[Editor’s Note: David originally interviewed tonight’s Game Four starter for the Rays on May 25, 2008. We reproduce that interview today to remind everyone about Sonnanstine’s thoughtfulness as a hurler.]
Andy Sonnanstine is a thinking man’s pitcher. Cut in much the same mold as Kansas City’s Brian Bannister, the Rays right-hander takes a cerebral approach to the mound, retiring hitters more with guile than with raw power. A 13th-round pick in the 2004 draft out of Kent State University, Sonnanstine made his major league debut with Tampa Bay in 2007, and is 6-2 this season in 10 starts through May 21. David caught up with Sonnastine at Fenway Park in the first week of May.
David Laurila: Who is Andy Sonnanstine?
Andy Sonnanstine: I’m a behind-the-scenes strike-thrower.
DL: And that means…?
AS: It means that I kind of like to keep a low profile. I’m not a superstar; I don’t have lights-out stuff but I compete every time I go out there and take care of business. I try to go about my business in a professional manner.
DL: Your bio in Baseball Prospectus 2008 said: “Take (James) Shields, add in a little more control, but less command and stuff, and you have Sonnanstine.” Does that make sense to you?
AS: Everything but the command part. I’ve always had pretty good control and have prided myself in having the ability to throw strikes where I want them. That’s something that’s helped me to move up through every level.
DL: The quote differentiated between command and control. Do you view them as two separate things?
AS: No. I’d say they’re very similar, if not the same. The way that I think about control and command is putting the ball where you want it with the action you want.
DL: What is the biggest mechanical change you’ve made since signing?
AS: I don’t know that I’ve had a big mechanical change. I’m sort of a specialty guy with different tempos, different leg kicks; different arm angles. Coming up through the minor leagues I was always successful, so pitching coaches and pitching instructors have always been pretty hesitant to mess around with any of my mechanics. I think that’s because I’ve proven that I can throw strikes. The biggest change I’ve made has probably been throwing inside.
DL: Which is more of a mental adjustment, is it not?
AS: Exactly. My pitching coach in college, who pretty much made me into the pitcher I am today, was Mike Birkbeck. He pitched in the Braves system, and their mentality was fastballs low and away. Mike’s thinking is that the ball farthest from your eyes is the hardest ball to hit. It was last year in Triple-A where I started running into a buzz saw and began learning that wasn’t going to work for me anymore. So I ironed that out, and I’d say that it’s been the biggest change for me.
DL: Does your fastball tail back into right-handed hitters?
AS: Sometimes it cuts, and sometimes it stays straight, but it hardly ever tails. I throw a two-seamer, which I was just working on today in the bullpen, and that’s another mental block that I need to get over. If it moves it will probably cut just a hair, and that would be very beneficial to me. It will help me to get in on lefties and away from the sweet spot against righties.
DL: This is your second season in the big leagues. What is the biggest difference between pitching in a big-league game and a minor league game?
AS: The quality of the hitters, and also the arena. If you look at a Triple-A lineup, there are maybe two or three guys who will hurt you, but when you look at the Boston Red Sox there are eight or nine guys who will hurt you pretty bad. You need to have all of your pitches on point, and you need to have better focus. You need to minimize your mistakes or you won’t stay here for too long.
DL: How important are charts to your preparation?
AS: Not as important as they should be. That’s one reason I’d like to pick Brian Bannister’s brain when we go to Kansas City. I’d like to figure out what he does going through a lineup. I’m a very visual person, so I watch a lot of video to see where hitters are stepping-if they’re diving-in certain counts. I’m not a big numbers guy; that just doesn’t click with me. My chart is sitting down with [pitching coach] Jim Hickey at the beginning of a series and going over the lineup. Then, on the day that I pitch I’ll sit down with Hickey and the catcher who has me that game, and we’ll refresh my memory. There’s kind of a fine line, because you want to pitch to somebody’s weakness, but at the same time you want to pitch to your strengths. You don’t want to get too caught up in this guy can’t hit this pitch, but it’s my fourth-best pitch so I’m going to throw it anyway. I don’t like that. I’d rather throw what I know that I do well. I’d rather get beat on that than my fourth-best pitch just because he took a bad swing on it in the last series where we faced him.
DL: During the course of a game, how often will you have a conversation with your catcher or pitching coach about pitch selection?
AS: I’d say two or three times, usually between innings. If it’s an important pitch, or an important part of the game, I’ll call my catcher out to make sure that we’re on the same page-especially if there’s somebody on second base. Or sometimes Navvy [Dioner Navarro] or [Shawn] Riggans, or whomever it is, will come to me about making an adjustment on the fly.
DL: When Jim Hickey comes out to the mound, what does the conversation tend to be?
AS: He’s usually pretty positive and straight to the point. Typically, he reminds me how we’re going to attack this hitter in this situation.
DL: When you think back to your big-league debut, what was that experience like from an emotional standpoint?
AS: I think about that a lot. It was one of the happiest times of my life. It was hectic; I had family and friends coming up; I was pitching in the Rogers Center, and it was very special to me. I was pretty nervous going into that start, but I struck out Alex Rios on three pitches and from that point on I knew that I belonged here.
DL: You struck out seven consecutive hitters in your second start. Given that you’re a guy who likes to pitch to contact, did that have an impact, either good or bad, on you?
AS: I think it affected me in a positive way, kind of reinforcing the fact that I do belong here. It boosted my confidence and helped me prove to myself that I can overpower teams at times. Of course, I know that I’m not going to be overpowering every single start, by no means. Everybody was asking me if I was trying to strike everyone out that game, but it was “No, I was just pitching to contact.” I just happened to have a great slider that day.
DL: Pitchers often reference mistakes they made-often home runs they gave up-but pitchers also get away with mistakes. Do you ever think about the pitches that probably should have been hit hard, but weren’t?
AS: I definitely worry about those, because they don’t sit very well. But you’re right-sometimes you do get away with stuff. You know in your mind that you didn’t get the pitch where you wanted it, and at times you get lucky. And sometimes you’ll throw your nastiest pitch and it will get drilled off the wall, and you’ll stand there and wonder what the hell just happened.
DL: You went to Kent State. Even though it happened more than a decade before you were born, what does the Kent State Massacre mean to you?
AS: It kind of makes me feel that Kent is known for something else; it’s known for a tragedy. I’ve seen the picture-the one that won the Pulitzer Prize-of the girl standing over one of the dead bodies. There are memorials there, and I lived in a dorm right by the statue with the bullet hole, but I wish that we were known for something more positive.
DL: Can you say a little more about who Andy Sonnanstine is?
AS: I’m a big believer in karma. I try to play the game the right way, and I do everything in my power to get better. I’m a really open-minded individual. Today I tried out a new grip with my two-seamer and I was a little bullheaded about it at first, but I’ll try anything once to see if it works. There are parts of my game that are different from anyone else’s. Like I said, arm angles, tempos-those are things I need to do, because I don’t throw 95; I don’t have the best slider in the game; I don’t have a plus changeup. I just go out there and compete to the best of my ability.
DL: What are you normally doing when you’re not on the mound?
AS: I like hanging out with the fellows. A baseball team is kind of like a big fraternity, and I really enjoy the time I get to spend with guys like Percival and Carl Crawford and B.J. and Kazmir. They’re all exceptional athletes, and I feel very privileged that they’re on my team. I love playing ping-pong, foosball-anything competitive. I really enjoy working on multi-media with my Apple laptop. I guess I like to think of myself as a professional man of leisure.
Thank you for reading
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