As most people here know, Brad Ziegler's road to the Majors was a slow and winding one filled with potholes along the way. He's dealt with people giving up on him, injuries, revamping his way of pitching and more, yet when he made it to "The Show" in 2008 all he did was go out and break a century-old record, obscure though it may be.
Many of the regulars here will also recall that while he was in the Minors he kept a blog on AN that helped give fans a look into the mind and experiences of a ballplayer as we followed his progression through the organization.
Since breaking into the bigs the way he did, Ziegler has pitched for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic and had a fairly successful first full season in the green and gold last year. Heading into 2010 he's expected to be one of the late-inning anchors of the bullpen.
A few days ago I caught up with him by phone for about half an hour to conduct an extensive interview after he arrived back in the Bay Area. In it we talk about the new season and additions to the club, some of the similarities and differences between his old pitching style and current one, get into a bit of the strategy of coming at hitters with different looks, and more. He's also deeply involved with a new charity that's going to be up and running soon. I'll be sharing some information from him about that following Blez's interview with Billy Beane.
In addition, Ziegler joined Twitter not too long ago and he encourages fans to follow him there for information on the season, charity and more. You can do so here.
I can honestly say that while I don't know many professional athletes, Ziegler really is one of the nicest people you could meet. I got to see that even before he was called up in 2008 and it doesn't feel like he's changed one bit. Even while covering things in the Minors I've seen some people act like they were bigger than everyone else when they hadn't done anything to justify it, but I don't see Ziegler ever being that way.
Now, the interview.
FLASHFIRE: We’re at the end of Spring Training so you’ve had the chance to see how people look and how some spots are shaping up, and the A’s have brought a number of new players in. What are your impressions of the team as we head into the start of the season?
BRAD ZIEGLER: One of the main strengths for sure is the clubhouse chemistry. I think everybody in the locker room is excited about the personalities we have in the locker room and how well everybody gets along. We had some nicks and bruises early in the spring and even here in the late spring but we’re starting to see a bunch of guys get healthy and our team’s kind of starting to take shape.
I think everybody’s excited. It’s just one of those situations where we’re not really picked to win the division by a lot of experts, but at the same time we feel like if we can stay healthy and just go out and play our game then there’s no reason why we can’t be in the thick of things in August and September and see if we can make a push at that point.
FF: How are people like Ben Sheets, Coco Crisp, Jake Fox and some of the rest fitting in so far?
ZIEGLER: Outstanding. All the guys that have come in just have great personalities. I think they got comfortable really quick and I think a lot of that had to do with some of the veteran guys on this team who have been here longer. Mark Ellis, Eric Chavez, even a guy like Kurt Suzuki that hasn’t been here quite as long as those other guys, but just the open personalities, the welcomeness that guys feel when they come in, and all of a sudden they just become themselves again. They don’t have to feel like they have to put on an act to try to impress anybody. They can just be who they are and it makes the clubhouse environment very relaxed.
FF: Knowing a lot of people use Spring Training to work on different things and just get in game shape, what’s been your main focus so far and how do you feel about where you’re at right now?
ZIEGLER: I feel great. This was the first time I’ve gone through a full big league Spring Training from start to finish and my main priority was just being healthy at the end of spring, especially seeing the injury troubles that some of the other relievers have had, the kind of nagging stuff that we’ve had so far this spring. Some of that might date back to the amounts we were used last year, but that’s going to happen when you’ve got a young starting staff and the team relied on the bullpen quite a bit last year.
Hopefully we’re able to bounce back from those things and it looks like we’re getting pretty healthy here, and are going to have (Michael) Wuertz and (Joey) Devine back sometime in mid-April and at that point we’ll have the bullpen that hopefully everybody’s been talking about all winter long.
For me personally, it all essentially boils down to location for me. If I’m keeping the ball down, if I’m getting movement, then I have a chance to be successful. We improved our defense in the offseason with some of the acquisitions we made. I rely on my defense a lot and I have nothing but the utmost confidence in those guys to make plays behind me and they continued to prove that throughout the spring and you know when everybody’s healthy it’s just going to get better.
FF: As you mention some of the injuries people like Wuertz and Devine have gone through, do you feel or notice anything different in terms of your own fatigue or is it different with you throwing from another angle?
