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.

Matt Carpenter suspended one game for bumping umpire

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Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter has been suspended one game for bumping home plate umpire John Tumpane when he didn’t like a called strike three in the seventh inning of Sunday’s game against the Brewers. Manager Mike Matheny was also ejected along with Carpenter.

Carpenter will serve his suspension Tuesday night, per Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Through his first 69 nice plate appearances this season, Carpenter is hitting .236/.362/.364 with a pair of home runs and five RBI.

Dave Stewart says Diamondbacks’ early success is proof he was good as GM

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After the completion of the 2016 regular season, the Diamondbacks fired then-GM Dave Stewart and then-manager Chip Hale. Stewart acted as GM for two seasons. His most controversial move occurred in December 2015 when he acquired pitcher Shelby Miller and minor league pitcher Gabe Speier in exchange for outfielder Ender Inciarte and prospects Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair. After his firing, Stewart blamed his superiors for the trade and said his gut was telling him not to make the trade.

The D-Backs are now led by new GM Mike Hazen and manager Torey Lovullo. The club had a relatively quiet offseason, as its biggest acquisitions were Taijuan Walker and Fernando Rodney. Defying expectations, though, the Diamondbacks enter Tuesday night’s action with a 13-8 record, just a game and a half behind the first-place Rockies. Stewart spoke to Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY Sports and said that the D’Backs’ success shows that he knew what he was doing all along.

This means a lot to me because this is the same team, or very close to the one that I put on the field. So basically all of those guys and baseball analysts who said I didn’t know what I was doing, it showed I knew exactly what I was doing.

Everybody was just beat up and not living up to expectations. So all of a sudden, it’s my fault. Well, it’s not my fault. I couldn’t prevent injuries or jump in their bodies to make them pitch better in the starting rotation. We put the right people on the field. So I don’t think anybody should be surprised how well those kids are playing. They’re healthy now. I knew this was going to happen.

Everyone should have seen it coming.

Not to rain on Stewart’s parade, but the Diamondbacks are five games over .500 in a relatively tiny 21-game sample size. Had his team valued analytics during his tenure, he might have known that. Additionally, few of the players performing well for the team right now are players Stewart himself was responsible for bringing to Arizona. Furthermore, the team’s success doesn’t retroactively justify what he gave up for Miller nor does it justify practically giving away Touki Toussaint and signing a 32-year-old Zack Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million contract.

During and after his tumultuous tenure with the D-Backs, Stewart has appeared very insecure. When he was fired, he quipped, “Quite frankly, I’ve got better things to do.” He appeared on MLB Network Radio in February to deflect any blame directed at him for the team’s failure. And then there’s his most recent quotes in which he heaps praise on himself for the team’s success.

Stewart was an All-Star starter who finished in the top-three in AL Cy Young Award voting three times in his career. He’s understandably competitive and has probably built up a very strong distaste for failure. Sometimes, though, one has to make peace with the fact that things didn’t go one’s way. Stewart simply appears to be tilting at windmills to protect his ego.