Four months after his hometown team had chosen him in the first round of the 2010 draft, Jesse Biddle crowded around a television with a dozen other prospects at a La Quinta Inn in Clearwater, Fla. The parent team, the Philadelphia Phillies, had instructed them to learn to chart pitches by watching the opening game of the playoffs.
“It was one of those homework assignments they give you when you’re 18 years old, and you’re like, ‘I’m a professional baseball player, I don’t need to do stuff like this,’ ” Biddle said the other day. “And then you’re doing it and you’re like, ‘This is incredible.’”
Roy Halladay made it that way by treating those minor leaguers to a no-hitter in his postseason debut. Halladay, the Phillies ace who would soon win his second Cy Young Award, was the idol of every pitching prospect in the organization.
“In the minor leagues, that’s all anybody talked about: What would Roy Halladay be doing right now?” Biddle said. “That gets you up and moving a little bit.”
Biddle, now pitching in relief for the Atlanta Braves, is a rookie who, through Wednesday, had a 3.22 earned run average and more strikeouts than innings. His path here was torturous but helped along by Halladay, who died in a November plane crash in Florida. Biddle said the death hit him hard because Halladay had been a mentor.
They met just before spring training in 2014, after Biddle had endured the first of what would become annual tests of perseverance. He had moved steadily up the minor league ladder, to Class AA Reading, but had struggled there with whooping cough, often throwing up between innings.
Halladay gave Biddle and other prospects a copy of “The Mental ABCs of Pitching” by Harvey Dorfman, the sports psychologist who influenced Halladay and many others. Biddle never played with Halladay, but found him serious and businesslike from afar. In retirement, though, Halladay was different.
“He always introduced himself as a stay-at-home dad,” Biddle said. “He was just kind of hanging around, being awesome.”
Ruben Amaro Jr., the Mets’ first-base coach, who traded for Halladay as general manager of the Phillies, said Halladay seemed particularly engaged with prospects that spring.
“It was the most candid and open I think he’s ever been in a setting like that,” Amaro said. “He was just fantastic. He started to influence so many things that we were starting to do and trying to implement.”
Biddle, then 22, went back to Reading in 2014. One afternoon that May, he was packing for a road trip when the sky outside his window suddenly turned from sunny to dark. And that was not the worst of it.
“There were these giant rocks falling from the sky, breaking windows and stuff,” he said. “So I was like, ‘I need to get back to my team; I can’t stay here.’ I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know it was a hailstorm, I’ll be honest. I’d been in hailstorms before, and that wasn’t what that was, it didn’t seem like.
“I ran to my car and started driving because it was just like a two-minute drive. But it’s pitch black, and when the hail was falling it was creating a kind of dust around everything, so I couldn’t see anything. I hit the curb, then I swung over and hit the other curb, trying to figure out how to go straight, because I couldn’t see anything — and my back window just completely collapses and caves in. I get glass everywhere in my car, and then the top caves in and the front is about to cave in. I get out of the car and just take off to go into this restaurant that’s right there.”
By the time he staggered inside, Biddle was bleeding from the back of the head, struck repeatedly by the hail. His car, a new Ford Fusion, was totaled. He had a concussion but tried to ignore the symptoms and grind through the pain. He lost his first five starts after the hailstorm, with a 9.82 earned run average, and blamed himself.
“I couldn’t figure out what was wrong until I went and saw a psychiatrist, saw a doctor,” Biddle said. “They’re like: ‘Yeah, you’ve had a serious concussion for a long time now. This is why you were feeling sick and why your head hurts 24/7.’ ”
A fresh start in 2015 brought a more conventional pitching obstacle: an elbow injury in August and Tommy John surgery after the season. Knowing Biddle would miss all of 2016, the Phillies traded him to Pittsburgh to clear a spot on their 40-man roster.
The Braves soon claimed him off waivers, nursed him through his elbow recovery and converted him to the bullpen. But Biddle suffered yet another injury — a torn latissimus dorsi muscle — and pitched only 27 games last season. The baseball gods seemed to be mocking him.
