February 6, 2009
Chris Hayes, Part One
Chris Hayes has emerged from the humblest of baseball backgrounds to the doorstep of the major leagues. A walk-on at Northwestern University, Hayes worked his way up to the team's closer his senior year. Following graduation he spent a year in the independent leagues before signing with the Kansas City Royals as an undrafted free agent in 2006.
After two seasons with Burlington in the Low-A Midwest League, Hayes was promoted to Double-A in 2008, and responded with his best season, including a 1.64 ERA and just 49 hits and 13 walks allowed in 66 innings. His career ERA in the minors stands at 2.52, and he has allowed just seven home runs in 203 innings. After the season Hayes held his own with a stint in the Arizona Fall League, with a 4.30 ERA in 15 innings, but received less attention for his pitching than for this blog entry for mlblogs.com.
We caught up with Hayes this winter and he graciously-and occasionally seriously-shared his thoughts about throwing submarine-style, using sabermetrics to his advantage on the mound, and his similarities with a Royals reliever of years past.
RJ: So what is an undrafted Northwestern graduate doing in Double-A? Shouldn't you be getting laid off from a Wall Street firm about now?
CH: No kidding. I'm a pitcher, though-it's my job to keep the numbers low. It's a pitcher's market, so I'm hopeful for keeping my job.
I was a shortstop and pitcher in high school. I knew I wanted to play college baseball, but didn't really have many looks from schools. I didn't throw very hard (maybe low 80s) and didn't hit for any power at all, so I wasn't that attractive to college coaches. Some smaller D-3 [NCAA Division III] schools showed a bit of interest, but mostly they were tiny liberal arts schools that had high academic standards and couldn't get any better players.
Both my parents had gone to Northwestern and I was a die-hard Northwestern fan. I had gone to the baseball camps they held at NU in the summer since I was a little kid, and always had wanted to play there. I decided to enroll in the school and just try to walk on because the coach didn't show any interest in me. I got there as a freshman and tried out for the team as a pitcher. I was about to get cut, so I asked if I could try out as a shortstop. I ended up making the team because I was a good bunter.
RJ: Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down there. Are you saying that they play sports at Northwestern University? As a Michigan alumnus, I find this hard to believe. Next you'll be telling me that they have a football team too.
CH: Speaking of football-did you hear they almost had to cancel the Michigan/Ohio State game in Columbus this year? Yeah, they almost canceled because Michigan couldn't get past Toledo. (Ba-dump-bump.) And that cute little high-powered offense they brought in this year really seemed more like a Vespa compared to the [former head coach Lloyd] Carr they used to have. I'm pretty sure the reason they have sports at Michigan is so that the UM student-athletes can break the ice when they have a job interview to work for NU student-athletes.
In all seriousness, thank goodness we are bad enough at baseball that even a guy like me could be on the team, or we wouldn't be having this interview in the first place.
I was a backup infielder for my freshman through junior years and as a sophomore I learned how to catch and became the backup catcher for two years. After my junior season, I hadn't really played much at all. I tried out every year and kept making the team, but never really got to play. So my senior season I came back as a sidearm-throwing pitcher. We needed some help in the bullpen, and I started to get the opportunity to pitch. I ended up having a good year and became the team's closer.
It was my senior season, so I was late to the party trying to get drafted, but I had a few scouts show a tiny bit of interest. My last weekend of the season, we played a team that had six guys who got drafted that year, so there were a bunch of scouts. We only got one save situation out of the four games, and I came in and blew my first save of the year. I gave up three runs in a third of an inning or something, don't really remember, I've blocked it out of memory.
I went undrafted in 2005 and tried out for a few independent league teams in the Frontier League. I got offered a contract for $500/month by the Windy City Thunderbolts. It was a weird experience. Every day we'd have guys come in and try out for the team. By the end of the first week, I was the second-most senior member of the bullpen as we had released five bullpen guys. It was cutthroat to say the least.
Despite giving up three runs in my first outing, I threw well in the league and got invited to play in the Colombian Winter League in South America the winter of '05-'06. I thought about it long and hard due to the danger Colombia seemed to inherently come with, but decided it would be a good experience nonetheless. Coming out of that season the Padres and the White Sox contacted me and invited me to tryouts in Arizona just before spring training of '06.
The tryouts were on consecutive weekends, so I decided to take a mini-vacation and stay out in Arizona for the whole week. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision. After going to the Padres tryout and having no luck, as I was walking to my car, one of the kids I had met asked me if I was going to the Royals tryout on that coming Tuesday. I had nothing to do for a week and it was a completely open tryout, no invitation needed, so I went to Surprise and tried out.
There were 90 people there, many in work boots and overalls. Others were guys from independent ball or recently released players. It was an eclectic mix. I threw well in the tryout and the next day the Royals scouting director called me up and asked me if I wanted to be a Royal. Not your average path, but an exciting one for sure.
