Not much has gone right for the Indians in 2008, but one bright spot on the year has been the pitching of Aaron Laffey. For two months, the 23-year-old left-hander was one of the most effective starters on the Cleveland staff since he was recalled from Triple-A Buffalo after Jake Westbrook went on the disabled list in late April. The native of Cumberland, Maryland has a 4.23 ERA in 16 starts, although his record stands at only 5-7 thanks to poor run support; he has allowed three earned runs or fewer seven times without earning a win. Laffey talked about his approach to pitching prior to a game at Progressive Field in late June.
David Laurila: Is Aaron Laffey your stereotypical off-the-wall left-hander?
Aaron Laffey: No, not really. I like to think of myself as rather normal. I don’t have any weird things I do before the game, like putting one sock on a certain foot and all that kind of stuff. I like all sports, and playing all sports, so I haven’t always been a left-handed pitcher. That kind of keeps me out of that stereotypical weird-lefty kind of thing.
DL: When did you become a left-handed pitcher?
AL: I’ve always been pitching, pretty much from the time I started throwing left-handed when I was maybe two or three years old. My dad would always have me throw with my left hand, because one thing you want to have as a pitcher is to be left-handed. The odds of them making it and staying in the game are higher than for a right-handed guy.
DL: It sounds like your parents were looking at you as an athlete from an early age?
AL: Yeah, absolutely. My dad’s family especially-he and his two brothers were really good athletes and my dad was a switch-hitter. He played college baseball, so baseball was definitely going to be in my future. I have two older sisters, and both of them are really good athletes; both played softball and one played both softball and basketball. We have a pretty talented family athletically.
DL: In saying that you haven’t always been a left-handed pitcher, do you mean that your athletic focus hasn’t always been entirely on baseball?
AL: In a way, but I also used to play first base and center field, and the position I played the most growing up, other than pitching, is shortstop. I was the best infielder on the team, so where else would you put that guy besides shortstop? So it was weird-I was always a left-handed shortstop. I got drafted out of high school as a pitcher, but had signed a letter of intent to play at Virginia Tech, and they looked at me as both a position player and a pitcher. Coming into my freshman year they were going to give me the chance to play the outfield, so like I said, I haven’t always been just a pitcher.
DL: How would you describe your pitching style?
AL: I’m definitely a finesse guy, but even though I’m a finesse guy I don’t throw a whole lot of off-speed stuff; I mainly pitch with my fastball. I throw four-seams and sinkers, and I mix and change speeds with my fastball. I try to work in and out, but not so much up and down in the zone. For me, it’s more about expanding the plate into, and away from, a hitter, to make my sinker more effective.
DL: When I saw you pitch earlier this year, you had a good breaking ball. Do guys with good off-speed stuff get away with throwing a lot of fastballs because hitters maybe view them as primarily breaking-ball pitchers?
AL: A lot of guys are conscious of me throwing in, just because of the fact that when I do throw in to a right-handed hitter, I kind of cut the ball a little bit. Because I have a tendency to cut the ball, if guys are looking for that coming in on their hands, hard, it makes my breaking ball more effective. They have [the breaking ball] in the back of their mind, but they also have to be ready for the ball sinking or cutting in on their hands.
DL: I assume that the ball that cuts in on right-handers is your four-seamer?
AL: Yeah, it’s just a four-seam fastball, and my arm slot is more of a three-quarters arm slot, so I try to force the ball to that side of the plate and sometimes I get on the side of the ball. That is what creates a little bit of cut. It’s just something it does naturally.
DL: A lot of pitchers talk about making sure that they stay on top of the ball, but what you’re doing with your cutter is staying on the side?
AL: Well, sometimes I get too far on the side of it, and it is more like a breaking ball. I just kind of cut it off and it kind of runs into the plate. But I try to keep my hand up; that’s the main part, unless you’re a complete side-armer or submarine pitcher. If you’re three-quarters or straight over the top, you always want to keep your wrist, your hand, and your fingers on top of the ball to create that downward angle; you want to get rid of that side-to-side angle. I run into some trouble with that sometimes with my sinker. I get on the side of the ball and it kind of runs side-to-side instead of having that sinking action, so I definitely keep my hand on top of the ball when I throw it.
DL: What kind of movement do you get on your two-seamer?
AL: My sinker is a down-and-away pitch to a righty, and down-and-in to a lefty. If I keep my hand on top of the ball it has more of a straight-down sink with maybe a little bit of a side-to-side movement sinking away from a righty. But more often than not, it stays true and has a little drop-and-run off to the outside part of the plate to a right-handed hitter.
DL: What dictates how many two- and four-seamers you throw in a game? Is it primarily the opposition, or is it more of the feel you have on each pitch that day?