“There were definitely some times when I was just confused,” Biddle said. “I felt like maybe this was not meant to be.”
At last, after four scoreless outings for Class AAA Gwinnett this spring, Biddle got the call to the majors in April. It was too late for him to share the news with Halladay, who had his own treacherous path to the majors, including a demotion to Class A. But his mentor’s advice lives on.
“He always talked a lot about trusting your stuff, and that’s a pretty universal piece of advice, but coming from Roy Halladay, everything meant that much more,” Biddle said. “He was always talking about resilience, not taking the little things for granted and just the everyday work ethic. He had been through a lot of ups and downs in his career — his story is amazing — and talking to him about how he was able to combat some of those things, and now going through what I went through, it resonates with me more.”
Forty years ago this Sunday, Ron Guidry set the Yankees’ single-game record for strikeouts by fanning 18 Angels in a 4-0 victory. Since then, only nine others have matched or exceeded Guidry’s total, none of them as a Yankee: Randy Johnson (four times), Roger Clemens (three), David Cone, Bill Gullickson, Corey Kluber, Ramon Martinez, Max Scherzer, Ben Sheets and Kerry Wood.
Guidry, who won the American League Cy Young Award that season with a 25-3 record, said he had probably thrown harder throughout that game than in any other of his career. He said that he and catcher Thurman Munson did not know he had tied Whitey Ford’s team record, 15, until a scoreboard message in the seventh inning.
“If you’d have asked me at that point how many I had, I’d have probably said seven or eight, because you worried about the game,” Guidry said in an interview. “When they put it up on the board, the two most surprised guys in that stadium were me and Thurman. We didn’t have any idea what we had.
“But the first thing he told me was: ‘You have 15; the major league record is 19. We have two more innings, we’re going to go for it.’ I told him, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, what we need to do is concentrate on winning this game more than setting records, because this game’s important to this club. You need to call pitches to get guys out with.’
“He said, ‘O.K., I’ll tell you what: I’ll give you the eighth inning. But if you’re close in the ninth, you’re going to go for that record, or I swear to God I’ll break your left shoulder.’”
Guidry entered the ninth with 16 strikeouts, then fanned Dave Chalk and Joe Rudi, bringing up Don Baylor as the potential record-tying strikeout. Baylor singled, and the game ended when Ron Jackson grounded into a forceout.
Later, when they were teammates on the Yankees, Baylor told Guidry that the Angels had extra incentive to keep the record at 19.
“He told me, ‘What made your game better is that we were actually trying not to strike out, and you kept striking us out,’ ” Guidry said. “Guys were choking up, just trying to put the ball in play, because Donnie said the guy that had the record was sitting on their bench — Nolan Ryan was an Angel. So Donnie said they knew that Ryan had 19, and as I kept getting closer, they figured the game was over and they just tried not to strike out. But, he said, ‘You kept striking guys out, and that’s what was so amazing.’ ”
Jackson’s game-ending forceout ensured that Ryan, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton remained the only pitchers with 19 strikeouts in the first nine innings of a game. Clemens broke the record with 20 in 1986 and matched it 10 years later. Wood (1998), Johnson (2001) and Scherzer (2016) have also fanned 20 in a game, but Guidry stands alone among Yankees.
Whatever your opinion of wins above replacement, it is, if nothing else, a handy way to glorify Mike Trout. Already this season, Baseball-reference.com has credited Trout with bringing the Los Angeles Angels nearly six more victories than an ordinary replacement would bring.
Trout, whose career began in 2011, has already compiled more than 60 WAR. That is more than the career total of Vladimir Guerrero, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame next month as the first player to represent the Angels on his plaque. Trout, who turns 27 in August, clearly seems bound for Cooperstown, too, but he is signed with the Angels only through 2020.
That ticking clock is the background noise to the elbow injury that landed Shohei Ohtani, the Angels’ two-way star, on the disabled list on June 8. Ohtani has a Grade 2 sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament, and the Angels are trying to avert Tommy John surgery by giving Ohtani platelet-rich plasma and stem cell injections.