RJ: You're described as a "sidearm" pitcher, but sidearm can mean anything from a low three-quarters delivery to one where your knuckles scrape against the mound. Can you give us a quick breakdown of your delivery and repertoire?
CH: I'm definitely of the knuckle-scraping variety. If you are the batter watching me throw and my arm is the arm of a clock, I'm probably at about 6:30. So almost straight underneath. It looks like a softball pitcher, but I'm bent at the waist. Sidearmers would be at 9:00 on the clock, similar to guys like Brad Ziegler, Pat Neshek, or Joe Smith. Chad Bradford is really the one guy in the big leagues now that has the same arm angle as I do; I throw a fastball, change up, slider, and a rise ball.
RJ: You've mentioned that your release point has dropped as your career has progressed. What kind of changes have you made to your delivery? Was it a matter of gaining more velocity, better command or deception, or just a comfort thing?
CH: I honestly haven't consciously done much to change my delivery. After seeing pictures and videos of myself in 2005 when I started throwing "weird," I know my arm slot is now much lower. If I release the ball at 6:30 right now, I probably used to be at about 8:00 or 9:00. I think just over the course of the years being comfortable with the balance and stability required to throw this way, my arm slowly crept down. So as far as getting my arm-slot that low, it's been a natural progression, I haven't really focused on it to make the adjustment. Every year, though, I have set out to work on something to try to give me an edge as a pitcher.
In 2006, I switched from the first-base side of the rubber to the third-base side. That was actually a difficult adjustment on my slider because even that slight change threw off the angle at which I needed to start the pitch.
In 2007 I really focused on trying to land in line towards home plate. I used to throw way across my body, so I would land more towards third base and fall off to my right after throwing. I also used to kick my back foot out like a bowler. My lower body is now more efficient and I think my delivery is a lot more easily repeatable and probably less prone to injury.
In 2008, I continued to stay more closed and compact with my lower body and worked on trying to land less on my heel with my landing foot. The main adjustment I made was with my grips and the pitches I threw. I started working on both a two-seam and a four-seam fastball. Because the way I throw is completely upside down, my four-seamer sinks a bit more than my two-seamer, but the two-seamer has more late movement to miss the barrel of the bat. I used the two-seam a lot because I was successful getting soft contact with it. I think my GB/FB numbers were off a bit from years past, but guys were really struggling to square up the two-seam. It was a useful weapon to be able to go between the two and in DP situations, I had a lot of success inducing ground balls by being able to get a few inches of extra sink when I needed it.
Perhaps the biggest change, though, was I started to throw a rise ball. I learned it from one of the softball pitchers I went to college with. I messed with it for a few weeks and soon was able to get some swings and misses up and out of the zone. More than anything, I think it makes my sinker seem to sink even more in relation to the rise ball.
RJ: Have you read Moneyball? The author Michael Lewis discussed Chad Bradford's development as a pitcher, and how Bradford's delivery also dropped from sidearm to submarine over time. Do you see any parallels between your development as a pitcher and his?
CH: I have read Moneyball, and as far as parallels...I'm trying to remember back to my geometry days. I believe it was somewhere around Theorem 3-7 that stated if two lines were perpendicular to the same line, then those lines are parallel. I think both Bradford and my arms are perpendicular to the ground when we throw, so yes, I think we are parallel.
RJ: Smart ass. Do you keep tabs of all the sidearm pitchers in baseball and feel a kinship with them? I have this image that you've turned a corner of your bedroom into an altar with incense burning and a giant photograph of Brad Ziegler on the wall.
CH: Everybody knows the lower you throw the cooler you are. I'm pretty sure Ziegler has a Chris Hayes shrine in his room. As a submariner, I'm as cool as they come, so I, of course, have a shrine to the Jonas Brothers on my wall.
RJ: How does your unique motion affect the relationship you have with your pitching coaches? Are they able to help you improve as a pitcher just like anyone else, or do you find yourself having to rely on a "sidearm specialist" much like how a knuckleball pitcher would turn to Charlie Hough or Tim Wakefield for advice?
CH: Probably a little of both. One of my favorite times of the year is when I get to a new team and throw my first bullpen for my new pitching coach. It typically starts with them looking at me as if instead of pitching, I am blowing up a live rattlesnake and twisting it into a balloon animal poodle. It usually ends with them saying they will probably just watch me throw a few more times to get used to my mechanics before they suggest anything to me.
But thankfully all of my coaches have gotten comfortable with my mechanics and all have helped me in different ways. I'd have to imagine for the coaches there is a big learning curve because they have to translate "normal" pitching mechanics to what I do (which is the polar opposite of normal).
