Brian Fuentes is a thinking man’s closer. The Angels left-hander has a deceptive delivery and underrated stuff, but above all he has a cerebral approach to the game. Originally drafted by Seattle, the 34-year-old Fuentes made a name for himself in Colorado, saving 111 games over a four-year stretch, before signing a free-agent contract with the Sons of Gene Autry prior to the 2009 season. Last year’s American League saves leader with 48, the laid-back and always-thoughtful Fuentes is a four-time All-Star.
David Laurila: Who is Brian Fuentes?
Brian Fuentes: Just a humble guy from a small town who enjoys playing baseball; a family man.
DL: You’re from Merced, California. Does that say anything about you?
BF: Yeah, it kind of reflects who I am. It’s a big town population-wise, but it’s a pretty small community, I would say. It seems like everybody knows everybody, for the most part. There’s a certain degree of separation from everybody, but it still has small-town values. Central California is laid-back, and I don’t let too many things get to me, so that’s just the type of atmosphere that it is. It’s a high agricultural area and while people think of California as being laid-back—more southern California—even where I’m from is pretty low-key, and that’s the way I like it.
DL: Are you low-key on the mound, or is it a Jekyll-Hyde thing where you change once you take the field?
BF: I think it’s definitely a Jekyll-Hyde thing. It’s an opportunity to become someone that I’m really not. I’m not a real aggressive person, or confrontational, or anything like that, so when I get on the mound it’s kind of like I’m a split personality.
DL: How do you get hitters out?
BF: With whatever I’ve got. I learned that early, that you go out with what you have that day and you let them have it, whether it’s one pitch, two pitches, or the rare occasion when you have all three pitches going. But the most important thing, especially at the back of that bullpen, is that you get three outs as quickly as possible.
DL: Is there much difference between perception and reality when it comes to the effectiveness of a closer?
BF: For me, no, because I’ve done it. That perception is…I obviously have very high standards. It’s bestowed upon us as closers that when you come in there is no room for error, or at least very little room for error. There is that perception that you’re invincible and that it’s going to happen every time, but it’s not that easy. And when you don’t get it done, the fans definitely let you know about it, but that’s part of the game. Fans are passionate and that’s something I don’t really understand. I’m not a fanatical sports fan about really anything. I enjoy watching sports, but since I play, I don’t understand the mentality of a fan sometimes.
DL: Your numbers haven’t been quite as good over the past season and a half. With that in mind, are you still succeeding?
BF: Definitely. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here. You have to come to that realization very quickly, in baseball overall, and especially in the closer’s role, that if you don’t get it done, they’re going to find someone else who can. I believe that I’m successful and I believe that I have a great future.
DL: You’ve given up 40-some home runs as a big-league pitcher. How many of those can you remember specifically?
BF: A very small handful. If you reminded me of them, I could probably go back and tell you exactly what was going on—what was the count, and all that stuff—but that’s selective memory. They don’t stay in my head for very long.
DL: A short memory is important for a closer, but are there also certain things that you need to remember?
BF: I think you definitely need to remember certain things. A lot of times, I might not remember a home run, but I might remember a pitch that I threw to a guy. Let’s say I faced a guy and he hit a home run off of me on a fastball inside. I might not particularly be remembering that home run, but I’ll make a mental note of say, “If we throw inside, it is going to have to be off the plate in,” or “Let’s try a different pitch in a different spot this time” or something like that. So it definitely seems like the end result is what you remember. A lot of times I don’t remember how I got to a certain count, but I remember how I got guys out or how they got hits off of me on that last pitch, the action pitch.
DL: You may have been beaten on an inside fastball, but the numbers may show that the hitter in question struggles against that pitch from left-handers.
BF: Yeah, there are a ton of stats in this game. The fantasy-baseball era has come upon us and guys are very caught up in stats and numbers, and there probably is something to it. I know that more GMs are really getting into that. They’re getting into the statistical game, as far as trying to project what is going to happen, but for me, I pitch to my strengths. Sometimes, if a guy is an inside-fastball hitter, and that’s my strength, we’re going to go head-to-head and see what happens.