But if Ohtani needs the operation, he will most likely miss the 2019 season, at least as a pitcher, where he has shown the kind of overpowering stuff that could play well in October. In nine starts this season, Ohtani has averaged 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings to go with a 3.10 earned run average.
The Angels are not a powerhouse — they were 37-32 through Thursday — but with a rotation fronted by Ohtani, they could at least dream of winning a title with Trout under contract. As it stands now, for all of Trout’s greatness, he has reached the playoffs only once, in 2014, going 1 for 12 against the Kansas City Royals in a three-game division series sweep.
Since May 14, when they were tied for first place in the A.L. West, the Angels have gone just 12-16 (through Thursday). Trout hit two homers on both Monday and Tuesday in Seattle, but the Angels lost those games on their way to a three-game sweep by the Mariners.
“One guy can’t carry you,” Manager Mike Scioscia told reporters. “Mike is swinging the bat very well, but we need some of our other guys to start to get into the game.”
The Arizona Diamondbacks have returned to first place in the National League West, winning nine of their first 12 games this month before hosting the sagging Mets this weekend. They swept the Rockies in Colorado last weekend in a series that highlighted a critical difference between the teams.
While neither team’s closer pitched in the series, the Diamondbacks’ bullpen allowed just one run, while the Rockies’ allowed 15. Through Wednesday, Arizona’s 2.50 bullpen earned run average was the best in the major leagues, and the Rockies’ 5.21 mark ranked them 28th, ahead of only Cleveland and Kansas City.
The Rockies invested heavily in their bullpen last winter, committing $106 million to closer Wade Davis and the setup men Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, added three relievers while committing less than $10 million, trading for closer Brad Boxberger and signing the veterans Yoshihisa Hirano and Fernando Salas to join an unconventional group led by Archie Bradley, who tends to pitch the most critical innings.
Arizona’s bullpen defies the recent baseball cliché that every reliever throws 95-plus miles per hour. Through Wednesday, according to Fangraphs, Diamondbacks relievers were averaging only 92.1 mp.h. with their fastballs, slower than every other bullpen except the San Diego Padres’, at 90.2. (The average reliever throws a 93.3 m.p.h. fastball, according to Fangraphs.)
“It’s not like we have a bunch of blazers down there, like you see in a lot of these bullpens,” said Bradley, who does throw hard. “But guys just understand what they need to do.”
Hirano had a 1.55 E.R.A. entering the series against the Mets, and he has proved a shrewd investment (two years, $6 million) after 11 seasons with Orix in Japan. Hirano, a 34-year-old right-hander, seems to have surprised himself.
“I never even thought about coming here to pitch in the big leagues,” he said recently through an interpreter. “I watched a lot of M.L.B. games on TV before, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if my stuff would work; I don’t know if I could have success there.’ A few years ago, I heard scouts were after me, looking at my games, and I started thinking: Maybe I’ve got some stuff that plays there. But the level here is very high. It’s not easy.”
Hirano throws a splitter, like many pitchers from Japan, but his sinking fastball averages only 91.6 m.p.h. Boxberger, a former All-Star who lost his closing job at Tampa Bay because of injuries, has an even slower fastball, at 90.7 m.p.h.
Yet Boxberger had converted 14 of 16 save opportunities through Wednesday, averaging 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
“Pitching’s all about location,” said Boxberger, who has an outstanding changeup. “You could throw 110 miles an hour, but if the barrel finds it, these guys are good enough to get the bat around at velocity. Because everyone throws velocity, it’s not like a hitter’s not used to seeing it. So if you put it where they can’t hit it, you’re going to have success.”
Alas, one side effect of the relievers’ success is that all of them refuse to use the bullpen cart that the Diamondbacks unveiled in spring training, to the delight of nostalgic fans (and reporters). Six visiting relievers used the cart last month, but the home team ignores it.
“Superstition, I guess,” Boxberger said. “I mean, we’re rolling well right now. We’re just kind of feeding off of each other down there. If one guy does well, the next guy’s going to do the same thing. We’ve started out well this far, so there’s no reason for us to change it up.”
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