Saturday, July 23, 2011

Spin it so good

The game with Atlanta was an hour done when a Braves pitcher, unprompted, singled out a Padres rookie for praise.

"That kid reliever, the lefty, he must have the biggest balls in the major leagues," the vet told this blog last month. "To go out there with that stuff against major league hitters -- he's gotta have big balls."

Josh Spence, the lefty, must indeed be brave if one counts pitch speed, and pitch speed alone, as the measure of his task. With a fastball that averages 83 miles per hour, Spence could get pulled over for speeds so slow they are unsafe.

Today, the glut of relievers who reach the mid-90s has even Tony Gwynn marveling at the heat wave. "There is so much velocity now, more than when I played," said Gwynn, who never met a fastball he couldn't swat unless it was from Randy Johnson.

Spence was back on the mound today in Philadelphia, doing his nervy act and reminding us that he, unlike the Top Gun pilots, doesn't feel the need for speed. Throwing more sliders than fastballs and never flinching, he kept the Phillies from scoring in the eighth inning despite a leadoff double off the wall.

You wonder how he keeps doing it and whether he can do it once he is found out, but after 16 games and 13 innings the damage is one run and four hits.

Dig deeper into numbers from, and suspicions are confirmed that any Padre who wishes to shag balls should perk up when Spence is on the job. Sixty percent of the balls put in play against him have been flyballs, double the rate of grounders. A linedrive off him is a mini-miracle. Judged against the 17 strikouts, solid contact is a feat.

About that slider. It looks to go east-west, so late does it swerve. And it is only 3-5 mph off the fastball; "so the crazy thing is you probably would classify it as a power slider," said Padres assistant general manager Jason McLeod, who drafted Spence out of Arizona State last year in the ninth round.

For every fastball Spence throws, he throws two sliders.

All those sliders may win him the Larry Andersen award someday, or spot in a White Castle promo, but they aren't what the Padres planned for the 23-year-old.

"We told him last year, and this year, for that matter, that we wanted him to throw more fastballs," McLeod said. "We wanted him to develop his fastball more. But obviously his role in the big leagues now is to get guys out."

Given his busy draft history, it's little wonder Spence was in a hurry to get to the big leagues and bent on doing whatever it took to stay there once he did. The Padres were the third team to draft him in three years. The Angels took him in the third round as a junior, a year after the Diamondbacks made him a 25th-round choice when he was at Central Arizona College.

The Australian was touted to McLeod by Pat Murphy, the former Arizona State coach who now manages the Padres' club in the Northwest League.

"Pat just could not speak highly enough about the kid's makeup, his character and his competitiveness," McLeod said. "We thought it would be a good spot to take a lefty with a swing-and-miss breaking ball and his makeup."

With 42 strikeouts in 24 innings in his first run as a pro, Spence announced himself as a candidate for a quick rise this year, and last month, when the Padres moved lefty Cory Luebke into their rotation, they boosted Spence into Luebke's job.

You don't have to tell McLeod that 13 innings is far from a telling sample size. But the scout see it as more prologue than blip. Spence, he said, "is the type of guy that can pitch in this role for the next five to eight years because he can spin it so good."

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