season wore on, did you notice any changes to your velocity?
For the most part, my fastball was anywhere from 89 to 92 (mph). I know I've touched 93 or 94, but for the year, I was right around 90 to 91. A lot of people say that you can't really look at the overall numbers. I remember when someone called me midway through the year and asked what my ERA was, I told them I didn't even know. The one thing I did know was that right out of Spring Training and right before I got called up, I had one of the best games of my life with my fastball. It was only four or five innings, but I just had an incredible fastball that day.
When I first started in Peoria, Rich told me my velocity was anywhere from 90 to 93 that night. After that start, my fastball stayed right around 90 for the next couple of months and then it would shoot up. For the most part, I kept it pretty consistent. If I felt anything later in the year, it was more of my legs being tired from all the running and conditioning. I never felt my arm was tired and I never felt that my fastball dropped.
I have to give a lot of credit to Nick Frangella, our trainer. He would get me rubbed and stretched out pretty good before every start. I was never really a big fan of that until this year. Throughout rookie ball, I'd see a lot of guys on the trainer's table and wouldn't even be familiar with anything the trainers were doing. In high school, there's no table; you just play. I'm still not a guy that loves sitting in the training room because I think it brings on bad luck, but going in and getting rubbed down and stretched out I know was a big help. I give Nick a lot of credit.
Going back to your ERA, you never really check the stats page a whole lot it seems.
You see a lot of guys come into the clubhouse every day that want to see their batting average and other numbers. People would ask me all the time what my numbers were. I would know what it was around and I'm not going to be the guy that says he never looks. People tell you that you're only 19 and that you had some success, but at the same time, I don't want to be a one-year wonder. Next year and the year after, if I throw up another 140 innings or so, I'll be putting myself in a good position to make it somewhere in this game. That's just my main focus right now.
We talked about your strikeouts earlier and you wanting to develop a strikeout pitch. Are the strikeouts something you're necessarily "worried" about?
I remember talking to Mitch (Atkins), who said he was close to 100 strikeouts. I just said, "Man, I don't even know how many I have." I was right up there with him in innings at the time. He went down for about two weeks and I ended up getting a lot of innings on him. I had about 40 less strikeouts than he did at the time. There were some games when I'd get seven or eight strikeouts and then I'd go about three starts in a row where I'd get one, two or three. In an interview after one of the games, someone said something to me about it.
Rich had said there was a set time when I could go with an off-speed pitch and that hard slider to where I probably could have gotten the strikeout. The next game, I was so focused on strikeouts that I ended up getting seven or eight. Rich asked, "Are you happy now?" But I realized I could go out there and do the same thing without having to strike everybody out.
My whole game plan this year was to throw strikes, work as fast as I could, deliver the ball as soon as I got it, stay aggressive and just use my defense. The rest was working on the secondary pitches and just learning things. I learned a lot this year on how to set guys up and getting to the point of commanding my fastball. This year was maybe my biggest learning year ever. There are just some things you pick up in a 140-game season that you won't ever see in a 20-game high school season.
Congratulations again on a good season. Hopefully we'll have seen you at Daytona or higher by this time next year.
That's my goal. Talking to everybody in the Cubs' system, it's kind of the same game plan they had with (Sean) Gallagher. He did well at Peoria, so now it's time to show them something at Daytona. Basically its like, "If you show us you're not overmatched, we'll move you along." That's nothing but good news so I'm excited. I had one real good year, but a lot of guys I've seen from some of the other draft classes have had one injury and then it's back to the starting block. I see how easy that is.