July 31, 2001
Brett TomkoBrett Tomko was the Cincinnati Reds' first selection (second round, 54th pick overall) in the 1995 draft, out of Florida Southern College. A quick climb up the minor-league ladder landed him in the Reds rotation by late spring of 1997, where he fashioned an 11-7, 3.83 rookie season.
After that auspicious debut, his situation deteriorated in Cincinnati and he suffered the fate of having unflattering labels attached to him. As part of the bounty in the Ken Griffey, Jr. trade, Tomko joined the Mariners prior to the 2000 campaign, and played a vital role out of the bullpen and as a spot starter in helping Seattle reach the American League Championship Series. However, a slow start this season found Tomko down in Tacoma in by mid-May, which is where we spoke to him prior to a recent game against the Omaha Golden Spikes.
Baseball Prospectus: You were off to a rough start in the Mariners' bullpen this year, and the trend continued for your first few starts with Tacoma after you were sent down. However, over the past six or seven weeks, you've been on a nice roll. What did you change that enabled you to return to being an effective pitcher?
Brett Tomko: Up in Seattle, I wasn't getting a whole lot of work. When I got on the mound, I didn't have anything. I couldn't throw a fastball where I wanted to throw it and I had no off-speed pitches at all.
When I got sent down here, they put me back into the rotation. Like you said, my first three outings were rough. I really wasn't in shape since 30 or 40 pitches were the most that I'd thrown up there, and the first time out of the chute, I threw 100 pitches down here. It took me a while to get my arm in shape, but once I started throwing bullpens again--two bullpens between starts for about two-and-a-half weeks--everything started to come around. I got in a routine, my arm strength began to build, and I started getting a feel for my pitches again. That was a big thing: before, I didn't have a feel for anything because I wasn't throwing that often. When you're not throwing often and you get in a crucial situation in a game, it's tough to find it.
I was battling a lot of things, not just going out there and pitching, but you want to kind of beat the world when you do get the chance. I think I was trying a little too hard.
But I came down here and got to become a starter again. I really wanted to do that. I think I just needed consistent work, because after I got my arm in shape, everything kind of clicked.
BP: You kind of burst on to the scene with the Reds in 1997, but haven't found the same success the past few seasons. How do you compare to the pitcher that you were four years ago?
BT: In my mind, I'm throwing the ball better now than I ever have, and I'm a smarter pitcher. Velocity-wise, it took me a while to build it up, but last game I got it back up to where it was my first couple of years. I've learned more about how to pitch. I've learned instead of trying to throw the ball 94 or 95 every single time, that there's nothing wrong with throwing 91 or 92 on the corner or with some movement, and when I want to get to 94 or 95, I can reach back and get there. I've become a better pitcher working both sides of the plate and up and down.
My first couple of years, I just threw the ball as hard as I could throw it. When I got up there, all I had was a fastball and a curveball; I didn't have any other pitches. I've got four pitches now, and am pretty much to the point where I feel comfortable throwing them any time I want to throw them. I couldn't do that my first two years. I think I'm a smarter pitcher and I have more weapons now.
BP: Both in 1999 and last year, you were sent to Triple-A for a couple of starts. When you were sent down in mid-May this year, did you anticipate the same thing? Are you surprised that you've been down here for more than two months?
BT: With the Reds in 1999, I had an Achilles injury in the spring, so it was more of a working my way back into shape.
When Seattle sent me down this time, it was a little bit different. I didn't expect it to be two-and-a-half months, but I took responsibility for it. I wasn't pitching well and I wasn't getting the opportunity to pitch as much as I would've liked to because the staff was doing such a good job. When the starters are going six, seven, eight innings, you're going to give it to your horses, your set-up [men] and your closer. I understood what was going on, and I wasn't seizing the opportunity when I had the chance.
When I got sent down and they said they were going to make me a starter, I looked at it as a blessing. Not that you want to be down here, but it was a chance to get back and be a starter.
I think that when I started a few games last year, that there was a lot of talk that I couldn't do it any more, that I couldn't go through the lineup two or three times. I wanted to prove to myself, more than anything, that I could do it because I kind of took that talk personally. I wanted to prove people wrong, the ones who were saying, "You're just not a starter, you 're a good middle guy." When I came down here, I took the attitude that I'm going to prove a lot of people wrong and show them that I can throw seven, eight, nine innings every time out.
BP: In the majors, you've had Don Gullett and Bryan Price as your pitching coaches, both of whom are highly respected. How would you compare the two?
BT: They're definitely different.
Bryan is young and more "hands on" and "let's sit down and talk about it." He gets down there and catches you. If you want to play catch and want to bring curveballs, he hops right down there and does it.
Gullett was a little bit different. He was a great pitcher; he had great numbers and a great major-league career. Bryan didn't make it to the major leagues, but I think they're both knowledgeable in that they know how to pitch. Bryan may not have done it in the big leagues, but he had the idea of how to do it. Gullett actually got to do it and was very successful.