There is no book on how to throw submarine-style, so I have reached out to Chad Bradford for help. I was fortunate to have a coach that used to manage Bradford and he got us in touch and I've been able to pick his brain a bit. He's helped me with numerous questions because they are the same questions he's worked through over the years.
RJ: Is there a culture shock, going from getting your degree at an elite university to playing in the minor leagues? Do you find that certain people-whether they're teammates or coaches-look at you differently because of your college education, or perhaps question your commitment to the sport because you have a fallback option in case baseball doesn't work out?
CH: It's a fun culture shock, I'd say. I like being able to go home in the offseason and reconnect with the intellectual types. Then it's nice to go back to the bullpen during the season and ponder those questions like, "What if beer were water, and water were beer?" The amount of free time in the bullpen throughout the course of the season leads to some really great thinking.
As far as a fallback option, I think my commitment to the game and the amount of work I do in the off season shows the Royals that I'm in it for the long haul. It's nice to know that I do have something to perhaps fall back to, but it won't be without me kicking and screaming. I love what I do and plan to do it for a long, long time.
RJ: Along those same lines, how much distrust is there from people in the game because of your delivery? Are they inclined to see you as a "freak" pitcher or a guy whose tricks will get exposed as you move up the ladder, or is there a recognition that there is a place in the majors for a guy with your kind of delivery?
CH: If a guy has a great "frame" or "build" and throws 95-plus, he has the tools to be a big league pitcher. Everyone has seen plenty of guys with that mold be successful. My situation is a little different. Chad Bradford is really the one and only guy in the big leagues now that throws as low as me and as slow as me. He's been very successful for years, but still, it's not the average big leaguer that throws 79 mph. So it's easy to wonder, "well, he was really successful at this level, but higher level hitters are going to be able to do x, y, and z against him." I used to hear from some people that when I got to Double-A, hitters would be more experienced and I wouldn't be able to "trick" them anymore and A-ball would be a ceiling for me. I think I showed there may be more to my craft than smoke and mirrors that only works on A-ball guys.
I've used the phrase "statistical burden of proof" to describe this. I embrace the fact that every level I go to, not that I'm a pioneer, but I'm not the mold that people have seen be successful. I'm going to have to put up good numbers wherever I go to show what I can do.
RJ: Most baseball fans are familiar with the kind of money that major leaguers make, and the fact that minor leaguers don't make nearly so much, but I'm not sure they appreciate just how big the gap is. Could you give us some idea of the kind of salary that you have to live on during the season, and how hard it is to make ends meet? Do you have to work in the offseason to help pay the bills, and if so, how do you balance the need to work with the need to stay in the best possible shape for baseball the next year?
CH: Last year I got a raise because of my promotion to Double-A. So, every two weeks I would get a paycheck for $468. We had to pay about $13 per day for clubhouse fees, so each month, I would bring home $572. Our rent was $500 per month, which leaves $72 per month for my wife and I. The amount of traveling we do and the fact that we can get moved to a different city at a moment's notice makes it hard for my wife to find a decent job during the season, too. In the offseason, I am usually doing some sort of baseball activity for a few hours every day. So it's hard to find a job with limited, flexible hours that I can leave again in a few short months. This year I have been designing and implementing a website for a small business in the Chicago area, and the year before that I taught chess lessons to students in the Chicago school systems.
Thankfully my wife runs a personal training business that allows us to stay afloat. It is definitely difficult at times. The big leagues is a goal everyone has for a number of reasons, but financially it's insane the discrepancy.
I made around $9,000 last year in seven months (because I played in a fall league, that went an extra two months). Making big league minimum, you'd make about $10,000 every four days.
RJ: I'm going to guess that as a non-drafted free agent, your signing bonus wasn't something you could buy a car with. Maybe Hot Wheels.
CH: Not unless they were buy one, get one free, and the guy in front of me in line only wanted one.
RJ: Are you familiar with some of the work being done in baseball analysis and sabermetrics? Do you find any of that information useful in making you a better pitcher?
CH: I am familiar with sabermetrics. I remember making spreadsheets years ago with baseball stats. This has nothing to do with sabermetrics, but I remember after the '01 season calculating how often the defense was a factor when Barry Bonds batted. It seemed like every at-bat he either walked, was hit, or hit a home run...in all those cases the fielders might have well not been there. I remember being shocked Adam Dunn hit the ball to a fielder even less often than him. Rob Deer was another guy the defense could have "taken five" during most of his at-bats.
RJ: I have no idea what you're talking about.
