AN Exclusive Interview With Craig Breslow (Part III of III)

I chatted with A's lefty Craig Breslow on Thursday morning by phone, in a 25-minute interview I have broken into three parts. Part I is here and Part II is here. In Part III (below the jump) we talk baseball -- specifically about Breslow's pitching, how he explains his success and how much he goes "inside the numbers" to analyze his stuff.

Nico: What is really amazing to me, watching you pitch, is how often you throw fastballs that hitters swing right through. And AN is really data oriented, and so everyone runs to the Pitch FX charts, and the vertical movement charts, to figure out "What is it that's going on? It's not the velocity, it's not this, it's not that," and I'm curious about a couple things on that: One, what your perspective is on what makes your fastball -- which has really become a "go to" pitch for you against left and right handers -- what makes it as effective as it is, first of all, and then also, how you analyze it and how much of an interest you take in figuring out the science of what's going on?

Breslow: Hmm...{chuckles} I definitely know that I throw fastballs the overwhelming majority of the time! But, I don't know if there's a correlation between that and what I've done my whole life, or if I've been noticing more recent success with it, but I've kind of always kind of felt like, number one, a well-executed fastball is always going to be the best pitch. There may be times where the count, or the statistics, or the numbers show that a breaking ball or a changeup is a good pitch.

But I feel like if you can execute a fastball -- and by that I mean throw the pitch where you want -- I feel like that's never the wrong pitch. And I think that a lot of the data, as you've pointed out, has told me that my fastball is my best pitch, so if I'm ever going to get beat that's the pitch I should get beat on.

As far as the mechanics, or the physics, or the "why" my 91 or 92 MPH fastball gets swung on and missed more often than someone's 98 or 99 I have no idea. I don't know if it's all my doing or if there's something on the hitters' side where you see a guy who's not so big, doesn't throw so hard, maybe you're thinking, "OK, don't get beat by a breaking ball," or "don't get beat by a changeup," as a guy -- a guy like, say, Joel Zumaya, for example -- I mean, every hitter that goes up there knows he throws 100 MPH and probably your thought process is, "Don't get beat by the 100."

I think beyond that there are probably some factors that won't show up in a data base, some of those being "life" on the fastball through the zone, and I don't know exactly how to quantify that but maybe its pitches that keep their velocity...And then maybe there's some kind of quirkiness in my delivery that makes it more difficult for hitters to pick up.

I know one thing: When I throw, mechanically I'm very low. I almost kind of "collapse" -- which isn't necessarily something I want to be doing, but I think it allows the fastball that ends up riding up on hitters to have a little different kind of plane than a guy who stays really tall and throws the ball downhill.

Nico: Yeah, that's a really good insight because we've been able to figure out is that your fastball seems to have more what they call "vertical movement" -- even though fastballs don't really rise, but they work against gravity -- but actually that kind of is what's going on, and maybe that's what it is, is the "low to the ground." Because all we have, chart-wise, is what the ball appears to be doing -- is it losing velocity, does it appear to be rising, tailing, sinking -- but that's an interesting insight as to why that might be going on.

I was just curious -- it seemed to me like if anyone would take an interest beyond video, into the sort of physics and mechanics, it would probably be you, and we were just wondering, did you avail yourself of that kind of information?

Breslow: Right. The flip side of that is if I find something that {laughing} doesn't look too promising, or seems like it should just be variance, then I've got myself in trouble, so sometimes the most simple explanation is the best, like, "You know, when I throw a ball up in the zone, guys tend to swing at it and they don't hit it too hard too often."

Nico: {Laughing} Yeah, that's pretty good scientific data right there. Someone was just interested in whether your approach has changed at all, recently, in light of kind of moving from being a  "lefty specialist" to more of a "set up man/closer/pitch a full inning/face lefties and righties." Has that changed your approach, or mind-set, at all against left-handers, or in general approaching an inning?

Breslow: I would say probably in a general sense it means that I'm now facing more right-handers than I had in the past. Obviously as a lefty specialist coming in to face a batter or two, (the manager) can kind of control the opposing hitter and in which side of the plate he hits from, but if you're going to kind of blanketly say, "OK, you're going to pitch the 8th inning" then I'm just facing whoever happens to come up, even if it's three consecutive righties. But I think, as we've just spoken, the fact that I throw a lot of fastballs and they tend to be effective against both righties and lefties, speaks to my ability to face both.

I feel like for a long time I was doing my best to shed being typecast as a lefty specialist, because I think throughout my career my splits have been pretty even. So I guess it doesn't really change, necessarily, my approach or the way I would pitch guys. It just perhaps allows me to be a little bit more comfortable and familiar with the situation in which I will pitch.

Nico: My last question is relevant to today, for example -- if you were to pitch today it would be three days in a row. When you've worked a lot -- and you've had some stretches where you've worked four days out of five, or you're asked to go longer in given outings and then come back-to-back -- are there things a fan can actually predict before you actually come in, that you know are going to be different when you're particularly fresh, or you're particularly heavily worked, or high pitch counts over, say, the last few days?

Breslow: Right. There are some of things that are probably pretty obvious -- I would say velocity typically takes a dip the 3rd or 4th day in a row that you're throwing. But I think one thing that's kind of perhaps overlooked would be command. And not necessarily just "strikes vs. balls" -- for the most part, guys are still able to keep the ball within the strike zone -- but it's the pitch that was at the knees two days ago was kind of at the lower thigh yesterday, and is now closer to the belt. Or a pitch that you were able to get the outer 1/3 of the plate is now maybe just at the outer 1/2 as the result of being tired, and maybe your arm and your body not working as synchronized as they had been --

Nico: Even though you should be, in theory, developing more "muscle memory" too -- you could make an argument, right?

Breslow: Right, there's probably an age-old debate about "muscle deterioration and fatigue" vs. "muscle memory and strength" --

Nico: And it all doesn't matter if Kerwin Danley doesn't call it a strike anyway!

Breslow: {Laughs} That's awfully true...But there's even a chance that my top fastball's 93 MPH the first day after four days off, and the last day it might be 93 MPH after pitching three or four days in a row, but I just feel like I need to work that much harder to get it to 93 MPH. And I think that as a result at times my command suffers, or movement suffers, things like that.

Nico: What I want to say, off the "interview," is that for me as a fan, I don't tend to care that much about someone's statistics or who seems to be the best player on the team. I really go for quality people, and I just want you to know you have my full respect -- I just think what you do is awesome, on and off the field.

Breslow: I appreciate that. I mean, as cliché as it sounds, ballplayers are just people, you know? If I weren't doing this I'd probably be at -- {laughing} well, hopefully by now I would have graduated -- {"With any luck, yeah"} -- Right, right, otherwise I'd be going on my 8th year! But no, I appreciate that -- I don't necessarily just want to be known for what I'm doing on the field, because I feel there's so much more ... so much more to that.

I really wouldn't mind if the A's kept Craig Breslow around for a while. Hope you enjoyed the interview!  -Nico

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