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.

Video: Max Scherzer sets record with 13-strikeout outing

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Max Scherzer is a force to be reckoned with. The Nationals’ right-hander delivered a season-high 13 strikeouts against the Padres on Friday, locking down his fifth win and his fourth double-digit strikeout performance of the year.

More remarkably, it was also the 53rd double-digit strikeout performance of Scherzer’s career, tying Clayton Kershaw for the most 10+ strikeout appearances by an active major league pitcher. Chris Sale is a distant third, with 43 to his name, though he’s been making considerable strides to catch up so far this spring.

Scherzer took the Padres to task on Friday night, whiffing 13 of 31 batters during his 108-pitch outing. He started strong, catching Allen Cordoba swinging on a 1-2 count to start the game and keeping the game scoreless until Ryan Schimpf unleashed a home run in the fourth inning. That was the first and final run the Padres managed off of Scherzer, who retired 14 consecutive batters following the blast and came one out shy of a complete game in the ninth inning. (Fittingly, Koda Glover polished off the win with a final strikeout, bringing the total to 14 on the night.)

It’ll take more than one stellar start to advance Scherzer and Kershaw on the all-time list, however. Their 53-game record ranks 13th, about 159 games behind second-place Hall of Fame hurler Randy Johnson and a full 162 games shy of the inimitable Nolan Ryan.

Twins’ top prospect Nick Burdi will undergo Tommy John surgery

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Twins’ right-hander Nick Burdi is set to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, the team announced on Friday. Burdi made 14 appearances for Double-A Chattanooga before succumbing to a torn ulnar collateral ligament and is not expected to make his major league debut until mid-2018 at the earliest. A UCL tear doesn’t always require Tommy John surgery — less severe cases can be treated with platelet-rich plasma injections, for example — but Twins’ chief baseball officer Derek Falvey told the press that surgery was unavoidable as Burdi had sustained a “full thickness tear” in his elbow.

Entering the 2016 season, Burdi was widely considered a top ten prospect in the Twins’ system. His exceptional velocity and potent fastball-slider combo made him a fearsome relief option as he came off of his first season in Double-A Chattanooga in 2015. During the 2016 season, however, the 24-year-old experienced a significant setback after a bone bruise cut his season short in late July. Prior to Friday’s diagnosis, he appeared to be staging an impressive comeback with the Chattanooga Lookouts this spring, decorating his efforts with a sparkling 0.53 ERA, 2.1 BB/9 and 10.6 SO/9 over 17 innings.

It’s a tough break for the Twins, whose farm system was ranked 21st in the league by Baseball America. “Obviously he’s proven when he’s healthy he’s an absolute premium prospect, and the Twins are treating him that way,” Burdi’s agent, Matt Sosnick, told Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press. “We just want to make sure everything we do ultimately leads to the goal of getting him back on the field as quickly as he can.”