SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – After suffering through a death-by-inches existence for the first seven weeks of 2012, Diamondbacks closer J.J. Putz turned lethal. Closers Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman were among the top eight finishers for the NL Cy Young award, and had Putz found his mechanics earlier, he might have joined them.
When Putz got back to his normal delivery in late May, he was as effective as any closer in the league: 1.14 ERA, 23 saves in 25 opportunities (including 19 in a row) and a .181 opponents’ batting average in his final 41 appearances. It is another of the reasons the D-backs signed him to a one-year extension to anchor their bullpen through 2014. They believe his presence gives them one of the strongest bullpens in franchise history.
General manager Kevin Towers’ one-word evaluation of the bullpen: “Attack.”
As well as Putz attacked the final four months of 2012, his start uncharacteristically skewed the other way, which was especially unexpected after he finished with a career-high 45 saves while helping the D-backs to the 2011 NL West title. The trouble began in spring training, when Putz added a cut fastball that led to a slight, incremental change in his delivery.
“An inch can be a mile in this game,” Putz said.
After time, Putz was coming set with his hands in a slightly different place as he paused at the belt before delivery, causing his fastball to lose about 4-5 mph of velocity and also making it more difficult for him to keep the ball down. The change was so subtle that it was hard to spot. After giving up four home runs, failing to hold three saves and seeing his ERA rise to 7.20 on May 22, Putz was in a private hell.
It was especially galling for Putz, a consummate teammate who could not help but feel that he was not carrying his weight, although none would ever accuse him.
“Many sleepless nights. I felt kind of helpless,” Putz said. “You are always trying to figure out ways to get better. It (adding the cutter) started off great and then, for whatever reason, mechanically got worse and worse.
“Everything felt good. It wasn’t like my arm was sore or anything else. Just the stuff wasn’t there.”
Putz called former teammates with the White Sox, for whom he pitched in 2009-10, asking if they noticed anything. No one had. Finally, D-backs pitching coach Charles Nagy saw a slight difference in the way Putz was holding his hands when he came set. After film and bullpen sessions, the fix that followed was almost immediate.
“Most of the time it takes another set of eyes, and we have a good set of eyes in Charlie. We looked at the film and I was like, ‘Holy cow.’ It probably started off slowly and got worse and worse. Finally, Charlie saw it and said, ‘Whoa, this is probably something,'” Putz said.
“It was blatantly obvious. We looked at stuff from 2011, pitching at home at the same camera angles, and went frame by frame. It was that simple.”
Putz’s velocity immediately increased into the 93-94 mph range, and the results followed. Only Kimbrel — 3-1, 29 saves in 31 chances, 0.58 ERA — had better numbers among closers after May 26, when Putz got back to himself. Chapman was 1-1 with 36 saves and a 2.28 ERA.
Nagy deferred any credit, calling it a collaborative effort.
“You just notice some things, and if a guy is doing something out of the ordinary, you remember stuff. It’s no big deal. Everybody falls out of whack sometimes. His velocity was down, his ball was up. He didn’t look right. We found out what it was and made the adjustment. Once they get their feeling back, they get back on track. It’s a long season. That’s what happens,” Nagy said.
Putz, 35, finished the season 1-5 with 32 saves and a 2.92 ERA, giving him 77 saves the last two seasons, the fourth-highest total in the majors. His 5.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio since he joined the D-backs in 2011 is third among NL relievers.
“You make an adjustment. A lot of it is about a feel,” said manager Kirk Gibson, who made alterations in his hitting approach during his career.
Like many veteran closers, Putz has a customized spring training regimen. Trevor Hoffman did the same thing with San Diego and Milwaukee, often throwing on back fields or in minor league games to get his work in.
Putz has made one appearance this spring, pitching a scoreless inning against Mexico on March 5, and followed that with another bullpen session Thursday. He is scheduled to pitch again Saturday and is targeting a total of eight or nine outings, including back-to-back games once in the final week.
The D-backs will monitor his workload during the regular season, too, and likely will not pitch him three days in a row, especially early in the season. With David Hernandez’s success the last two seasons and the addition of Heath Bell over the winter, the D-backs will have a closer to fill in for a closer if Putz is unavailable.
The stable is deep, but Putz understands the proof is on the field.
“You still have to pitch. Still have to go out there and execute and do your jobs,” Putz said. “On paper, everything looks great, but I’ve been on other teams where everything looked great on paper and it didn’t work out. We still have to go out there and work hard and compete and get better every day.”
Putz appears equipped to do that from Day 1 this season.