In 2005, he led the Oakland organization in pitching strikeouts. This year he had the second-best ERA in the Texas League. If anything, however, Athletics righthander Brad Ziegler is a realist.
“I’m just a generic overhand righty,” he jokes. But the A’s see something in the minor league veteran who turns 27 years old next month, and Ziegler has come around to the idea as well. Oakland still remembers how valuable Chad Bradford was in the A’s bullpen for four years; while other teams stay away from unconventional pitchers like the plague, and while many minor leaguers are preparing for the offseason or winter ball, Ziegler is back in the instructional leagues, working on a submarine delivery.
Despite his relatively advanced age, Ziegler really hasn’t been a professional for that long. Oakland drafted him in 2002 in the 31st round, but Ziegler, already a fourth-year junior, opted to return to Southwest Missouri State for his senior year, a move he has no regrets about, as he went 12-2 as a senior and helped pitch the Bears into the College World Series. He even moved up into the first day of the draft in 2003, as the Phillies selected him in the 20th round.
His tenure with Philadelphia was short-lived. Suffering from biceps tendonitis after signing, Ziegler pitched just six innings for Batavia in the New York-Penn League before going home to work out and get ready for spring training. Four weeks into his first professional camp, Ziegler had a busy day.
“I was walking into the complex and the pitching coordinator directed me into [player development director Mike] Arbuckle’s office,” recalled Ziegler. “They told me I wasn’t ready for Low A and at my age they didn’t want to send me back to Batavia, so I was getting cut loose. I went to the secretary’s office, she asked me where I was going, and they bought me a plane ticket home.”
Ziegler had less than three hours to pack his stuff in the Florida apartment he was sharing with good friend and former college teammate Ryan Howard. His journey home to Springfield, Missouri included a pair of layovers, but the entire day wasn’t a loss. “I thought my career was over without ever getting a legitimate chance,” said Ziegler. “But by the time I got home late that afternoon, my agent already had my Indy League deal done.”
While spring training for the Northern League’s Schaumburg Flyers didn’t begin until May, Ziegler still had reason to believe that he’d return to affiliated baseball. “I knew Oakland had some interest as they drafted me the year before, and they told my agent and me that they might have some room if I went out and proved I was healthy.”
Ziegler did just that, although his debut with the Flyers was ominous. “Three perfect innings and then the tornado sirens went off,” he recalled. Four days later, pitching in front of family and friends in Kansas City, Ziegler fired seven three-hit innings, and then, using his words, “Things took off.”
“I got an offer from Seattle for a Low-A bullpen job, and we were talking to the Padres and Cubs, but when we got in touch with Oakland, within a week or so they offered the best deal,” said Ziegler. “High-A at Modesto, and in the rotation. So I went from not being ready for Low-A to skipping it and remaining a starter–I jumped at it.”
Ziegler would go 9-2 in 16 games for Modesto as the team won the California League title, but the year ended on a scary note as Ziegler’s last playoff start lasted less than a minute when San Jose’s Fred Lewis lined the second pitch of the game right up the middle, nailing Ziegler just above the right temple and delivering a 1 ½ inch skull fracture that would lead to five days in an intensive care unit. Ziegler’s recollection is a simple one: “It wasn’t a good pitch.” Doctors would not clear him to pitch again until the following January.
“Until the fracture was totally healed, I was at risk for seizures and hemorrhaging,” he recalled. “I was on anti-seizure medication and they said any increase in my heart rate–like pitching–becomes high risk.”
Ziegler recovered to strike out 164 batters over 162 innings in 2005, reaching Double-A by the end of the season. He began and ended this year back in Double-A, but also made four starts for Triple-A Sacramento.
With just days remaining before the end of the regular season, Oakland approached him with the idea of converting into a submariner. “Before I could really think it through, I was pretty upset about it,” recalled Ziegler. “I just finished second in the Texas League in ERA and I’m being told that it’s not good enough. But the more I thought about it and talked to the coaches and my agent, the more I realized that they weren’t trying to discourage me–they were trying to find a way to get me to help the big league team.”
Ziegler understands where the recommendation comes from. “My normal arm slot is low three-quarters, and I’d drop down slightly 15 to 20 times a game versus righthanders just for effect,” assessed Ziegler. “So I have a bit of a head start maybe.”
Farm Director Keith Lieppman agrees. “It was really [minor league pitching instructor] Ron Romanick‘s idea,” said Lieppman. “Ron’s premise was that we have a good competitive guy who already threw from these angles, and he has the makeup and savvy to give this a shot. A lot of guys are not good candidates for this kind of thing, but Brad has had success, and he’s a student of the game and he has a resilient arm.”
The only issue was a contract, as Ziegler became a free agent at the end of the season. But Ziegler says the possible conversion was not a make-or-break issue in negotiations for a 2007 deal. “This move was a suggestion by Oakland–they recommended it, but they didn’t force it on me or anything,” says Ziegler. “They said that if I was dead set against it, they’d still want me back.”
“We told him that if at any point he’s not comfortable with how it is going, he can go back to overhand,” added Lieppman. “But right now, we’re going full throttle with this submarine plan.”
Ziegler reported to the instructional league in Arizona this week, and he’s optimistic about the initial returns. “It’s all about learning the mechanics and getting the muscle memory there so I’m not thinking about it,” says Ziegler. “I feel like one of the 12-year-old kids I give lessons to in the offseason. I still have to think about every move I make, breaking everything down step-by-step. I need to get to the point where I’m worrying about where my pitches are going as opposed to what my body is doing.”
“Makeup plays a big role in this,” adds Lieppman. “There are a lot of pitchers you could try this with and it would just freak them out. It’s all about deception and becoming intimidating from an awkward point of view–you want to make hitters uneasy when facing you.”
In addition, Ziegler has discovered the unique injury risk of the new role. “I’ve scraped the end of my finger on the ground twice already, and it still burns,” said Ziegler with a laugh. “But every time I do it, Romanick gets fired up about it, because that’s what he wants to see.”
In the end, Ziegler anticipates having three pitches from the new release point. “I’m thinking I’ll top out at 86-87 mph from there,” projects Ziegler. “Sidearm in games before I was 83-85 mph but would touch 88 if I had some adrenaline going or if I was mad at an umpire.” But for Ziegler, the velocity will come later. “Right now I’m more concerned with movement and location. Once I’m comfortable with that, I can up the intensity and put more zip on it.”
Unlike Bradford, who relied solely on a fastball/slider combination, Ziegler thinks he has a chance to add a changeup, one of his more effective pitches in the past, to the new arsenal. “I’ve always had good feel for the pitch when it comes to gripping it, so if I can adjust to the mechanics, I’ll have something against left-handed batters as well.”
Ziegler has yet to even throw off a mound with the new delivery. The plan right now is to have him throw in a simulated game on Thursday, and possibly see some game action over the weekend. But like all minor leaguers, the long-term plan remains the same.
“I had a lot of success overhand, but there’s not a lot of flash to it,” said Ziegler. “I just got guys out, but I did it by keeping the ball down and throwing strikes, and that’s a tough sell. This is a great opportunity to separate myself from other righties and make myself attractive to a big league bullpen. I hope to pitch well next year and force them to make some decisions. But right now, it’s baby steps.”