Call it a definite change for the better
Becoming a sidearm slinger propelled Javier Lopez into a major league pitcher
PHILADELPHIA -- Early in the spring of 2002, a young Arizona Diamondbacks reliever -- it would have been generous to call him a prospect -- approached veteran reliever Mike Myers for advice. The young player's career had stalled badly.
Up to that point, only once in Javier Lopez's four-year minor league career did he have an ERA under 5.00, and that was just a short 17-game stint for Class A Lancaster in 2001. Otherwise, Lopez had been a bust since becoming a fourth-round pick of the Diamondbacks in 1998.
"I wasn't having any consistency to move up the minor league levels," Lopez said.
Really, there was nothing remarkable about Lopez's pitching ability. His standard fastball ranged from 88-92 mph. He threw a curveball and a changeup from an over-the-top arm angle that didn't fool many professional hitters. He had one promising trait: he threw left-handed.
Lopez was your average minor leaguer with little chance at making it to the majors.
Yet this irked him because being a professional baseball player was simply not enough. Like every other minor leaguer, he aspired to be in the majors. But what made Lopez different than all those other minor leaguers was that he knew he couldn't get there with his current ability. Something had to change.
At times during his struggles, Lopez wondered what would happen if he completely remade the way he threw.
"The Diamondbacks were open to different angles, they were open to change," Lopez said.
So in the spring of 2002, Lopez -- a nobody in the organization, a fringe player -- made the decision that would change his life. On the second day of bullpen sessions in spring training, Lopez decided he would ask Myers to help him convert from an over-the-top pitcher to a sidearm slinger.
"He was asking lots of questions," Myers recalled. "He was very much committed to learning."
Sure enough, the decision changed his career.
There are many unlikely stories in the 2010 National League Championship Series, perhaps none bigger than the remarkable Cody Ross. But are there any more unheralded players than Lopez, who with his side-slinging pitches has become the San Francisco Giants' most potent weapon against Philadelphia sluggers Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez? During the series, Lopez has retired Howard and Utley nine of the 10 times he's faced them. He's likely to face them again in Game 6 on Saturday.
Yet none of it would have been possible if had he not made the drastic switch.
"To go and try something that's completely different -- it's not like you're adding a slider or something," Myers said. "You're completely changing the dynamic of how you pitch."
You've got to be a good athlete to do it, a strong guy. It's not easy to maintain that delivery every day off different mounds.” -- Giants pitching coach Dave
Righetti on throwing sidearm
For Myers, Lopez had already made the most important concession. Many times, Myers noted, baseball players are unwilling to admit failure, to their own detriment. Players would rather fail their way than succeed by trying something different. Such changes strike at the very core of what makes players successful. For some, admitting failure was a strike against their sense of invulnerability that had made them a good athlete in the first place.
But Lopez's desire to make it to the majors dictated his decision, and make no mistake, what Lopez did by asking for advice was admitting failure. Not only was Lopez's decision a concession to a different way of throwing, it was also a life-long sentence as a reliever. While teams would be willing to take on a side-throwing, situational lefty, none would be willing to take on such a player in a starting role. Basically, Lopez was deciding that he would be a reliever for the rest of his career.
Myers had a similar experience. In August of 1995, Detroit Hall of Famer, and then Tiger team announcer Al Kaline approached Myers during a team flight from Minnesota to Toronto and asked if he had considered throwing sidearm. Myers had struggled in his first stint in the majors and was willing to listen to Kaline's advice. Myers had messed around and threw sidearm during batting practice, but in the way a position player fools around with a knuckleball during a game of catch. Nobody took it seriously.
But Kaline's suggestion changed Myers' career. Myers carved out a 13-year career in the majors strictly on the ability to fool left-handed hitters, who had just a .637 OPS against him with his side-arm motion.
"The drastic part is learning what to do now with what you've got," Myers said. "You have to go out there and throw it over the plate, because not too many people can see the ball coming off the arm angle. The first two or three times you face someone you'll have the advantage."
Myers believed a switch could also help Lopez.
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First, Myers suggested with several ways in which to grip pitches. As a sidearmer, Lopez couldn't throw pitches in the same way he did as an over-the-top pitcher. Also, Lopez asked Myers how far down he should lower his arm angle. It turned out to be a seamless transition. That season, Lopez had a 2.72 ERA for Double-A El Paso.
"You've got to be a good athlete to do it, a strong guy," Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "It's not easy to maintain that delivery every day off different mounds. Every organization before they give up on a lefty most inevitable try to get them to try sidearm. I bet 5 percent even get anything out of it. It's tried a lot in the minor leagues."
Like Myers, Lopez has become a valuable major league player. In eight seasons, Lopez has held lefties to just a .655 OPS. When the Giants this season needed a situational lefty, they traded for Lopez, who had been clipping lefties for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
On July 31, the day of the trade, Lopez reported to the Pirates' clubhouse as usual while the team was in St. Louis. He had no idea this would be another important day in a career of many. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington called Lopez into the manager's office and told him he had been traded to San Francisco.
"If you told me how my year would end I would have thought you were kidding," Lopez said. "Every day is a blessing to be here."
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.