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December 18, 2006
Craig Breslow has both a major league resume and a biochemistry degree from Yale. Originally a 26th-round pick by Milwaukee in the 2002 draft, the 26-year-old lefthander made his big league debut in 2005, appearing in 14 games for the Padres. Signed by Boston in January as a minor league free agent, the native of Trumbull, Connecticut, saw action in 13 games out of the Red Sox bullpen last year, going 0-2 and posting a 3.75 ERA in 12 innings. David Laurila sat down with Breslow for BP to talk about how an Ivy League graduate views pitching philosophy, mechanics, and the genetic predisposition of arm-slots.
Baseball Prospectus: You studied molecular biophysics at Yale. Can you make a good analogy between that and baseball?
Craig Breslow: Boy, probably not. Biochemistry is such a specific science -- it's so analytical and methodical, and that kind of mentality can actually hurt in baseball. The specificity of what you do in the lab is something you can't take to the mound with you. Maybe it's similar in the preparation, but on the mound you need to make adjustments and don't want to be too predictable. You can't do that it the lab.
BP: What about finger-placement, and finger-pressure on the seams when you release the ball? How precise do those need to be on each pitch?
CB: Well, in terms of repeating pitches and particularly movement on pitches, then of course pressure must be precise and consistent from pitch to pitch. Finger pressure impacts the spin of the ball which translates into breaking pitches breaking, sliders sliding, etc. I know from experience that I rarely throw two pitches identically, but that tends to help me in that some pitches move earlier, some later, more, less, etc.
BP: You often hear pitchers talk about how the ball comes out of their hand. What does that actually mean?
CB: The way a pitcher releases a ball has a drastic effect on the spin that is derived. Commonly pitchers talk about staying behind or on top of the baseball, meaning that the fingers are behind the ball, and true four-seam spin is achieved. When pitches tire, or get mechanically neglectful, the hand tends to get under the ball and the plane and trajectory are altered.
BP: Once the ball leaves a pitcher's hand, he no longer controls what is going to happen. Prior to it leaving his hand, what separates a big league pitcher from a minor league pitcher?
CB: I think, interestingly, that mechanically there is little that separates a big league pitcher from a minor league pitcher, with perhaps the exception that big league pitchers have mastered the ability to repeat their deliveries from pitch to pitch. While the ball is still in a pitcher's hand, I think the fundamental differences between minor leaguers and big leaguers are not mechanical, but instead mental. Big league pitchers show an ability to make adjustments quickly, and to maintain a level of concentration, focus, and confidence that is sometimes elusive to minor leaguers.
BP: Players drafted out of high school face the decision of signing a pro contract or going to college. While the quality of on-the-field instruction is arguably better in pro ball, a college education offers insights to the world you can't experience in the minor leagues. Is baseball a game where that type of personal growth is important?
CB: Coming from Yale, I am a strong proponent of the college experience. I am well aware that college is not for everyone, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince young athletes to turn down lucrative offers to go to college. However, baseball is a game of maturity, and a game which requires both physical and mental discipline to succeed over the course of a season. I believe that college offers athletes a chance to foster some of the responsibility and independence it takes to be productive as a professional.
BP: Bill James was once quoted as saying, "Pitchers, basically like to throw fastballs…They are proud of the fact that they can throw hard. They like it." What are your thoughts on that?
CB: I think it is true that pitchers primarily take pride in the gun-readings they garner. That so much emphasis is placed on velocity is not attributed to pitchers only, though. When is the last time a pitcher threw 80 miles per hour, kept hitters off balance, threw strikes, changed speeds, and got drafted? It doesn't happen. I look at it this way: velocity will get you a foot in the door, perhaps even give you a few more chances, but ultimately, it takes the acquisition of the skill of pitching to be successful.
BP: How much should an individual hitter dictate how you pitch?
CB: I think each at-bat requires a combination of recognizing your skills and coupling that with the knowledge of a hitter's weakness. Ideally those match up, however often they don't. In those scenarios I think it is more important to pitch to your strengths than to a hitter's weakness.
BP: Left-handed hitters historically like the ball down-and-in, while the same isn't true for right-handed hitters. Have you ever heard an explanation for why that is, or do you have your own theory?
