- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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The assignment is to shadow Brandon Webb for six days. The task, made possible by unprecedented access, promises to be a lesson in one man's obsessive desire to dominate. No major league pitcher could be as successful as Webb is, you assume, without thousands of crunches and hundreds of hours in a darkened video room, studying hitters with the focus of a ninja.
Wait, who's that guy on the field fiddling with the toy airplane?
"You can get it up pretty high in here," Webb says cheerfully, standing near the third-base dugout inside Chase Field, holding a remote control as his tiny plane buzzes unsteadily over the outfield. "We've got some helicopters, too."
Four hours later, the 29-year-old Diamondbacks righthander buries the Rockies under a flurry of sinkers and changeups and curveballs. Webb is 9–0 on the season, and it's only May 15, but as he stands in front of his locker after the game, the euphoria already seems to be dissipating. "It'll probably be gone in about an hour," he says in his Kentucky drawl. His next start is against the Marlins, one of the best-hitting teams in the majors. Webb is asked when he'll begin concentrating on Florida, and he chuckles in a way that makes you realize that he might have laughed in your face if he weren't so polite. "I try not to get too focused too early," he says. "If I do that, I wear myself out."
The lesson has begun.
Dan Haren is jealous. He tells Webb to his face, four hours before Haren's start against the Tigers."You're 9–0, you just won, and you have an extra day before you pitch," Haren says with mock angst. "I want to do what you're doing today." Which is almost nothing.
Webb threw 111 pitches in seven-plus innings the night before, and his back is sore, so his aerobic workout has been postponed. Instead, he plays catch for 10 minutes, gingerly at first, then harder as his stiff arm loosens. During batting practice, he and the other pitchers shag fly balls in the outfield—or at least that's the idea. Basically, they hang out and talk, like guys in a bar. A line drive is smashed right at a bunch of them, but nobody moves until Webb casually lifts his glove and snares it. Another ball rolls to within 30 feet of Webb and reliever Chad Qualls. It sits in the grass for five minutes, like an empty soda can, until Webb grudgingly trots over to pick it up and toss it back in.
After BP, Webb retreats to the clubhouse, where he keeps an electric guitar on a stand next to his locker. But he doesn't play it today, because there's a box to open: a new toy helicopter. He's thinking about taking it out to the field. "What do you have to do to get this thing charged up?" he asks Qualls, who's playing with another copter.
Webb is as laid-back as a seventh-inning stretch in spring training. Failure, which is inevitable in baseball, does not threaten his confidence. His drive home from Chase Field takes about 25 minutes, and by the time he turns off his car, Webb has managed to put the game in his rear-view mirror—even after a loss. "There's nothing you can do after a start to change the outcome of what you did," he says. "So why sit there and sulk and pity yourself for five days? Forget about it, then just go work in the bullpen on what you need to work on."
Roy Halladay, with his bat-breaking sinker, is similar to Webb in stuff and style, but the Blue Jays ace pores over videotape of opposing hitters, dissecting their swings. Webb rarely watches video, and he doesn't study scouting reports. His preparation is in the maintenance of his pitches.
When Haren takes the mound tonight, Webb plants himself on a bench at the front of the dugout, next to lefthander Doug Davis, and they watch a ball game. It's great work if you can get it.
It's tough being Webb's pregame catch partner. D-backs closer Brandon Lyon accepts the responsibility because he has an eye for diagnosing when Webb's sinking fastball is coming out of his hand properly. The downside is that Lyon's left thumb takes a pounding inside his glove. "I can't ever get the ball centered," he says.
To complement his sinker, Webb also throws a sharp curve and a stealth changeup. One hitter, as he stepped into the batter's box, mournfully asked catcher Chris Snyder, "Does he have any plans for keeping the ball straight today?" Webb's pitches dive so much some umpires have admitted to Snyder that they freeze at times, incorrectly assuming the ball is going to drop out of the strike zone.
Maybe the sinker sinks because of the way Webb's hand turns inward as he throws the ball. Whatever the reason (not even he knows for sure), the movement is dramatic and late in the ball's journey, making it extremely difficult for hitters to square up. Webb began throwing the pitch—called a two-seamer because the fingers align alongside the seams rather than across them—when he was in college at Kentucky. But he mostly relied on a standard heater until Royal Clayton, his Class-A pitching coach, saw him throw a couple of two-seamers in 2000. "That's going to be a good pitch for you," Clayton said. "When we go to spring training next year, we're going to work on that."