One is young, one is older; they just have different perspectives on different things. One is a little bit more "old school." Bryan seems more hands-on than Don, but Don would sit there every day and say, "try this, try that."
BP: I've heard good things about Rainiers' pitching coach Chris Bosio. What have you learned from him?
BT: Bosio is awesome. I said a while back that Seattle is real fortunate because they have two big-league pitching coaches: Price up there and Bosio here in Tacoma. I hope that Bosio gets a shot somewhere in the big leagues sometime.
He's helped me more with my mental approach than anything, to get back to where I'm staying focused. That's something that I kind of struggled with in Cincinnati, inconsistency in keeping mentally focused the whole time you're out there. He's been a good coach for that, keeping me locked in all the time and to have the attitude that, "you're not going to beat me, you're not going to get a hit off me."
When he pitched, he brought that attitude with him. If you looked at him wrong, he would drill you right in the back. That's the kind of attitude you've got to have, you've got to be a little mad out there in a controlled way. He's helped me a lot with that.
Another thing with Bosio is that it has been nice to have a right-handed pitching coach, because I've never had that. No matter how a left-hander throws, it's different. It's been nice to have a right-handed pitching coach say, "I used to work the game like this." That's kind of clicked with me.
BP: In the two years since it opened, Safeco Field has proven to be a good pitchers' park, and, historically, Cheney Stadium has been one of the best pitchers' parks in the Pacific Coast League. Announcers often say that pitchers can pitch differently in that type of ballpark. Is that true? Do you actually work differently in a park that you know is going to hold the ball a little bit better?
BT: It's true that you could pitch it differently, but I don't think anybody consciously does it because you don't want to get out of your game plan. Every pitcher has his strengths, and I don't think you'd pitch away from your strengths just because of the dimensions of the park because if a guy hits the ball, it's going to go out of here just as well as anywhere else. So, I don't think you change your philosophy at all.
BP: Over the years, there have been a number of different coaches and managers who have questioned your toughness. Gullett and Jack McKeon made comments about it while you were with the Reds. There was the incident last spring training when Lou Piniella got upset because you didn't throw at somebody. What exactly do they mean when they talk about your lack of "toughness?"
BT: I'm amazed at that.
I think we touched on it a little bit earlier when I said that Bosio has really helped me to keep my focus the whole time I'm out there. I have a tendency where I don't know if I relax or if I back off a bit, but I'll have a rough inning where I walk a couple of guys and give up a couple of hits, then all of a sudden it's like "You weren't tough." I think it got highly misunderstood. When I say that I'm a better and smarter pitcher now, it's realizing that I need to keep that intensity.
They almost are challenging your manhood. Jack was from the old school and we didn't see eye-to-eye on a lot things. I think a lot of people now kind of see what I saw back then. I was being challenged personally, and probably because of my youthfulness, I didn't handle it the right way. He was from the old school and was always like, "Let's get tough out there." I think "tough" was the wrong term to use. Maybe, "Let's stay focused for seven innings" would have been a better thing to say. I mean, I pitched with broken ribs for five starts, getting shot up with painkillers to go out there, so my toughness is there. I'm as intense as anybody on the mound when I get the ball.
As far as the thing with Lou, it's not that I didn't try to hit [the batter]. I missed him. I missed him with the first pitch and after the first pitch they pretty much know what's coming next. So, on the next pitch the guy's already out of the batter's box. That happens, so I don't think there's any bad blood there with Lou.
I don't know why people said that earlier in my career. I never missed a start, I had lots of aches and pains, and I was taking the ball every fifth day and I was going to give you my best effort. So, I think I took it kind of personal. I didn't like it because I knew that I was tough out there and I knew I was a gamer.
BP: When the Mariners demoted you in mid-May, you were quoted at the time as saying, "Why don't they just get rid of me?" Is it safe to assume that you still feel that way?
BT: Yes, definitely. The thing that I was told is that I had to go down here and increase my value because I wasn't pitching well. I came down here with the right attitude. I didn't pout. Well, I pouted for a couple of days because I was a little bitter about the situation, but as soon as I got down here I got after it. I think I've increased my stock, and that was the big thing, increase your stock and we'll see what we can do.
The Mariners pitching staff is deep. I've got the feeling now, after being here for two-and-a-half months and being overlooked for promotions three or four times, that I want to go somewhere and I want to pitch. It's not that I feel bitter about the situation, but I almost feel forgotten when four other people get called up before me and I've been throwing the ball really well.
So, yes, I would like to go somewhere and pitch and contribute to some team.
BP: Do you think you're going to get traded in the next few days?
BT: I would have said definitely, but you never know. I'd like to go pitch, and I don't see it happening with the Mariners anytime soon. So, I'll pitch here [Tacoma] on Sunday, if I don't get traded by then. But if I am gone, I going to go somewhere and I'm going to win with that team. That's the attitude I have. Wherever I go, I'm going to win.
Jeff Bower is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.