ZIEGLER: I personally don’t think it’s any different. It’s different when you watch a fast-pitch softball pitcher. You see the girls that play fast-pitch softball can pitch every other day or every day and I think a lot of that has to do with when they bring their arm around to actually release the ball, they’re releasing it where their arm is parallel to the rest of their body, it’s a very natural motion.
When you walk down the street and your arm swings right by your side, just like where they’re releasing the ball, whereas if you take a snapshot of my delivery when I’m about to release the ball, I’m throwing exactly like I did when I was an overhand pitcher with the exception that I’m bending at the waist. But the position from the ball to my elbow to my shoulder in relation to the rest of my body is the exact same as it was when I was an overhand pitcher so I honestly don’t think my arm is reacting any differently than it did when I was an overhand pitcher.
I’ve just been fortunate to avoid injury so far and I feel like a lot of the work that I put in in the offseason has paid off in that respect, just knowing that I’m trying to prevent that from happening and I take pride in being able to go out and pitch almost every day and be able to last the whole season without going through some nagging stuff.
FF: Of course in 2009 you spent some time away from the A’s with Team USA for the World Baseball Classic. Kind of going back to that other question, how different is it getting a full Spring Training in with the team as someone who actually has a defined role?
ZIEGLER: It is definitely different because last year I felt like I had to be game-ready at the beginning of March. When I knew I was on the preliminary roster for Team USA I accelerated my activity to try to get ready a little early and I think it actually kind of drained my body down a little bit. I was still pitching well in April, then when I got sick at the beginning of May I don’t think I had the strength in my body at that point to fight off that sickness very well. It affected me for a couple weeks and I was not the same, then gradually it started to come back and the second half of the season I was throwing a lot better.
As far as spring goes, it is different…going through that daily grind of the defensive work, the pitcher’s fielding practice, the pickoffs, the rundowns, backing up bases, etc., when we’re just trying to get the chemistry on the field that we need to have to be successful. When I was with Team USA we didn't have enough actual time on the field to do that stuff. Plus, we had so many days off. We had a lot of travel days. We had days where we would just go in and pretty much play catch and have batting practice and then have to be off the field so the next team could get on and get their workout in.
It made things a lot tougher to actually prepare for the season and so when I came back at the end of the Classic last year and got to Spring Training Curt Young and Bob Geren were very adamant, like "We’ve got to get you into some games. We’d like you to work back-to-back days sometime before the season starts," and that was right about the time Joey Devine first felt the twinge in his elbow so all of a sudden there was a lot of pressure thrown on me that last week of camp. It was just one of those things where I was confident going into the season but the workload this spring has been a lot more consistent and I feel like I’m in a lot better condition going into Opening Day this year than I was last year.
FF: What are some of the things you’ve gained from your first couple seasons in the Majors that you’re looking to carry with you into 2010, whether it’s studying hitters, training certain ways or something else?
ZIEGLER: Definitely the training is the big thing, and it’s not so much that I didn’t know what workouts to do before, but it was being able to train for a full six – and this year, we’re very much training for a seven-month season. We’re hoping to be playing all through the month of October, and to be able to have your body in top shape for that long. A lot of it just comes through experience, realizing how much you want to play catch in between outings and how to warm up so if you don’t go in the game or no matter how much you pitch in the game that day you’re still able to bounce back the next day or the day after that and be ready to go instead of needing two or three days off and really handicapping the bullpen a little bit.
A lot of it just comes from trial and error and over the last few years I’ve kind of figured out how long it takes me to get loose, how many throws I need depending on the weather conditions whether it’s cold or hot or whatever, and then also just being able to kind of maintain that level from April all the way through mid to late October, hopefully.
FF: You’ve talked in the past about the work it took to make the change in your delivery and even after reaching the Majors you noted some times where your release point was off. It makes the scoreless streak in 2008 even more impressive when you factor that in but are you at the stage now where it’s second nature or are there still moments where you have to focus on your mechanics in the bullpen or between games?
ZIEGLER: It is never second nature [laughs]. Even when I was an overhand pitcher and I was doing something I’d done for essentially 15-20 years, you never stop working on stuff. It’s all about being consistent and the more consistent you are the more successful you tend to be on the mound. I’m very much working on it daily, even if a lot of it is just mental work like repeating the things in my head over and over again that I need that are kind of my focus points to get my delivery right and get my body in the position it needs to be before I let go of the ball.