At first Webb struggled mightily to control the pitch, drilling 27 batters in the Class-A California League in 2001. Eventually he changed his target: Rather than trying to aim at the corners, he threw the ball over the middle of the plate and trusted the pitch's natural movement to take it to the edges. In 2004, his second season in the majors, Webb walked 119 batters in 208 innings and finished 7–16. Two years later, he'd cut his walks to 50 (against 178 K's), finishing 16–8 and winning the Cy Young.
Late in the 2006 season, as Webb tinkered with a third pitch to go with his sinker and curve, he tried a changeup against Colorado's Brad Hawpe, a lefty hitter who has been Webb's nemesis. The ball darted downward, underneath Hawpe's futile swing, and Webb gawked at his catcher and mouthed, "Oh my gawd." Webb and Snyder later raced into the video room and replayed the pitch a dozen times. "He's got the best changeup I've ever faced," Hawpe says. What makes it so good? The spin on the change is indistinguishable from that of Webb's sinker.
As he plays catch with Lyon, Webb throws nearly all sinkers, then he goes inside for an aerobic workout, a jog on a machine called an Anti-Gravity Treadmill, which uses technology developed by NASA. Webb's waist and legs are encased in pressurized air, which reduces the stress on his joints. By the time he's finished a 20-minute run, teammates have gathered, finding comic relief in the notion that a Brandon Webb workout is worthy of a reporter, producer, cameraman and photographer. "Hey, Webby," Haren barks. "Are you going to let them follow you to where you throw up?"
All starters go through a bullpen workout between appearances. Roy Oswalt uses the pitching rubber like a catapult, launching himself off of it. Randy Johnson's face contorts into a snarl as he releases the ball. Webb, by extreme contrast, exerts all the outward effort of someone taking a beer out of the fridge. He sometimes touches the rubber in his delivery and sometimes doesn't. He draws his knee upward, then seems to fall forward, like a tomato stake that hasn't been tapped in deep enough.
Bullpen catcher Jeff Motuzas turns his glove slightly as the ball darts into it. Webb resets himself and throws another sinker—his fingers covering Bud Selig's signature, as always, to remind himself to stay on top of the ball. Pitching coach Bryan Price carefully checks the spot where Webb's front foot lands. Webb sometimes drifts off course, and the primary purpose of the bullpen session is to make sure his mechanics are aligned. "I just want to throw to the mitt," he says. "If you're thinking and start trying to overcorrect something, that's when you're not pitching your game. If I'm not thinking out there, that's when I'm doing the best."
In less than 15 minutes, the bullpen session is over. The homestand ends a few hours later, as the first-place D-backs beat the Tigers to improve to 28–16; it will be the high-water mark of their first half. Webb dresses for the trip to South Florida: off-white pants and jacket, shades perched on his forehead, making him look like a tourist trying to emulate Don Johnson. "Miami, right here," he says, grinning.
MONDAY AND TUESDAY
Alicia Webb calls her husband on the Monday off-day to tell him they have a new dog, a German shepherd mix. That makes five in all—Olivia, Mabel, Dixie, Mick and now Thor—to haul back to Kentucky in the fall. Brandon just shakes his head in bemusement at the news; he and Alicia seem to keep adding dogs.
The pitcher and his wife were both born and raised in Ashland, Ky., on the Ohio River. "He was always very calm," says Brandon's father, Philip, who's still his throwing partner in the winter. Brandon is known, within his family, for his ability to fall asleep anytime, anywhere. His days at home, Alicia reports, usually involve playing with their 2-year-old daughter, Reagan, or watching his favorite TV shows, Cash Cab and Deal or No Deal.
Webb is almost always happy to allow others to do the heavy mental lifting. One time this season, when Snyder called for a fastball, Webb stuck with his instincts and struck out the hitter on a changeup. Snyder was waiting in the dugout. "That makes hitters now 5-for-6 when you shake me off," the catcher said. Mostly, if you see Webb shake off a sign, it's because Snyder is telling him to shake it off to confuse the batter. Snyder is a natural-born extrovert; when asked how great it is to catch Webb, he responds, "You should ask him how great it is that he can throw to me."
He's kidding when he says this, but he's serious about preparation. Snyder consults daily with the team's advance scouts and pitching coach, and he formulates the plan. "As good as your stuff is, that's all you need to worry about," he tells Webb. "All that matters is that you throw it where I tell you to throw it."