CH: I've been obsessed with baseball stats for a long time. As far as what it means for a pitcher while he's on the mound, to be honest, not a whole lot. I've always been a guy to force the hitter to put the ball in play early on and try to induce soft contact; statistical analysis has only strengthened this stance. Sabermetric analysis seems to like the strikeout a bit more than I do when it comes to things like DIPS, but I'm probably biased. I think it's a science when I force guys to hit the ball softly and make outs. Not to brag, but I think I have a unique talent to be able to force batters to hit the ball into outs more often than other guys do based on my arm angle and movement. The idea that once a ball is in play, all pitchers are essentially the same is one that is hard for me to swallow.
Long story short: my analytical mind loves sabermetrics, but my baseball gut can't admit that my craft is as simple as some of the analysis and regressions. I know the sample sizes are huge and they are tried and tested, but I think my style of pitching is different enough to maybe go against some of the analysis. I'm probably not the most unbiased guy to ask, though.
RJ: You've mentioned that you are familiar with Brian Bannister's ideas, as he explained in a set of interviews last winter, about how he feels he can overcome DIPS theory and keep his BABIP consistently lower than average, as he did in 2007. You're probably also familiar with the fact that his BABIP regressed to the mean, and then some, in 2008. Have you had the chance to meet Bannister and discuss these ideas? And do you think the uniqueness of your delivery gives you a chance to overcome DIPS theory to some degree, the way knuckleball pitchers seem to defy it?
CH: I haven't met Brian yet, though I would of course like the opportunity to get to talk all things baseball and statistical with him.
I think the uniqueness of my delivery gives me a number of advantages. At the end of the day, the team with the pitching staff with the lowest BABIP isn't awarded the winner of the game. I know that's a ridiculous over-simplification, but my goal isn't to set records for low BABIP. My general goal for pitching is to get guys to make soft contact. Soft contact allows my defense a better chance to get guys out and pitching to contact lowers your pitch count. To me, pitching to contact means focusing on throwing a first pitch strike and attacking hitters with my fastball.
Courtesy of fangraphs.com, if you look at first-pitch strike rates of MLB pitchers with at least 50 IP, Chad Bradford has the second highest percentage. Brian Shouse is in the top 15. And when it comes to pitching with your fastball, I love this stat: Bradford, Shouse, Cla Meredith, and Ziegler had the 2nd, 3rd, 10th, and 13th slowest average fastball velocity of the 316 MLB pitchers with at least 50 IP in 2008. All except Shouse were in the top 20 out of 316 in percentage of fastballs thrown this year (and Shouse was 40th).
In other words, these guys have the "worst" fastballs on the radar gun, but use their fastball more than 95 percent of the league. Among conventional pitchers, only Livan Hernandez and Greg Maddux threw in the slowest 5 percent and yet were in the top third of pitchers in fastball percentage. And they were 46th and 86th respectively. You'd think having a slow fastball and throwing a lot of fastballs would be two mutually exclusive groups. And the stats show this is the case, except for 4 outliers who all happen to have low arm slots.
To see the low arm-slot guys throwing as hard as guys like Moyer (who threw 40 percent fastballs this year compared to the 75-85 percent the sidewinders threw), yet featuring their fastball as often as guys like Papelbon, Grant Balfour and Matt Thornton (who all averaged 95-plus this year) speaks a lot to the style of pitching a low arm slot affords you.
That being said, these guys aren't at the top of the list for best BABIP's every year. In my mind it just means they pitch a bit differently than many guys; much more to contact. This is going to lead to some randomness in the fact that a lot of balls are put in play. But double plays are a sidearmer's best friend. Use the same criteria as above and look at the top 4 GB/FB ratios and you'll find, in order, Bradford, Meredith, Joe Smith, and Ziegler. Four for four.
So do we side-armers overcome DIPS theory? Not yet, at least. But I have my own theories, like my "making batters hit the ball softly, not hardly" theory (pun intended), and my "getting two guys out at once" (a.k.a. GIDP theory), and the "throw very few pitches per inning and be healthy to throw very often" theory is also a good one. BABIP can be a great tool for analyzing whether or not the stats are too good to be true right now and are going to regress in the future. There are a lot of things that I've done consistently throughout my (albeit relatively short) career that help get outs and make it hard for the other team to score. Those never go out of style. At least I hope not.
RJ: You're not the only Northwestern alumnus to play professional baseball, but it's not exactly a baseball powerhouse. Have you heard from any previous alumni who have gone on to make it big in the majors? I'd like to think that there's a secret ceremony presided over by Mark Loretta and Joe Girardi, where they wear purple robes and introduce you to the Priory of Evanston. It's possible I read The Da Vinci Code one too many times.
CH: Of course! It's more like Angels and Demons, though, as shown by my tattoo. Well, I can't show you the actual tattoo or I'd have to kill you, but here's what the design looks like:
We are a powerful group with more power and money than you can imagine. Interesting the Yankees are able to spend more money than congress this off-season the first year after bringing on Girardi as manager, huh?
Coming up on Monday: Part Two.