Earlier this spring I had an outing against the Giants in Scottsdale where I just felt like I was up in the zone, when I was trying to go in on a righty I threw it away, when I was trying to go in on a lefty I threw it away. I couldn’t hit the side of the corner of the plate that I needed to hit. I was always throwing it to the other side.
So I came in the next day and even though I was pitching that day against the Cubs I went in and did some bullpen work that morning and they were very cautious with me, like "Don’t overdo it, it was just one outing" and that kind of thing. I said "I’m not going to overdo it but I can feel that things aren’t right right now. I need to get locked back in." So I go in and threw a just a light little bullpen with Ron Romanick watching me and we figured out real quick just a couple key things that I was kind of neglecting then that day against the Cubs I was able to go out and have a good inning and just kind of get locked back in and back on the right track.
FF: Some studies have indicated that ground ball pitchers allow more singles with balls finding holes in the infield but they also have a higher probability of getting double plays with some of those runners being on base. Do you feel you can control where the ball is hit to an extent or is it really more a matter of chance and relying on your defense to take it from there?
ZIEGLER: I don’t feel like I can control where it’s hit, per se. I like to feel at least that I can control whether or not they hit it in the air or on the ground and a lot of that comes from studying different types of hitters, knowing their swings and which types of hitters can lift the ball if I throw it in a certain spot opposed to where I need to pitch them and how I need to pitch them to be able to get the ball on the ground if that’s what the situation warrants.
It’s still a work in progress. This is my fourth year doing this. I’m still trying to learn certain types of hitters and what their approach is, especially depending on the count or the situation. There’s guys I’ve seen that when I’m facing them with no one on base and it’s not the ninth inning of the game, it’s the seventh inning or whatever, they’ll be looking to yank the ball on me. So they’re trying to do something to get an extra-base hit and really get something started for their team, whereas if they came up with runners on base you see guys tend to be a lot more patient, a lot more willing to hit the ball the other way so I just have to really bear down and work on my location in those situations because how you pitch with runners on base is almost 100% the factor in whether or not a relief pitcher is going to be successful.
FF: With Lenny DiNardo now working on throwing sidearm as well, have you been involved with that at all or is it really all Ron Romanick? Also, is there anything you’d tell him about the process, having gone through it yourself?
ZIEGLER: Yeah, I talked to Lenny a little bit. Honestly a lot of what he did was just kind of on his own and he’s not wanting to do it full-time like I am, he’s wanting to kind of mix it in now and then and have it as an added dimension especially against left-handed hitters. He’s very successful against righties. He throws nasty cutters in on righties and gets a lot of ground balls, a lot of guys beating the ball off their foot and their shin, but he feels like he needs something a little extra against lefties.
Especially if he’s going to be a left-handed pitcher out of the bullpen he’s got to be able to come in and get lefties out, so he was just kind of toying around with it one day and he kind of liked the results he was getting without really even getting any instruction so he went to Romanick and asked him about it and we talked about it a little bit and I just gave him a couple quick pointers. But his release point is different than mine and his purpose for doing it is different than mine so I told him "Here’s some things you might look for" but the bottom line is he’s got to create his own niche and he’s got to be able to see what works for him and what he’s trying to accomplish by doing that and make sure that all that is something he’s comfortable with by the time a big league hitter steps into the box against him.
FF: What would you say makes a good sidearm or submarine pitcher successful? Is it mainly a change of pace in the different spots the ball comes at the hitter from and then moves, or something else?
ZIEGLER: I like to think it’s a combination. Number one, it’s deception. The release point is different. It’s different from what they’re used to seeing. Hopefully for the first seven innings of a game our starter goes out and dominates then they bring me in and all of a sudden they’re having to pick the ball up down by my knees then they bring Andrew Bailey in in the ninth inning and he’s throwing 95 MPH cutters right by guys.
The whole idea is to give it a change of pace, create movement, create deception and be in and out of games in a quick time span so the hitters don’t have a chance to adjust to you. Hitters will tell you a lot of times in the beginning of Spring Training that despite the fact that it’s early in the year and they’re not in their rhythms yet one of the hardest things about it is facing a different pitcher every single inning for the first few weeks of Spring Training because you never get a chance to adjust to a guy and figure out what he’s got like you can a starter in the regular season.
