Talkin’ to Gene Garber about weird windups and reliever usage

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CLEARWATER — I have avoided Chris Farley moments here, but I almost went fanboy on this guy a little while ago:

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That’s Gene Garber, former Braves (and Phillies and Royals and Pirates) reliever. He’s a Braves spring training instructor these days, and he had some time to talk to me this morning as the Braves waited to do drills here in Clearwater.

For those who never saw him pitch, Garber had a most unique windup. He turned his back completely to the batter before coming home. Most people call that the Luis Tiant windup, as Tiant much more famously pitched that way. People of my vintage and disposition saw Garber do it first, however. Not that he originated it. Indeed, he told me he started doing that in the minors when, in 1971, both Garber and Tiant were in the International League. Garber was a starter back then, Tiant had pitched the night before and Garber watched him. The next day Garber gave it a try and it stuck.

“I liked being able to hide the ball,” Garber told me. “I didn’t throw 95, I needed something.” I asked him if it was hard to keep his balance whipping his head around like that from the second base to the home plate side. “No, it just came naturally. Immediately worked.” Garber said that he’s heard from a lot of kids who tried to do that — many of them Braves fans from the 70s and 80s like me — and he said everyone gives it up almost immediately because of the balance thing. If it hadn’t immediately clicked for him, he never would have done it either.

“I think you should teach that to Craig Kimbrel,” I told Garber. “Give him another weapon.”

“I don’t think he needs any more weapons,” Garber said. “He’s doing just fine.”

We transitioned into talking about the changing roles of relievers over the past couple of decades. Garber was a “closer,” technically speaking, but unlike closers today it wasn’t a ninth-inning-only thing in his day and his innings totals always greatly outweighed his games pitched. Indeed, they weren’t usually called closers. They were “relief aces” or “firemen” who might come in as early as the sixth inning — whenever a fire flared up they were required to extinguish — and pitch two or three innings some days. That usage pattern is long gone.

I asked Garber if he, were he the Braves manager, would consider using Craig Kimbrel in such a fashion. He’s a strikeout machine, obviously, and that tool would be pretty useful to get out of jams in which the opposing team had runners on as opposed to starting the ninth inning with no one on. Plus, I noted, Kimbrel just got a big contract extension, so his saves totals aren’t critical to his future earnings for the next several years. Garber, while acknowledging the utility of that kind of thing said it just wasn’t ever going to happen again.

“A manager will never be second-guessed by using his closer in the ninth,” Garber said. “Or his seventh inning guy in the seventh or eighth inning guy in the eighth . . . Even if you blow the game, at least you did it by the book.”

Unlike a lot of relief pitchers of his era, however, Garber didn’t sound like it was something terribly regrettable, noting that teams have lots of pitchers who can get strikeouts now.

“Take the Braves the past few years. Venters can strike people out. O’Flaherty could. It’s not like Kimbrel is the only one who can do that,” Garber said. “The game just changes.”

It does indeed. And it’s good to hear from someone of a previous era who can acknowledge that without casting aspersions on the new era. Things just change.

Report: Diamondbacks acquire Steven Souza from Rays in part of three-team deal

Tampa Bay Rays
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Update (6:35 PM ET): This is a three-team deal also involving the Diamondbacks, per Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. The Diamondbacks will receive outfielder Steven Souza from the Rays and second baseman Brandon Drury will head to the Yankees. Lefty reliever Anthony Banda will go to the Rays, Piecoro adds. The Diamondbacks will also receive prospect Taylor Widener from the Yankees, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post. MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert adds that the Rays will get two players to be named later from the D-Backs.

Souza, 28, is earning $3.55 million in his first of three years of arbitration eligibility, so the Rays are presumably saving money in moving him. Last season, Souza hit a productive .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, 78 RBI, 78 runs scored, and 16 stolen bases in 617 plate appearances. Souza’s arrival almost certainly pushes Yasmany Tomas out of a starting gig.

Drury, 25, has played a handful of positions in his brief major league career. Last year, he played second base in Arizona, batting .267/.317/.447 with 13 home runs and 63 RBI in 480 PA.

Banda, 24, made his major league debut last season, posting an ugly 5.96 ERA with a 25/10 K/BB ratio in 25 2/3 innings. The peripherals suggest he pitched better than his ERA indicated.

Widener, 23, was selected by the Yankees in the 12th round of the 2016 draft. This past season with High-A Tampa, he pitched 119 1/3 innings and posted a 3.39 ERA with a 129/50 K/BB ratio. MLB Pipeline rated Widener as the 14th-best prospect in the Yankees’ system.

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Robert Murray of FanRag Sports reports that the Rays will acquire second base prospect Nick Solak from the Yankees. The Yankees’ return is presently not known.

Solak, 23, was selected by the Yankees in the second round of the 2016 draft. He spent last season between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, hitting a combined .297/.384/.452 with 12 home runs, 53 RBI, 72 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases.

MLB Pipeline ranked Solak as the eighth-best prospect in the Yankees’ system and the fifth-best second base prospect in baseball, praising him for his ability to hit line drives as well as his speed.