On the first day of the Marlins series, a day before Webb's start, Snyder takes a break to play catch with Webb. Instead of a ball, they throw an Aerobie. Wind gusts carry the disk around Dolphin Stadium, and they challenge each other to track it down. Some pitchers are swallowed up by the wait between starts, but not Webb. He races around an empty ball field, chasing an Aerobie.
Finally, it's Webb's day to pitch. At 3:40 p.m., Snyder leans forward in a chair in front of his locker, staring at a laminated copy of the Marlins' lineup. The card is filled with intelligence about how to dissect the hitters. In less than four hours, Snyder will engage in professional combat, and he wants to be ready. His eyes narrow as he commits to memory the information arrayed before him.
Twenty feet away, Webb is focused as well. He's searching for vintage trucks on eBay with fellow starter Micah Owings. "Check that out," Webb says, pointing, and soon they move on to another site, featuring watches. Many pitchers won't talk to teammates on the day they start. Webb, on the other hand, will talk with everyone. Eventually, he steps away from the computer, watches some TV, then sits across from Snyder at a Texas hold 'em video-poker table. Webb quickly beats the catcher. "Gotta let him feel good about himself," Snyder says, smiling.
Webb prepares his pregame meal, a grazer's specialty: peanut butter and jelly sandwich and nachos, washed down with a sports drink. At 5:02, he and Snyder sit down for their final pregame conversation. Snyder talks. Webb nods his head while nibbling on a Snickers bar. The meeting lasts four minutes. Afterward, Webb joins the other D-backs for batting practice, briefly, and jokes around with teammates in the dugout. Then,precisely an hour before the 7:10 first pitch, he shifts into autopilot, his movements dictated strictly by the clock. He goes into the trainer's room to stretch, and exactly 40 minutes before game time—regardless of whether Arizona is at home or on the road—he changes into his uniform. With 35 minutes to go, he walks to the dugout, where he sits and waits five minutes before going to the bullpen to warm up.
After Ricky Nolasco limits the D-backs to a single in the top of the first, Webb strides to the mound, stepping on the foul line as he goes (a superstition he honors every inning). Pitchers are permitted eight warmup throws, but Webb takes only six: four sinkers, a curveball and another sinker. Always the minimalist. He comes off the field after retiring the Marlins on 11 pitches and sits in his usual spot on the bench—water bottle to his left, Snyder to his right. Their conversation is light. Snyder says it's almost like they're playing Wiffle ball.
Webb's sinker veers against the Marlins; his changeup dives. Eleven batters into the game, he still hasn't allowed a baserunner. But then Jorge Cantú drives a double to deep left, and Webb knows this is a bad sign. When the ball is hit in the air, it means his sinker is not sinking the way it should—perhaps because of a slippage in mechanics, or simply fatigue.
The D-backs lead 1-0 in the fifth, but Luis Gonzalez, a former teammate, anticipates a changeup and triples into the gap in right-center. He scores on a suicide squeeze by Matt Treanor. Webb subsequently fires a sinker inside to Cody Ross, but the ball stays up and Ross mashes it over the leftfield wall. The Marlins tack on another run later, and although Webb throws seven solid innings, the D-backs fall 3-1. It's his first loss of the season, and afterward he speaks softly in the otherwise silent clubhouse.
He's frustrated that he couldn't keep his sinker down, but he's ready to move on. "I'm not going to go 33–0 or 34–0," Webb says. "I'll forget about it in an hour."
THE LAST SATURDAY IN JUNE
Flash forward 38 days: The D-backs have been playing like the offensively challenged team they are, going 12–22 and skidding back to .500. It's been a while since Webb was at his sharpest—the sinker has been misbehaving—but on this night, back in Miami, he responds with six strong innings. Contrary to Snyder's advice, Webb talks his way back out for the seventh and promptly hits Treanor and walks Jeremy Hermida. After manager Bob Melvin lifts him, Webb stalks back to the dugout, uncharacteristically yelling at himself, and fires a water bottle into a trash can. Arizona hangs on to win, and Webb, at 12–4, becomes baseball's winningest pitcher.
But now Snyder has another example to hold over his head. "I guess I should have listened to him," Webb says afterward, grinning.
Want to know the science behind Webb's filthy sinkerball? Check out this interview with baseball scientist David Barker.
The game's winningest pitcher let us trail him for a week. Turns out, life is pretty good when you've got five dogs, three pitches and a catcher to do your worrying for you.