That’s what can make a bullpen really effective, if you’ve got a whole bunch of guys who have different styles, different methods of pitching and attacking hitters and if you can get them in and out of there and not have to leave them out there so the team can make adjustments, I think that’s the best chance for having success.
FF: I know you’ve had a few ups and downs over the last couple years with left-handers in particular. Are there things you can work on specifically that can kind of help you there, or is it something where maybe they just see the ball better coming in at that angle?
ZIEGLER: I think they definitely see the ball better. I think it’s kind of just a general rule, they’re going to hit me better than righties do because the natural movement on my ball takes the ball toward the barrel of their bat as opposed to a righty where it’s taking the ball toward the handle of their bat. I’m definitely working on a couple different things to try and figure out, you know, you use Spring Training as kind of a testing board to figure out "Is this going to work against lefties, is this going to work in this count?"
But the bottom line is no matter what pitch I throw, no matter what the situation is, it all comes down to execution. If I throw a good pitch, I locate it down and keep it out of the middle of the plate, I’ve got a lot better chance for success than if I’m missing my spot or hanging an offspeed pitch.
FF: Of course you’re not a guy who’s going to blow a 98 MPH fastball by somebody then freeze him with an 80 MPH change, so how does mixing your own speeds fit in with pitching to certain locations and how difficult is it to actually miss a bat if you do need a strikeout instead of a grounder?
ZIEGLER: Missing the bat can be difficult for me because I don’t throw as hard and because my offspeed stuff doesn’t move at times. I rely on the fact that I want hitters to be looking for my fastball and trying to make adjustments to my fastball but when I throw the pitch they think a fastball is coming out just by the way I release it and all of a sudden by the time they realize it’s not a fastball it’s too late for them to make that adjustment, they’ve already committed themselves to that pitch.
Missing bats is not something that for the most part I try to do. I’m wanting to get ground balls, get early contact, hopefully get multiple outs on one pitch and get in and out of the game quick and be able to go the next day instead of being a strikeout guy who’s throwing 17 to 22 pitches per inning. I want to be more in the 13 to 16 pitches per inning kind of range and it’s tough to do that if you’re trying to strike guys out.
But like you said there are situations where you need a punchout. You’ve got second and third and one out and the guy’s just trying to put the ball in play to get a run in from third and the situation changes for sure. It all boils down to location and deception at that point because no matter how good a breaking ball is if you throw it over the middle of the plate a big league hitter’s going to hit it. Even if they pop it up (deep enough) or hit a ground ball to short or whatever it’s still going to score that runner from third base so when it comes down to missing the bat it’s all about deception and execution.
FF: You interact with the fans a lot, of course dating back to your blog on Athletics Nation before you got called up, and the time you take to sign for people before the game or attend team-related functions in the community. You also collect a lot of baseball cards which is something I think the average fan can identify with, so do you find you have to make an effort to remind people you’re really just a regular person who happens to play a sport at the highest level?
ZIEGLER: I don’t make a concerted effort solely for fans to realize that I’m a regular person. That’s just who I am. I feel like I’m a friendly guy who can get along with most people and I love what I’m doing, and I love that people can see I’m having fun doing what I’m doing. But I don’t play the game just so the fans can see that I’m having fun doing this or whatever. I play because I love it.
I want to enjoy my time at the ballpark because this is a short-lived lifestyle, a short-lived profession. Even some of the players that do it the longest, you’re talking maybe 12-15 years in today’s game and that’s not that long of a time in the lifespan so it’s like, "You know what? Make the most of it." If people like me and they can relate to me in ways that make them realize I’m just an average person then great, because that’s all I feel like I am. I’m just me and I don’t want to try to pretend to be anyone else, but I enjoy having fun, I enjoy laughing, I enjoy making people laugh and no matter what I’m doing that’s the approach that I take in life.
FF: In 2007 you shared some photos with Athletics Nation of your daughter Kaylin. She’d be about two and a half now. How is it balancing being a father and a professional baseball player?
ZIEGLER: It’s tough. I’m away from my family a lot, even during the season if they come out to Oakland, still half the time I’m on road trips. Then there’s the two months of Spring Training where I’m at the field since 7:30 in the morning until 4 or 5 every single day, so it’s tough. I feel like when I’m away from her for any kind of extended period of time, even a week, I miss so much of her growing up.
