Orioles right-hander Ryan Webb sinking into role at back of bullpen

28-year-old relief pitcher, who signed two-year deal in December, expected to pitch late innings

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images )
March 16, 2014|By Eduardo A. Encina, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — When the Orioles signed right-handed relief pitcher Ryan Webb in December, executive vice president Dan Duquette quickly compared him to Jim Johnson, who had been traded earlier that month.

And while the comparison wasn't necessarily fair since the departed Johnson had compiled back-to-back 50-save seasons before he was dealt to the Oakland Athletics, both possess heavy sinkers that can lead to early contact and quick outs, which can be valuable while pitching in critical late-inning situations in the American League East.

Webb, who signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal with the Orioles after being nontendered by the Miami Marlins, pitched in a number of roles last season. He came in for situational appearances, threw multiple innings in other outings, but for the most part, he saw action in the seventh and eighth innings. Pitching for the Marlins, who lost 100 games last season, didn't provide much opportunity to pitch with a lead.

Overall this spring, Webb has given up three runs and 11 hits in six innings. After pitching a scoreless eighth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, he gave up four straight hits without recording an out to allow Toronto to score the game-tying run in the ninth.

The Orioles are still trying to find where Webb, who enters his sixth season in the major leagues, fits in a revamped bullpen.

"I think you just kind of trust his track record a little bit," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Each time he's pitched, he's been a little more, 'OK, I've got it now.' He can miss the sweet part of the bat with the sinker behind in the count. That's important for those guys, especially left-handed bats. So far, so good. His personality is starting to come out a little bit. He seems comfortable."

Because of his experience, the 28-year-old Webb likely will be used in the late innings along with veteran right-handers Tommy Hunter, who is the favorite to take over the closer role, and Darren O'Day. All present different looks: Hunter is a fireballer, O'Day is a submarine pitcher and Webb relies on his sinker.

"I don't think I've ever been told what my role is going to be," Webb said. "I think those things, you can talk about it all you want and speculate about it all you want, but what it really comes down to is whatever Buck is comfortable with, and performance. I know we're serious about winning. We want to win games here.

"Hopefully everyone is performing and pushing the next guy, and we can go with whatever Buck is comfortable with. The only thing you can do personally is go out and put up zeroes. That's cliché as it sounds, that's the idea. That's why we're here. The more people do that, the more success we're going to have, and we're all going to be happy."

Changing arm slots

Webb wasn't a sinkerballer by nature, and his path to becoming a ground-ball pitcher took an interesting turn. In high school, Webb had a low arm slot, and after being drafted by the Athletics in the fourth round in 2004, coaches steadily raised his arm slot through the minor leagues while he pitched as a starter.

Eventually, Webb was a 6-foot-6 overhand thrower with a mid-90s fastball. But after being traded to the San Diego Padres in July 2009 and moved to a relief role, he was asked to drop down again during spring training in 2010.

"I had come up with Oakland as a starter, and I was a real hard over-the-top guy. I actually was more low three-quarters in high school, but then I got drafted, and they got my arm angle up every year. And then I got over to San Diego and thought I had finally made it, and I was throwing 100 mph, and the coach comes to me in spring training and asks me if I wanted to drop down. I said, 'Drop down? That's crazy. Why would I do that?' "

Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley's idea to lower Webb's arm slot to a three-quarters angle might have saved his career. Instead of trying to overpower hitters with a mid-90s fastball, he developed a sinker that lured hitters into pounding the ball into the ground.

"I could get it up to 97," Webb said. "I could throw hard, but I left the ball up in the zone a lot. I was a kid who threw and you get away with mistakes [in the minors] because you're throwing 97, but big league hitters also know how to hit that. I had never been a high strikeout guy for throwing that hard. I think they honed in on my skill set a little bit more and realized my potential as a sinkerballer. and that's the path I took."

Webb doubted the transition at first, especially when he was sent to the minors one week after changing his delivery. But after he allowed just two earned runs in 202/3 innings at Triple-A Portland, he was recalled by San Diego in May. Seeing results made Webb realize that the conversion could be a difference-maker in his career.

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