Webb's signature pitch leaves opponents with sinking feeling
Brandon Webb was in an early jam. In the second inning of his most recent start last Tuesday night, Arizona's ace stared in at his catcher, Robby Hammock, for a 3-1 pitch with Nationals at first and second, no outs and Jesus Flores batting.
But there was really no decision to be made about what pitch Webb would throw. It's unclear why MASN2 play-by-play announcer Bob Carpenter bothered to ask his broadcast partner, Hall of Famer Don Sutton, "What will he do?" Sutton dryly stated the obvious, "Sinker, down the middle."
Sure enough, Webb delivered an 89-mile-per-hour sinker almost down the middle -- perhaps a few inches toward the outer half of the plate -- which Flores could do nothing more than weakly foul off. A pitch later, on another sinker, Flores hit a slow chopper to third for a fielder's choice. After a strikeout of Wily Mo Pena on a steady diet of curves, Webb went back to his signature pitch to induce an inning-ending, rally-snuffing groundout.
"Pitching the way he does is a simple way to pitch," explained Sutton on air. "It's not easy, but it's uncomplicated. When in doubt, throw the ball at the bottom of the strike zone and defy the hitters to hit it."
Webb wasn't his sharpest that night but was good enough against the majors' worst offense to hurl six shutout innings and nab his MLB-leading 13th win. He'll start again Sunday for the Diamondbacks and then, possibly, on Tuesday for the National League in the All-Star Game. Though Webb will admit that looking at a win-loss record isn't the best metric for judging starting pitchers -- "We have almost zero control over getting the decision," he says -- neither his 13-4 record, nor his club's 14-5 mark in games he starts, can be ignored.
Webb seemed a shoo-in for the All-Star assignment after winning his first nine starts with a 0.99 WHIP and 2.56 ERA, but since then his numbers have slipped. He has sported a 1.35 WHIP and 4.01 ERA over his past 10 outings, while opponents' have batted .278 against him. He has said that his release points seem to be off, but some of that, however, is simply bad luck. Opponents' BAbip (batting average on balls in play) has risen from .235 in March and April to .298 in May, .318 in June and .361 in July.
Still, says infielder Chad Tracy, "When Webby goes out there, we're a little more confident. We feel like we've got the best pitcher in the game out on the mound." The pitcher's teammates are so supportive, in fact, that second baseman Orlando Hudson corrected a recent visitor who asked to speak with "Brandon," by saying, "Nah, man. That's Ace."
Webb is mostly a one-trick pony with his sinking two-seam fastball, but it works. He won the 2006 NL Cy Young award, and last year had a stretch of 42 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings. This year, he sports a major-league leading 3.33 groundball-to-flyball ratio (the next closest is Atlanta's Tim Hudson at 2.40). Hitters bat a meager .190 on groundballs against Webb and .242 on flyballs. For comparison's sake, the rest of Arizona's staff has allowed a .232 average on groundballs and .208 on flyballs.
"He's obviously the leader on this staff," says fellow Diamondback All-Star pitcher Dan Haren. "Top to bottom, our staff is one of the best in baseball, especially when Randy [Johnson]'s in there."
As reliant as Webb is on his sinker, which he throws about 75 percent of the time, you'd think he's been throwing it forever, but in fact he only learned the pitch eight years ago while in the minor leagues. Webb was a good enough power pitcher at the University of Kentucky, with a low-to-mid-90s four-seam fastball and an overhand curveball as his out pitch, that Arizona selected him in the eighth round of the 2000 draft.
(Of course, it wouldn't be his first major change. He says he used to throw "some nasty knuckleballs" in his original genesis as a pitcher: his childhood wiffle-ball days.)
While watching Webb throw a bullpen session at Class A South Bend, his pitching coach, Royal Clayton (the older brother of longtime major-leaguer Royce), noticed that Webb's two-seam fastball had great downward movement. He encouraged Webb to master the sinker and the following spring Webb reinvented himself as a sinkerballer. "I changed my whole style of pitching," he says. "I try to get groundballs instead of strikeouts."