Although his fastball might be unexceptional, Kevin Slowey is one of the top pitching prospects in the game because of his uncanny ability to command where he puts it in the strike zone. A second-round pick in the 2005 draft, the 23-year-old Twins right-hander has allowed only 42 walks in 324 minor league innings while striking out 319. Slowey made his big league debut earlier this season, but was returned to Triple-A Rochester after seven up-and-down starts in which he went 3-0, 5.84 and gave up 53 hits in 37 innings. He currently leads the International League in ERA (1.83), WHIP (0.92), and complete games (four).
David talked to Slowey about commanding the strike zone, keeping things simple, and not worrying about home run-hitting lineups.
David Laurila: Describe yourself as a pitcher, in 10 words or less.
Kevin Slowey: I’m a right-handed pitcher in a left-handed pitcher’s body.
DL: Can you elaborate on that?
KS: A lot of times, when you see a right-handed pitcher, he’s a guy who throws in the low to mid-90s consistently. I can’t do that; instead, I have to figure out a different way to get hitters out. Most left-handers are the same way. Outside of maybe Billy Wagner, left-handers don’t throw quite as hard, so they have to pitch more. They need to throw multiple pitches for strikes, or they need to locate well. My fastball sits between 88-92, so that’s what I have to go out there and do.
DL: Is pitching simple, or is it complicated?
KS: I think it’s simple. One thing I’ve found is that I get in trouble if I try to make it too complicated. You can’t make a perfect pitch every time. What you need to do is throw strikes and trust your defense to make the plays behind you. While there’s a perfect pitch in every count of every at-bat–maybe it’s a slider on the outside corner–you can’t be absolutely precise on every pitch. Simply throwing the right pitch, to the right area of the zone, is usually good enough.
DL: You have a reputation of rarely walking hitters. Does that impact you negatively in any way?
KS: It might, at times. I look at scouting reports, but so do hitters, and they know that I’m going to come out throwing strikes. Of course, sometimes guys will swing at a pitch early in the count against me when they’d normally be taking it, so it can work to my advantage, too. I guess it works both ways. Either way, the bottom line is that I have to make quality pitches.
DL: Is it possible to throw too many strikes?
KS: Definitely, although it’s not so much too many as it is too many that are hittable. There are different kinds of strikes. There are strikes on the black, strikes in the dirt or up and away, and there are strikes out over the plate. A guy like me gets in trouble when I’m over the plate, instead of in the dirt, when I have a hitter in a position where he might chase. Good control is about more than throwing the ball in the strike zone.
DL: Why do you have good control?
KS: I’m not sure that I can answer that. I guess part of it is simply being blessed with that ability, but it’s also because I can’t throw 96. I recognized at an early age that I had to hit the catcher’s mitt to succeed. If you can’t throw it by hitters, and want to get them out, you have to figure out another way. For me, that means hitting my spots, and it’s something I’ve always focused on.
DL: Do your mechanics play a big role in your ability to command the strike zone?
KS: I think my mechanics are fine, but there’s nothing special about them. I don’t have any wacky moves or anything, which helps, but mostly I just try to stay as quiet as I can with my delivery. Everyone has their own unique motion. Pat Neshek comes from down low, and Joe Nathan straight over the top, but I couldn’t throw like either one of those guys. I just need to go with what feels comfortable to me, and stay consistent with it.
DL: This year’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook says that your delivery is, “so easy that it creates deception.” What did they mean by that?
KS: I don’t know, but when guys who don’t throw very hard are getting strikeouts, hitters usually aren’t picking the ball up well. I do know that earlier this season, a few guys hitting against me and watching me throw in the pen, said that was the case. It’s not purposeful, though. As I was just saying, I go with my natural motion, and if the hitters aren’t seeing the ball well, that’s to my advantage.
DL: Of the strikeouts you get, do you know how many are called as opposed to swinging? And does that tell us anything?
KS: I don’t know, to be honest. There’s never a time where I throw a pitch hoping that a guy doesn’t swing at it. If a hitter takes a third strike, I obviously did something right, but I couldn’t tell you how many times it’s happened. Maybe that’s something I could look into.
DL: Of the K’s you get on swinging strikes, do you know what percentage of them are out of the strike zone?
KS: I couldn’t tell you that, either. We’re really kind of encouraged to stay away from stats during the season. They’re available to us, of course, but they aren’t posted anywhere or handed out. And when you do see them, you have to know what you’re looking at. You can tell some things from stats, but there are some things you really can’t tell.
DL: What about your ground ball/fly ball ratio? As most pitchers need to work down in the zone to be effective, is it helpful to know those numbers during the season?
KS: It is, but not a ton. My focus is more about just getting hitters out. It doesn’t really matter to me how I do it. There are obviously situations where you want the ball to be hit on the ground, but most of the time an out is an out. And you can pop up a low pitch, too. If you get a hitter too far out in front, he may hit it in the air even though the pitch is down. It is generally good to stay downstairs, though. You do get more ground balls, and, as the saying goes, you can’t hit a ground ball over the fence.
DL: If you have great fastball command on a given day, what is the fewest number of off-speed pitches you need to throw to be effective?
KS: It depends on the level. In the big leagues, and even here in Triple-A, if you throw too many fastballs you’ll eventually get hit. Hitters are good, and they know how to make adjustments. I throw roughly 70 percent fastballs, and even at my best I wouldn’t want to throw more than 75 or 80 percent. If you can’t mix in your other pitches effectively, you’re going to be in trouble.
DL: After your big league debut, your catcher, Mike Redmond, said of you, “He didn’t really have command of his breaking ball–his changeup, slider, or curveball.” Was that mostly because of adrenaline, or was it something else?
KS: It was a combination of things, but I’m sure part of it was adrenaline and trying to overthrow some pitches. At times I was probably guilty of trying to make the ball break instead of just letting it break naturally. Throwing a breaking ball is like throwing a fastball–you want to repeat a simple delivery–and I wasn’t doing it consistently. After the game I sat down with Mike and (pitching coach) Rick Anderson, and that’s one of the things we talked about.
DL: Five of the seven big league teams you faced rank among the league leaders in runs scored. Psychologically, how different is it going up against the Yankees, or Tigers, than it is a weaker-hitting team?
KS: For me, I don’t feel there’s a psychological difference. All major league teams are comprised of major league players, and they’re all capable of hitting home runs; the ninth-place hitter in any lineup can take you deep. From my first start, against Oakland, to my last, against New York, I just approached the game the same way–you just pitch your game. You try not to think things like, “These guys hit a lot of home runs.”
DL: You allowed 13 home runs while you were up. Was there a single contributing factor to the majority of them?
KS: Almost all of them were mistakes back over the plate. They came on all sorts of pitches, but the one thing they had in common was bad location. When you go over the heart of the plate to big league hitters, they’re going to take advantage of that. Like I said earlier, I can’t challenge hitters with a 96 mph fastball. I’m the type of guy who has to hit his spots, and pitch intelligently, to be successful.
DL: You studied international business in college. What does that tell us about Kevin Slowey?
KS: Mostly that I can speak a second language, because it’s a requirement in the program. You can’t really extrapolate much more from it than that. It’s just a course of study, like pre-med or being in law school. But I can speak Spanish, which is a plus in baseball because it helps me to communicate better with more of my teammates. Anything I can do to make myself better is a good thing.