I had a chance to sit down one-on-one with A's starting pitcher Dallas Braden about an hour after his last start: four strong innings against the Giants on Saturday.
Nico: There have been reports over the years that you weren't throwing your screwball anymore, that you had never thrown a screwball, that your screwball and changeup were the same pitch called different things, so this is my chance to try to clarify: What is the deal, past, present, and future, with Dallas Braden and the idea of throwing a screwball?
Braden: In the past, it was absolutely a screwball. I did not throw a breaking ball - a traditional left-handed slider or curve ball - so I had to add another pitch that was going to create a little more depth, less velocity, and that's where the screwball came into play. I had arm trouble and then it was eventually shut down in '05 and needed arm surgery and coming back from surgery I just didn't feel comfortable using the torque right away and so I stayed away from the screwball, and then coincidentally afterwards I pitched in Winter Ball and worked on a breaking ball in Winter Ball, got the invite to big league camp in '06 and '07. (But) showcasing the screwball, the screwball really wasn't there for me because I was babying it - I was scared to throw it, I didn't want to get up on top of it - and Curt (Young) felt strongly enough and had enough confidence in my changeup to go ahead and just bag the screwball, let's just focus on the slider. And you know what? Because I had such a good feel for the changeup, I could kind of tweak it, make it do different things, versus just trying to throw a traditional changeup, so we went that route and now I don't throw the screwball. I have variations of (the changeup) - different counts to different hitters, I've got a real good command, a real good feel for it.
Nico: One thing I noticed today (Sat 3/14): The more trouble you were in, the more you needed an out pitch the more hitters were hitters were lunging at whatever you were throwing. So it seemed like you were aiming the pitch for the intensity of the situation. So what are you doing - when you really need to get a strikeout or get out of a jam, what is your "go to" version of that changeup and screwball now?
Braden: You see now that's where the new pitch comes into play - the cutter I've been working on. Because with the movement hard into a right-handed hitter, it really expands the inside part of the plate and (conversely) the outside of the plate as well. So once I've pounded in and worked inside, that opens up the outside part of the plate, makes it look two feet farther, and I'm able to go outside with a little more effectiveness and a little more ease. And you know what? Turning over the changeup later in the count gets a harder dive, downward action, versus the straight change, looking for contact and looking for an early strike. I can turn it over, I can cut it, make it do different things, and that's (what I do) when I need an out.
Nico: It seems like even as recently as a month ago, you were thinking, "Maybe I can lobby the A's to let me throw the screwball again." Now you're kind of saying, "Hey I've found ways with the cutter, ways of turning the changeup over, that maybe I don't need the screwball"? So where are you thinking now: If it were up to you, is the screwball worth bringing back, is it an important weapon, or is it something you've moved past?"
Braden: It's really something I've moved past. In this game, it's important to evolve, every day, every year. And with the ability to expand on one pitch, and the capacity to learn a new pitch, you know what? The screwball was there early in my career, it helped me to get where I am right now, and to be able to learn at the big league level is really an advantage to (me), to anybody in that position. And that's what we're doing. We've got Ron Romanick, a great pitching mind, Curt Young, obviously the experience speaks for itself there, he's a great guy to go to. He's helped me a lot to learn how to pitch with the cutter, how to pitch with different changeups. So as far as the screwball is concerned, there's no lobbying on my part and you know what? They say "jump" and I say "how high?"
Nico: Well, the cutter is something you're learning at the big league level. Can you talk about how you feel about it now, and how much you expect to use it, maybe, your first start in the regular season?
Braden: I feel really confident in it at this stage, so early, to be able to have the effectiveness it does have. You know, Russ Springer deserves all the credit in the world. I was playing catch one day before I threw my first "live" bullpen session to hitters and he noticed what I was doing, and he said "Hey, do you mind if I show you something? I throw a cutter, this is how I hold it, how do you hold it?" He showed me a grip, and I took the grip he showed me into the bullpen, warmed up with it and took it out to the mound and used it against hitters, and the first time I threw it had tremendous success with it. And for him to take the time, and put forth that kind of effort, after 17 years in the big leagues, you know - who am I? He paid attention, and helped me, and so all the credit goes to him right now.
