Brad Ziegler is still perfect. One of the best stories of the 2008 season, Ziegler made his 28th appearance out of the A’s bullpen on Friday, and again didn’t give up a run. Since making his big-league debut on May 31, the submarining right-hander has thrown 37 scoreless innings, the most ever to begin a career. Originally a 20th-round pick by the Phillies out of Southwest Missouri State in 2003, the 28-year-old Ziegler has survived a pair of skull fractures and a stint in indie ball on his way to chasing cult status in Oakland.
David Laurila: In early July, you wrote on your blog, “I’m pretty sure that I don’t deserve the media attention I’m receiving so far.” Who does deserve media attention?
Brad Ziegler: Not middle relievers. That’s the biggest thing. I play a very small role on this team. I feel like I’ve helped us get some wins, but there are so many guys playing every single day, and there are the starters who are chewing up six, seven, eight innings when they go out there. I’m just coming in for one or two, here and there, and while it can be a big point in the game, over the course of the season the 60 or so innings that I’m on a pace to throw isn’t a whole lot.
DL: What is it like getting all of this attention after spending years in the minor leagues where there is relatively little media coverage?
BZ: It used to happen to me a little bit because I had some interesting things happen to me in the minors, like the skull fractures-things that drew some attention. But it’s still crazy. I’m just a small-town guy, and I feel like I lead a pretty simple life, so it’s pretty weird to be asked to answer a lot of questions when I get to the field every day.
DL: You converted from a conventional pitcher to a submarine-style delivery prior to last season. Was that initially more difficult mechanically or psychologically?
BZ: Mechanically. The psychological part was never a problem. It was getting the repetition of the delivery down, and it took me half of last season to get to the point where I wasn’t having to think about every single thing my body was doing on every pitch. By the time the end of July and August came, I was able to focus on the pitch and the hitter, as opposed to what I was doing myself. That’s when I really got comfortable, and the numbers started to get a lot better.
DL: Was there not a psychological barrier you had to get over, given that you were having success as a conventional pitcher?
BZ: Yeah, but I was pretty much past that wall before last season started. It was something I had dealt with in that offseason and I just had to convince myself that this is who I am now. I’m not saying that I’ll never throw an overhand pitch again, but I’m not an overhand pitcher anymore. This is working, so there’s no reason for me to change anything right now.
DL: Another transition you made was becoming a reliever. What changed when you moved to the bullpen?
BZ: The biggest thing was my game preparation, trying to be ready at any point during the middle of the game, and knowing how to warm up and not overdo it to the point that I’m tired when I get on the mound, or that I’m sore the next day even if I only pitched an inning. Converting to the bullpen was more difficult physically than it was mentally. As a starter, I tried to treat the first inning of each game like it was the last, and while I may not throw the same pitches as I would in the last inning, I felt that at any point I could throw a pitch that would cost my team the game. So mentally I tried to prepare myself that way, but the physical preparation, continuing to try to make myself available as a reliever every day, was the hardest part.
DL: I assume that your repertoire changed when you dropped down?
BZ: It did a little bit, and my pitch selection changed a little bit also. The amount of fastballs is a higher percentage now than it was overhand, because [before] I didn’t blow fastballs by guys. I don’t do that now either, but that’s where I get my ground balls, on that sinker. That’s my bread and butter, and while I have my other pitches and will go to them to keep hitters honest and maybe get strikeouts now and again, the sinker is where I’m going to live the majority of the time. The location of that pitch is so vital, to keep it down in the strike zone.
DL: Do you grip your pitches differently with the new delivery?
BZ: I throw my fastball the same as I did my overhand four-seam; I throw my curveball the exact same, and I throw my changeup the exact same. I’m just releasing it from a different angle.
DL: You’re throwing a curveball with a submarine delivery?
BZ: I call it a slider, but it’s essentially my curveball grip and my curveball release. It’s just that it moves horizontally, so it’s more of a slider pitch than a curveball.
DL: How different is your approach against left-handed hitters?
BZ: I feel that it’s way better this year than it was last year. Last year I didn’t have a changeup that I could rely on as an out pitch. I haven’t thrown it a ton yet, but when I have thrown it, it has been effective. I’m getting more confident with it, and just having that second pitch, and sometimes even throwing the slider to lefties as a third pitch, gives them something else to think about. That makes my fastball more effective.
DL: Do you use charts and scouting reports, or do you primarily go with what you do best?
BZ: A little of both. A lot of what I try to do on the mound is based on how hitters are reacting to the pitches I’m throwing. I do use scouting reports, but more so if a guy is a first-pitch hitter or if he likes to bunt, and stuff like that. But if it says, “This right-handed hitter loves the ball down and in,” that doesn’t mean I’m going to totally avoid down and in, because sometimes that’s my most effective pitch against righties. I just have to make sure that I set that pitch up and keep them honest with everything else.
DL: How much harder is it to read how hitters are reacting when you’re only seeing them once a game?
BZ: A little bit, but even if a guy doesn’t swing, I can see a lot by how he takes a pitch. I’m starting to learn whether or not a hitter saw the pitch well when I threw it in that area. I’ve faced the Angels a lot already, and I’ve faced Texas multiple times, and even over the course of a series, if I come back tomorrow I might face the same hitters again, especially if I faced seven or eight hitters yesterday. So it’s very possible that I’m going to see them again right away, so if I can keep that fresh in my head, or keep notes for when I face them in the future, that can be very important.
DL: Are scouting reports less meaningful for you because of your unique delivery?
BZ: Maybe barely. There are still a whole lot of things in the reports that we talk about. But even so, when I hear them say that a right-handed slider is an effective pitch against a certain guy, my slider isn’t like a normal overhand slider. I can’t say that when I throw mine it will be just as effective as Santiago Castillo’s slider when he throws his. When a guy throws a slider 90-92 mph, that’s a lot different than my 77 that’s floating in there and coming horizontally with no downward movement to it. So I definitely try to consider those things, but I can’t go out and pitch like a typical right-handed pitcher does.
DL: You have an absurdly good double-play rate so far this season. I’m guessing that you’re aware of that?
BZ: Honestly, I’m not. I don’t know how it relates, anyway. I know that I’ve gotten quite a few, and the three I got the other day in three innings helped, but as far as how it compares to other relievers, and other pitchers, I have no idea.
DL: Are you a numbers guy at all?
BZ: Yeah, I am. I was a math major in college; that’s what my degree is in, so I love statistics. But to me, that’s one of those obscure stats a little bit, and I don’t necessarily know where to go to find it.
DL: It is relatively obscure, but it’s also a meaningful statistic given your role.
BZ: Definitely. I like coming in with a runner on first base and less than two out. I take that as a challenge: Can I get the guy to hit the ball on the ground, at somebody, to get us out of the inning in one or two pitches?
DL: You haven’t given up a run yet. Have you considered that you could retire now and go into the history books with a perfect record?
BZ: No, I’m not concerned about that record anymore, or about statistics and whatnot. I just want to help our team win games, and I feel that even if I give up runs, I can still do that. With the nature of this game, I’m going to give up runs; that’s just the way it is. But if I can minimize damage and bounce back after I’ve given up those runs, that’s what will define my career.