We’ve tried to take advantage of technology and use a webcam to help me deal with it, see her more on a daily basis or every other day as my schedule allows. She doesn’t quite grasp the distance thing. There’s times where she’s on the webcam and she’s reaching her arms out for me and wanting me to hold her and she doesn’t understand that I’m actually not right there. But it’s fairly cute and it breaks my heart not being able to pick her up when she wants it because I love holding her and I love that interaction with her and I definitely don’t want her to ever feel like she grew up where her dad wasn’t a major part of her life.
FF: I think kind of the iconic image was the one you had of her in your baseball glove when she was a newborn.
ZIEGLER: Yeah, it just worked out where she was such a small baby. She was 5 pounds, 7 ounces full term and so she just happened to fit, just nestled into my ball glove. It wasn’t even that big of a stretch to get her in there. I’ve got some pictures, like my profile picture on my Facebook page right now is her wearing a hoodie of mine that it looks like a giant robe on her but she’s got a big old smile on her face and she loves it. Just the thought of her wanting to wear daddy’s shirt is pretty special.
She’s definitely past the point where she’s developed her own personality now and every single day she comes up with something new that just makes us crack up and she’s a great little kid and has such a caring heart. She gives everybody hugs and blows kisses and it’s a lot of fun to see her interact with other people as well.
FF: I know you’re a bit of a student of the game so I came up with a few quick questions to wrap up and I’d like to call it the "Triple Play" section. Pick three:
* baseball players, dead or alive, you’d like to sit down and talk to.
ZIEGLER: Number one would definitely be Jackie Robinson, then Bob Gibson and Ken Griffey, Jr.
* historic baseball events you would have attended if you’d had the chance.
ZIEGLER: Game 7 of the 1985 World Series when the Royals beat the Cardinals.
When Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record.
I don’t know if this would be at the top of the list but it’s the first thing that popped into my head right now, is to be at the Mark Buehrle perfect game last year where DeWayne Wise made that catch in the ninth inning. I remember we were in New York watching that game in the clubhouse and everybody in that locker room just went nuts when he caught that ball. We all know how good of a guy Buehrle is and we were all just pulling for him and when Wise caught that ball that clubhouse erupted. We certainly got chills sitting there thinking, "You know what, these are guys that we get on the field and battle against" and they’re absolutely pulling for this guy right now.
FF: And they’d just put Wise in on defense to start that inning too.
ZIEGLER: Right, and it was the first batter of the inning. You know, as soon as you bring a guy in for defense almost always the first ball hit in the inning goes right to that guy so that just turned out to be one of the best defensive plays of all time.
* Hall of Famers you’d have liked to face.
ZIEGLER: I don’t know that I would like to face any Hall of Famers [laughs]. If they’re that good then that makes it even tougher.
Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. You’re talking the greatest home run hitters of all time in the non-steroid era and my job as a submariner is to prevent home runs, to prevent balls being hit in the air. So I would like to have that challenge, to see how it would play out.
The other one would probably be Jackie Robinson because I think with what he went through I admire him so much for his character and being able to withstand a lot of the stuff that he did go through. So just to be on the field with him at the same time would be an honor and would command a great deal of respect to be in that position.
* old ballparks you’d have liked to play in from any era.
ZIEGLER: The Polo Grounds, just because it’s 460 feet to center field or whatever it was, so as a pitcher who wouldn’t want to pitch there?
FF: As long as you don’t have them pulling them down the line on you.
Old Busch Stadium because my dad grew up watching the Cardinals and I got to go see a lot of games there especially when I got into college, but I was never able to actually play there before they started using the new one.
I know I got to pitch there but Old Yankee Stadium. I got to pitch one inning there and that was pretty special just to know you’re in the same place where so much history was made and so many great players played there in a stadium that old, and you just don’t get that in a whole lot of places now because pretty much every park, after 30 or 40 years they just open a new park and you don’t get the stadiums that have lasted nearly 100 years.
FF: Yeah, the only ones that are left are Fenway and Wrigley now.
ZIEGLER: Right, and I pitched in Fenway obviously but hopefully this year I’ll get a chance to pitch in Wrigley for the first time.