Nico: I'm thinking, you learned how to add and subtract on the fastball, last year. Why is it not so simple? You know, if Russ Springer can say, "Here's how to throw a cutter," "Oh, great, now I'll throw a cutter!" I assume it's not so easy just to go to Dana Eveland or Sean Gallagher and say, "Hey, here's how you add and subtract on the fastball," so I have a couple of questions about that. First of all, how did you come upon that, because it seemed like it really impacted your increased success last year, and I'd be interested to know first of all how you got to learning how to do that, for yourself.
Braden: Ron Romanick, in spring training 2005, basically handed us a "how to" guide to execute effectively within our structured game plan that we try to preach. And one of things I will always remember is that if you execute your pitch with said velocity, the hitter is a non-factor. And what that means is that basically if you throw your right pitch, with conviction, in your right location, with the correct velocity - whether it's adding or subtracting - you're going to be successful more times than not. And as a guy who doesn't light the radar gun up, I have to be able to add a little here, take away a little here, and on both sides of the plate, if I want to stay alive.
Nico: How easy or hard do you think it would be to help another pitcher, in a similar situation, figure out the "muscle memory" part of how to do that for themselves?
Braden: I think a lot of it has to do with being in the bullpen and really seeing results there. The ball is your best teacher - the ball is going to tell you exactly what you're doing right, exactly what you're doing wrong. And you can go out there and throw, and throw, and throw, and that's when you're going to get a feel for, "Ok, here's my mechanics: I get the velocity I need here, and that's towards the higher end of velocity, and now I take away, and I can feel my mechanics doing so and I get this result." So you take away on the back side and you're not driving through a pitch, that's going to help you create a little more sink, a little less velocity. You stay on your back side longer and really drive through a pitch, that's gonna get the increased velocity, take away a little movement possibly, but nonetheless you're speeding up and slowing down the bat of the hitter.
Nico: You know if I think about your growth, to where you are today, it seems like what you always had was that fearlessness and what you've developed along the way is more and more weapons to make use of that fearlessness. Where do you think that came from, for you to be able to say, "I can challenge hitters with an 86 MPH fastball, and I can get them out." Where do you get that?
Braden: You know what? If the biggest problem in my life is staring down a hitter on a baseball field then I think I've got it pretty good. There's a lot of other challenges that attribute to just not caring about it. You have to go out there and believe that on any given day, we're not going to talk about your ability to play, my ability to play. What we're gonna talk about is, I have the ability to beat you and that's what we're gonna talk about, and I'm gonna show you that that's what's going down. And we're not gonna get away from that. I have a game plan, I'm gonna execute it, and I have to believe that whatever pitch I throw, at any given time, is the right one, and you're not gonna even sniff it.
Nico: Switching gears just a little bit, I wanted to ask this to a pitcher. When Billy Beane brought in Matt Holliday, one of the things we started to hear about was the importance of increasing the offense for a young pitching staff, giving them a margin for error, maybe that would be important at this stage of where the Oakland A's are. As one of the still fairly young pitchers, can you comment on whether that matters or not, whether an offense behind you that might only score one or two, an offense behind you that might have the potential to score four or five, and you're on the other side of it just trying to shut the other team down. Does it matter?
Braden: Absolutely, because you have to know going into a game what your offense is capable of. And you plug a name like Matt Holliday into any lineup and it's instantly better. Same with a Giambi, a Cabrera, Garciaparra, any of those guys - those are the kind of guys that make everyone around them better. And there's a little more margin for error in terms of what you can give up, or what you feel you can get away with: "You know, three or four right now, I think we might be ok, because I know our offense is capable of four, five, or six, against the other guys' pitcher. So it's definitely a little added pressure taken off.
Nico: Another thing that different people on our blog have such varied opinions on is the whole issue of how much does it matter for a hitter to have protection in the order? There's some studies that suggest that whole concept is a myth, there are some who say, "Well of course it matters; it's just common sense." So when Jack Cust has a Matt Holliday, a Giambi, does that make Jack Cust a better hitter? From the pitcher's point of view, when you're facing a lineup that only has one "go to" hitter, or when you're facing a lineup that has more, does it make a difference whether a given hitter has some protection on deck or not?