AL: I think it depends on the team more than how you feel, but sometimes certain pitches are going to feel good at the beginning of a game, and then you get later in the game and something else might feel a little better. But I think it kind of has to do with the hitters and how you’re going to approach that team. With a lineup, a lot of times you can pretty much attack them the same way, which is with your strengths. You don’t want to just pitch to a certain guy’s weakness if that’s not your strength. If their weakness isn’t your strength, sometimes you just have to stick with your best pitch, and if you can get them out that way you keep doing it. Of course, if they hurt you with your strengths, then you obviously have to change.
DL: Do you try to keep the ball down for the most part?
AL: Yeah, I mostly try to stay near the bottom of the zone. Every once in awhile I’ll run one up-and-in to change eye levels a bit, but I’d say 95 percent of the time I try to pound the bottom of the zone.
DL: How about when the scouting report shows that a particular hitter will chase balls up and out of the zone? Can it be a mental challenge to work upstairs when your game is predicated on keeping everything down?
AL: For the most part, guys are going to hit mistakes; they’re going to hit balls that are a little bit elevated, around the thigh to belt high. Those are the pitches you’re going to get hit on. There aren’t a ton of good low-ball hitters, so as long as you keep the ball at the bottom of the zone, with the exception of a few guys you’re probably not going to get hurt. Especially with my sinker-they’re going to be hitting the top of the ball, and it’s tough to get hurt when a team is pounding the ball into the ground.
DL: How would you describe your breaking stuff?
AL: It depends. When I first got called up this year, I’d say it was definitely a plus breaking ball for me. I had great command of it, and I was able to throw back-door sliders or back foot them by bouncing it in the dirt. But I also went through a period where I had trouble commanding my breaking ball. I was spinning a lot of balls and leaking open, so for those games it was probably a sub-par breaking ball for me. So it’s kind of a feel thing, and you just have to be able to adjust if it’s not feeling great in a couple of starts.
DL: How many different breaking balls do you throw?
AL: I just throw one breaking ball; I throw a slider. I used to throw a curveball in high school, and right after I signed, but since I’m a three-quarters guy I’d change my arm angle on my curveball, I would kind of come more over the top. And especially up here in the big leagues, if you start changing arm angles on different pitches they’re going to recognize it right away. So we talked about it, and between me and the organization we decided it would probably be a good idea to just stick with the slider and work on perfecting it as much as we can.
DL: You also throw a changeup, do you not?
AL: I do; it’s kind of like an adjusted circle-change. My hands aren’t big enough to throw a true circle-change, so I have more of a loose circle-change grip. It’s a two-seam grip, so it kind of has the same spin and action as my sinker-it’s just slower.
DL: What are some of the more important things you’ve learned from the pitching coaches you’ve worked with?
AL: I’ve learned a lot of things, but it’s mostly about what you can do and how your stuff plays. I’m a contact-oriented guy, so I had to learn early on that I’m not going to strike a lot of guys out; I’m not going to blow the ball by people like I could in high school. Back then I threw a little harder, because you only throw once a week and maybe 40 or 50 innings a season, while now it’s more like 180-200 innings and every fifth day. So I’m definitely a contact-oriented guy now, and realizing that has helped me to really take off the last couple of years.
DL: Scott Radinsky was your pitching coach in Buffalo. What was it like working with him?
AL: It was great. He has a ton of big-league experience, and he’s gone through a ton of experiences in his life as well. He’s the lead singer of a punk band, he has his own skate park, and he’s kind of a carefree straight talker. He tells you like it is instead of beating around the bush; if you need to work on something, he’ll let you know. But he’s also one of those guys who will observe without being too hands-on-he’ll let you do your own thing. Scott will bounce suggestions off of you, but he won’t try to recreate who you are. When you get to Triple-A, you already know what kind of pitcher you are and how your stuff should play out against the other team. He helps you to realize that, and helps you focus on being your own type of pitcher rather than trying to change what you do from watching other guys. You have to be able to filter and evaluate yourself, and he helps you do that.
DL: Culturally, baseball is pretty conservative. Does it help to have someone like Scott Radinsky, who has such diverse interests off the field, working with you?
AL: For sure. He’s definitely very easy to be around. I talk to him in the offseason, just to see how he’s doing and what he’s been up to. When you have a guy who you can be that comfortable with, it becomes so much easier to trust him. He’s got the baseball background to back up what he tells you, and he’s just an easy guy to talk to.
DL: How different are the atmospheres of Triple-A and big-league clubhouses?
AL: I think that the clubhouse here is much looser. The guys here, I wouldn’t say they’re carefree, but they’re a lot more relaxed. Triple-A can be a tough place for a lot of people, because there are guys there who are bitter that they aren’t here. They’re thinking that they should be, and they’re not, so there’s a little more of a tense atmosphere. It’s more loose and comfortable here.
DL: Any final thoughts, maybe something reporters don’t ask that you sometimes wish they did?
AL: No, because this is a different type of interview anyhow. It’s just kind of talking about baseball, not an evaluation of how your outing went. It’s nice to talk about something besides, “So, what was working for you tonight?” or “What does it feel like to be facing this team?” It’s more of a relaxing type of atmosphere, and nice to talk about the game for a change.