It is several
hours before game time, and the stretching, napping and talking in the Arizona
Diamondbacks' clubhouse is accompanied by the strains of Led Zeppelin's Over
the Hills and Far Away. The music is coming not from a sound system but from
the acoustic guitars of starting pitcher Brandon Webb and reliever Brandon
Medders, who are softly jamming in one corner of the room. Webb is quick to
point out that he is a novice next to Medders, who plays at Phoenix-area clubs
in his spare time. "I know the chords, so if you tell me what to play, I
can do it," Webb says. "When I play with Medders it sounds cool, but
he's the real thing. I'm just fooling people." � Webb is far less deceptive
with a baseball. When he takes the mound, every hitter who faces him knows that
three out of four pitches Webb throws will be his sinker, a two-seam fastball
that approaches the batter at thigh level, then suddenly plummets to his
ankles, as if sucked into a vacuum. But the batter's foreknowledge does not
concern Webb in the least. You get the feeling that the Diamondbacks could
alert opposing hitters with a message on the scoreboard--next pitch:
sinker--and Webb would throw it anyway.
It's not that he
thinks he's unhittable, although considering the way Webb has begun the
season--8-0 with a 2.14 ERA, not to mention a string of 30 consecutive
scoreless innings which ended in Webb's no-decision Monday night as the
Diamondbacks lost 4-3 to the Philadelphia Phillies--he hasn't been far from it.
It's just that Webb, a 6'2", 228-pound righthander, has such a devastating
sinker that the element of surprise has never been especially necessary.
"When that pitch is on, it doesn't matter if you're looking for it or
not," says manager Bob Melvin. "You go to swing at it, and it just
disappears. It really is a one-of-a-kind sinker."
The pitch has
turned the 27-year-old Webb into not only a Cy Young Award candidate but also
that rarest of starting pitchers: one who can work his way repeatedly through
big league batting orders without overpowering hitters or fooling them. He
estimates that he has thrown his sinker about 75% of the time this season, down
from as high as 90% in some games during his first three years in the majors.
Catcher Johnny Estrada and pitching coach Bryan Price, both in their first year
with the Diamondbacks, have persuaded him to mix in his curveball and changeup
more often, to add some element of guesswork for hitters. Webb, an agreeable
sort, is willing to go along with their plan even though it seems he would be
just as comfortable with a single arrow in his quiver. "I used to go four,
five, six innings in a row without throwing an off-speed pitch," he says,
"and it worked fine."
It was shortly
after seeing Webb's sinker for the first time, in spring training, that new
Arizona second baseman Orlando Hudson began calling him Ace. Now Webb is
pitching like one, the Diamondbacks are paying him like one (he signed a
four-year, $19.5 million contract extension in January), and he's even begun to
act a bit like one. "He's got a little swagger to him now, a real
confidence in himself," Melvin says.
But here again,
Webb makes no effort to fool anyone. He's a self-described "country
kid," a man of simple pleasures with a small-town sensibility who returns
home to Ashland, Ky., with his wife, Alicia--they have a two-month-old
daughter, Reagan--every off-season for a winter of hunting and yard work.
"Even if I ever earned the right to be considered a star," he says,
"I wouldn't know how to act like one."
Aside from his
record and ERA, Webb doesn't have the statistical profile of a typical No. 1
starter. He's not a strikeout pitcher (6.1 Ks per nine innings through Monday),
and he gives up a fair amount of hits (opponents were batting .254 against
him). That's because his sinker isn't meant to blow hitters away but to induce
them to hit the ball on the ground, which they do with remarkable regularity.
When Webb's on the mound, Arizona outfielders might as well pull up a chair and
watch the infielders do all the work. He's gotten more ground-ball outs than
any pitcher in baseball and is one big reason why Arizona leads the majors in
double plays, with 76 (including at least one in a team-record 17 consecutive
games last month). When he shut out the Atlanta Braves 13-0 on May 20, it was
classic Webb--18 outs on ground balls, eight strikeouts and one fly out.
A batter's best
approach when facing a sinkerballer--laying off the pitch and letting it drop
out of the strike zone--doesn't work against Webb because his sinker often
kisses the bottom of the zone as it crosses the plate. Braves third baseman
Chipper Jones tried moving up in the batter's box to hit the pitch before it
plummeted. "Didn't really work," Jones said. "He's got such great
command that the ball still drops out of sight at the last second. A lot of
times it's at the knees when it crosses the plate, but it's still sinking.
Those are the balls you just beat into the ground."
While it rankles
Webb a bit whenever he gives up a hit, batters get far more frustrated than he
does. After Atlanta slugger Andruw Jones swung over the top of a vicious sinker
during Webb's shutout of the Braves, he looked at Estrada behind the plate and
rolled his eyes. "He was like, Are you kidding me?" says Estrada.
Arizona infielders have become part-time shrinks for opponents who want to vent
about the nastiness of Webb's trademark pitch. "Every single guy who gets
to second base says the same thing, that they've never seen a sinker that
filthy," says shortstop Craig Counsell. "Without fail. Every
save some of their ire for Royal Clayton, the older brother of journeyman
shortstop Royce and the man Webb credits for first spotting his ability to
throw the sinker. In 2000 Royal was the pitching coach for the Diamondbacks'
Class A affiliate in South Bend, when Webb reported there after being drafted
out of Kentucky in the eighth round. "I had a big curveball that was my out
pitch up to that point, but Royal was watching me throw my first bullpen
session and liked that my two-seam fastball had some natural downward movement
to it," Webb says. "He worked with me, and some other people helped me
develop [the sinker] as I moved through the system."
effective Webb has been with the sinker, it's not surprising that other
pitchers have asked him to show them how he throws it. The lesson doesn't take
very long because Webb insists there's no particular trick to getting the ball
to sink. "It's just a two-seam fastball," he says. "I grip it the
same way any other pitcher would for a two-seamer."