DL: Does [Angels pitching coach] Mike Butcher ever come out to the mound to suggest attacking a specific hitter with something other than your strengths?
BF: It rarely happens, but when it does happen, more times than not it is because things have been getting a little fast. They might feel that things are speeding up on you. They always talk about how, for some guys, the game speeds up on you when you’re struggling. You give up two hits in a row, and then you walk a guy, and now you look around and it‘s like, “Wow. The bases are loaded; there were just two out and no one on and now the bases are loaded.” It seems like it happened just like that, so you step off and gather yourself. It’s moments like that where Mike might come out and say, “Hey, let’s do this with this guy,” or “This guy likes a first-pitch fastball,” or maybe “Let’s just stay hard with him and throw all fastballs.” But he mostly comes out to give you a snap back to reality.
DL: You’re a veteran who has pitched in the All-Star Game and in the World Series. Does the game still speed up for you?
BF: Definitely. There are times when things can get going a little out of control, and having the ability to realize that is something that is still being learned. I have the awareness that things are doing that, and sometimes the little things that are happening right before things get out of control need to get nipped in the bud. They do speed up on me, but I always try to keep them under control.
DL: Starters need to establish a rhythm with their catcher. Do relievers?
BF: Yeah, for sure. The thing is, the starter may throw eight innings and establish a rhythm, while I threw eight innings over eight appearances in the past two weeks, but you still have to have that rhythm. That’s why it’s nice throwing to the same catcher a lot, and we’re fortunate enough to have two really good catchers. They split a lot of their playing time, so in that sense, sometimes it makes it hard when they’re flip-flopping in and out, but there is definitely a rhythm that happens between a pitcher and a catcher.
DL: Why are you a reliever and not a starter?
BF: I wasn’t good enough to start.
DL: In what way?
BF: Ability to reproduce pitches, over and over again, and keep a low pitch count. Throw three pitches, consistently, for strikes. I also have a gift of bouncing back. I can throw four or five days in a row if I need to. I’m not sure if everyone can do that, so maybe I was just made out to be a reliever.
DL: How important is self-awareness in this game?
BF: I think it’s huge. And I’m definitely a good self-evaluator. I’m hard on myself when I need to be, and maybe a little bit overly hard, but I’ll also be the first to admit when…if I have a bad outing, result-wise, I might say, “I didn’t really throw the ball all that bad. I may have blown the save and given up two runs, but I threw the ball where I wanted to; I just had a tough ball fall in.” I’m not making excuses; I’m just telling you how it was. In that sense I’m very aware of who I am and what I’m capable of doing.
DL: What does the term “baseball intelligence” mean to you?
BF: To me, it means experience. Well…it means experience, but there are a lot of guys who have experience but don’t have baseball intelligence; they’re just incredibly gifted. But for me, it’s having the ability to turn both bad and good situations into learning experiences and storing those in the back of my head, and using them later for success.
DL: What was it like pitching in Colorado?
BF: It was great. People talk about the ballpark, but it was really where I got my feet wet in the big leagues. I spent all of a month in Seattle, in the big leagues, and then I went to Colorado and spent the next five years of my career there. It was probably the best five years of my career, really, up to this point. It’s just a great city, a great ballpark, great fans—there’s really nothing bad about it other than the fact that I wish we could have won more. We didn’t really have the pieces in place to win year in and year out. We did have that run in 2007, and went to the World Series, and that was great, but there was a lot of work, and a lot of things that happened, that got us to that point. I got there in 2002 and from then on it seemed like it was a constant struggle, but you have to tip your hat to the front office and the coaching staff for acquiring the pieces that made them a success, and they’re doing pretty good now, too.
DL: How much of pitchers struggling in Colorado is Coors Field itself, and how much of it is the ballpark getting in their heads?
BF: I think it’s the elevation. I think there is definitely a little bit of the elevation coming into play, because your breaking ball doesn’t break as much, your recovery time is lower, and the ball travels better. Couple that with the fact that some guys do get in their own head about it, and it can give you the shadow of doubt. I think that I was successful because I just said, “Hey, it is what it is and my stuff is going to be what it’s going to be; let‘s have at it.” For the most part, I had a lot of success there.