Braden: You know, I might be the wrong guy to ask this, just because leading back to the fearlessness you alluded to, my approach is I don't care who's in the box, and I definitely don't care who's in the on deck circle. I have one pitch to worry about and that's the one I'm about to throw. And then I'll worry about the next one. But you know, on a more sensible side, obviously if you have Jack Cust in the box and you've got two outs and you've got runners in scoring position and there's a base open or not, and you're staring into the on deck circle and you see Matt Holliday, and then you know behind him there's Giambi, and then you know behind him there's Chavez, let's be honest: Are you kidding me, you want to face any one of those guys with runners on second and third and less than two outs? Absolutely not. So you're gonna try to throw quality strikes and you know at point, the (chance) for error goes up - I think there's the potential for you to make a mistake over the plate, versus being able to kind of bury a pitch and look for him to chase. So if you give any one of those guys a pitch to hit in that situation, they're gonna take advantage.
Nico: I even wonder sometimes about just getting mentally fatigued. Have you ever found a time where because you didn't have a break in the lineup, because a lineup 1-9 was so tough - does it make a difference to just your ability to stay focused and have that "this next pitch" focus that you've just been talking about?
Braden: Absolutely. At the big league level you're talking about trying to get nine hitters out potentially (a total of ) 27 times in God knows how many different ways each time. Some guys tend to pitch to the name on the front of the jersey, some guys tend to pitch to the name on the back of the jersey, and you know what? It's really hard not to be a "fan" when you're facing an A-Rod or you're facing a Jeter, or you're facing a Giambi, or a Holliday, or a Chavez. You're facing these kind of guys that you've watched on TV, that you've possibly emulated, and now you're sitting there trying to get them out. So, it's definitely draining - I mean, this is the most exhausted I've ever been is after pitching in a big league baseball game, whether it's one inning or whether it's seven, eight, or nine. Your thought process is a mile a minute and you're constantly battling.
Nico: Now you're coming off a fairly solid year, you're doing well in spring training, (but) I'm sure there are things you can pinpoint that you're thinking, "I need this to improve going forward." What would those things be that are still between you and your potential, you think?
Braden: Maintaining a level head in situations that could be potentially disastrous. I threw today (Sat 3/14) and I got in a little bit of trouble, and instead of just blowing up and throwing it over the plate and just hoping to get an out, I tried to execute. You try to make a quality pitch per the situation and get the result that you're getting, and I think that's the big difference: I'm not gonna get away with the kind of stuff that I could get away with at AAA, at this level, and I can't just throw my pitch right over the plate and hope for a result. You really have to attack it and that's the biggest thing is maintaining your attack and maintaining the execution of your game plan.
Nico: Now when Kurt Suzuki, for example, goes to the mound in a situation where you need the "right thing" said, you need to remember something - as we're watching during the regular season, what is it that he'll probably be saying, or what should he be saying, that you know you need to hear, in those situations?
Braden: Well, I've had the luxury of being with Kurt since we were drafted in 2004. A side note: He has not caught a single inning, this year, of me, and I think speaks more to the comfort level we have with each other. It's kind of one those things that we can just click it in and he knows what I want to do, I know what he is expecting, and any time there's a situation that calls for him to come out and calm me down, or just say those little words, it's basically, "Hey: focus in, keep your arm speed the same, throw your pitch, and let's go." It's basically a kick in the butt is what it is, because I'm one of those guys who's motivated that way - I don't need to be coddled.
Nico: And just ending on a more personal note, I'm just wondering if there were something that you would want fans to know about Dallas Braden. These are the "die hard" fans that you're talking to, who really follow you, and live and die with every pitch. What would you want them to know about you?
Braden: I guess the biggest thing is that I think some people lose sight of how appreciated the fan interest is in the game - I'm definitely somebody who does not discredit, or discount, what that means to baseball, the game itself. I appreciate the guys that are on the phones talking about it, on the internet writing about it, on the internet reading about it. I'm not somebody who gets on the internet and reads any of that stuff because you have so many different opinions, justifiably so, but...my love of the game will never change. I treat every game like it's Game 7 and...being able to pitch in Stockton, for myself, I could die a happy man tomorrow because of having that experience, being able to be around true baseball fans that appreciate the game for what it really is, and just being able to perform.
Nico: Just FYI, you're very appreciated on our blog too.
Braden: (laughing) Well I appreciate that!
After the interview, Braden introduced me to Pepe, the handlebar moustache finger-tattoo whom Dallas described as a "great conversation starter." Like Braden, Pepe is awesome!