CB: That is a question for which I don't know the answer. Garnering a guess, I would propose that perhaps since hitters generally face right-handed pitching growing up, perhaps right-on-right fastballs down-and-in are typically rarely thrown, while to lefties, right-handed pitchers may come inside more often. From seeing that pitch regularly, perhaps left-handed hitters have adapted a suitable swing. Just a guess.
BP: When you're watching a hitter from the bullpen, or on video, what are you looking for?
CB: I typically watch the way hitters approach at bats. We get a general scouting report that may dictate some holes, tendencies, etc. I like to be aware of guys that bunt, go the other way, move runners, that sort of thing. Video is available almost immediately -- definitely by the end of the game -- and since that offers the ability to be slowed down, repeated, etc, I think it is a great tool, though I caution myself against becoming overly analytical.
BP: Does a young pitcher learn more from an experienced and well-prepared catcher like Jason Varitek, or from other pitchers?
CB: A combination of both. I think that throwing to Tek has been invaluable to my transition to the major leagues. He is one of the most focused and prepared players I have ever met. It is a privilege to play with him. In game, I rely greatly on his pitch-calling ability and his ability to read situations. While sitting in the bullpen, and in between outings, I try to talk with some of the veteran pitchers as much as possible and see the way they approach certain hitters -- certainly situations -- that sort of thing.
BP: When you meet the pitching coach of your new team, what are the first things you talk about?
CB: Generally, I think we try to get a feel for each others' styles. Not every coach is the same, and similarly not every pitcher is. I think we try to determine mutually what works best for each player, what pitches we like to throw in certain situations. That way, it becomes easier for a coach to identify what may be going wrong when things start to run amok.
BP: You've pitched for both the Red Sox and Padres, and before that spent time in the Brewers system. How does the pitching philosophy differ between those organizations, at both the minor and major league levels?
CB: I think that the philosophies in the minor leagues have primarily been the same. At the lower levels, there is a focus on some fundamental tenets; learning the professional game, working ahead, and mastering a secondary pitch. At the big league level, I would say there is less hands on mechanical tinkering, but more result oriented instruction. More time is spent on the intricacies; holding runners, fielding bunts, etc.
BP: In an interview with Baseball Prospectus last summer, pitching instructor Tom House said "Leave the throwing arm alone; it's genetically predetermined." Do you agree with that, and have you ever had anyone suggest that you change your own arm-slot?
CB: I think that to some extent we are genetically predisposed to certain traits, arm-slot, velocity, breaking ball spins. For me to lower my arm-slot -- and I have tried -- feels as foreign as throwing right-handed. I actually tried lowering my arm-slot slightly, to increase my success against left handed hitters. The results are still pending...
BP: If Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal can combine to throw over 400 pitches in a game, why can't today's pitchers do the same? Shouldn't advancements in training and sports medicine make it easier to throw a lot of innings?
CB: This is obviously a heated debate. Unequivocally, the pitchers of earlier eras threw more, far more, than today's pitchers do. I think that the effects of the advancements in sports medicine and training are somewhat ambivalent. On one hand, pitchers are bigger, stronger, and throwing harder than ever before. However, for this reason, I think they are putting increased strain on the body as well. Perhaps because of strength training and an increased understanding of the anatomical demands of pitching, I can throw 90 miles per hour today, but along with that comes the stress, torque, and wear of a 90 mile per hour fastball. Additionally, I think that kids are pitching, not throwing, more at an earlier age, and athletes are specializing in one sport at an earlier age -- two factors that could lead to injuries.
BP: With your background in biochemistry, what can you tell us about the dangers of anabolic steroids, and has anyone ever approached you for advice about their effects?
CB: Actually it's kind of funny that you would ask. I guess either fortunately or unfortunately, simply because of where I went to school, many of my teammates have deemed me an expert on such subjects from drugs to the weather. As far as steroids, I think the dangers are pretty well documented, from short-term acute injuries to longer-term, more serious damage. Some people have asked some general questions, but just out of curiosity, and not with intent. The problem with steroids is the same as the attraction -- they work, and for that reason I am not sure they will ever be completely abandoned.
BP: Do you plan to go to medical school someday?
CB: That was the contingency plan if baseball didn't work out, but it kind of gets tucked further away as I have more success. I guess it still is, but hopefully I'll have 15 years in the game and I won't have to think about it for awhile. That said, I've always felt strongly about medicine and it's something I'll keep as an option. We'll see when the time comes.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Interviews from Red Sox Nation which was published in 2006 by Maple Street Press. He can be reached here.