A first-round pick by Oakland in the 2001 draft, Jeremy Bonderman has been trying to prove Billy Beane wrong ever since. So far, he’s doing a pretty good job. As readers of Moneyball are well aware, Beane was highly critical of his scouting director selecting a high school pitcher as the team’s top pick. A year later, he traded Bonderman to Detroit. Rushed to the big leagues at the age of 20, Bonderman struggled, losing 19 games in 2003 while posting an ERA of 5.56. He has improved steadily since that time, and last season helped pitch the Tigers to the World Series by going 14-8 while finishing second in the American League with 202 strikeouts in a team-high 214 innings.
David Laurila sat down with Bonderman for Baseball Prospectus to talk about how he throws his power slider, his developing changeup, and not being given a chance in Oakland.
Baseball Prospectus: When you look at your statistics, which are the most meaningful to you?
Jeremy Bonderman: I’d say it’s my innings and how many hits and walks I give up per inning. The other is my ERA–if my ERA is down, I have a shot to win a lot of games, and that’s what I’m out there to do.
BP: Would you rather be on the mound with your best fastball and so-so breaking stuff, or with a so-so fastball and your best breaking stuff?
JB: I want my fastball. That’s what sets everything else up, especially if you’re locating it well. A good breaking ball isn’t going to get it done if you’re trying to run a fastball in on a hitter and it doesn’t have any life. Those are going to get hit. But if you’re spotting a good fastball, hitters are going to have trouble with your breaking pitches even if you don’t have your best one going.
BP: Are you a guy who pretty much just grips it and rips it, or is finger placement and feel important to you?
JB: My game is to reach back and try to locate. I throw the same way every time, with the same grips. I don’t move the ball around in my hand or anything like that. I just pitch like I always do.
BP: How would you describe the grip and mechanics of your slider?
JB: My fingers are on the right side of the horseshoe, and I wrap my middle finger on the seam as much as possible. When I deliver the ball I pull down and twist at the end to finish. That’s about it.
BP: How important is the velocity of your slider in relation to your fastball?
JB: I try to throw with the same arm speed, so it doesn’t really matter to me. There’s usually about a six or seven mph difference, and I’m happy with that. Mostly I just want to throw my slider hard.
BP: You’re working on developing a changeup. How are you gripping it, and what are the keys to throwing a good one?
JB: It’s just a regular circle. The key is to have good arm speed and the same arm slot and mechanics as your fastball. You don’t want to force it, either. You just want to let it go.
BP: Assuming that each is a win, would you rather allow three runs on six hits with 20 Ks, or throw a two-hit shutout with six Ks?
JB: I’ll take the shutout. To me, if I punch out six batters or twenty, it’s all the same. I just want to work ahead and do the certain things that will help me get outs and work deeper into games. That’s what I’m most concerned with. Strikeouts will come.
BP: Out of 100 pitches, how many do you ideally want to throw for strikes?
JB: I’d say 75 percent, maybe 80 percent. I like to throw strikes and trust my stuff, because I like balls in play, not giving free passes. I don’t believe in wasting pitches. You need to go up-and-in, or down-and-away, out of the zone to set hitters up, but otherwise I want to throw strikes. I want to throw for efficiency.
BP: Some days a pitcher is on top of his game. Other times he isn’t. When do you normally know?
JB: When I go out to the mound. If I don’t have my good stuff, I just need to figure out how to get by without it. I dig deep and try to minimize the damage.
BP: You can’t tell warming up in the bullpen?
JB: Not really. You can’t judge by what you do in the pen, because sometimes you don’t bring the same stuff to the mound with you.
BP: What is your routine warming up in the bullpen before a game?
JB: I’m mostly working on locating. I throw a lot of fastballs, working areas like down-and-away to right-handed hitters. That’s an important location, and your mechanics have to be right to hit that spot consistently. You can’t pull off or yank, or you’re going to miss. I concentrate on driving to the spot, and then when I feel comfortable I start moving the catcher around a little. After that I start mixing in different pitches. I don’t start throwing hard until the last few minutes.
BP: How about your routine warming up between innings?
JB: That’s always the same. I start by throwing two- or three four-seamers, then one or two sinkers. Then I’ll throw one change, and finish with a slider.
BP: It’s well known that Billy Beane was critical of you, a high school pitcher, being chosen in the first round of the draft. What are your thoughts on that?
JB: My opinion is that Billy Beane thinks his philosophy is the only way, but it’s not the only way. There are other GMs who have been successful, too. His scouting director was Grady Fuson, and he thought that I was worthy of being picked when I was. In my opinion, you should trust the judgment of the guys who work for you. Oakland didn’t give me a shot to show what I could do, but fortunately the Tigers believed in me. Since the trade, I’ve wanted to prove that Grady Fuson was right–high school pitchers can be successful.