DL: When you were in high-A, you pitched in what might be the most hitter-friendly ballpark in the minor leagues. Did having experienced Lancaster help you once you got to Coors Field?
BF: I don’t know. That was definitely a tough park to pitch in, but I don’t think I had much baseball intelligence back then to even retain any of that stuff. It was still early in my career and I don’t think the mental side of my game started coming into play until a couple of years later.
DL: Did you maybe learn a lot in Lancaster without realizing it?
BF: Yeah, there’s probably a little bit of that. You always learn something, but like I said, my definition of baseball intelligence is applying it with purpose and intentionally retaining that stuff. I wasn’t really intentionally retaining it; it was almost like osmosis or something. It kind of just fell in there.
DL: Are you into baseball history?
BF: Not really, but there is something to be said for it and there is definitely a lot of good history. I was fortunate enough to go to the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City this past offseason, to receive an award, and it was my first time there. I had been to Kansas City probably four times in my career, and I never even knew that it was there. They called me and said, “Hey, you won this award,” — won the Hilton Smith Reliever of the Year award—“and we want you to come to Kansas City.” I was like, “Aah, I don‘t know,” but my wife said, “We should do it,” so they flew us out there and it was just an awesome awards show. It was pretty big-scale compared to anything I’ve seen and the best part of it is that we got to go to the museum. We had kind of a personal tour and got to see a lot of the history of the Negro Leagues and see how things progressed in the civil rights movement and how it affected baseball and all of these other things, like Jackie Robinson coming to the game and why they chose him. It was really an eye opener into the history of the game and it sparked some interest for me. I definitely want to go back and spend more time.
Overall, the history of the game is something where…I watched baseball as a kid, but I was always outside playing. I didn’t watch a lot of games on TV, and I was two-and-a-half hours from any ballparks, so I never really went to any. I was more in the streets, I guess you could say. I was always doing other things, so I never really had the desire, or the information presented to me.
DL: From what you do know about baseball history, what era would you most like to have played in?
BF: I haven’t really thought about that, but I often wonder how players would stack up. You constantly hear about the greats of the game, like the DiMaggios and the Ruths and the Gehrigs, and the comparisons they make to present-day athletes. They say that “Josh Gibson could hit a ball a freaking country mile,” and all these other things, and there is that red seat out in right field here [at Fenway Park] —who is supposed to have hit the ball out there? Was it Ted Williams?
DL: Yes, it was Williams.
BF: Ted Williams hit a ball out there and you look at that and think, “Come on, that‘s got to be a little bit of a fish tale,” because that’s just an astronomical shot. Then, let’s say, you take one of the biggest power hitters in the game, even [David] Ortiz or [Adam] Dunn, and you think, “Can you hit a ball that far?” Probably not, but Ted Williams hit one there. The technology has gotten better, and the players now are bigger and stronger and faster, that‘s for sure. The training has become a science now, and careers are longer. The game has changed in that sense, but I’ve always thought it would be cool to see a battle of two eras, although it’s something that we’ll never get to see. There are the numbers guys who try to crunch it, and do these simulations, but we’ll never know.
DL: Had you faced Ted Williams, it would have been one Mexican-American going up against another.
BF: Yeah, I’ve heard that he was. But you never know. The game has changed. The fundamentals of the game are the same, but it has changed a lot, too. It’s a production now, between the stands and the fans, and trying to keep things interactive. It just seems like a lot has changed.
DL: Ernie Harwell passed away recently. What do great broadcasters mean to the game?
BF: They’re huge. The first time I got to hear Vin Scully….I’m a California guy, but we didn’t really get those games where I was; up north we mostly got Bay Area games. But you hear those guys telling stories about things that they’ve seen — their memories are so sharp, regardless of how old they are. It’s like, “Maris and Mantle were talking during BP one day,” and they start going over these conversations like walking dinosaurs, you know. They just have so much knowledge, and that’s a huge part of learning the history of the game, through your elders. They touch a lot of lives. [Harwell] was 90 years old and they say that he did something like 40 or 50 years of baseball in Detroit, so the things he saw were amazing. So announcers are certainly a huge part of the game, especially the famous ones, but do you know what? There’s always a new history being written in this game.