ATLANTA — As a fully formed adult (6-foot-4, 205 pounds), Braves pitcher Mike Minor bears a closer resemblance to Hall of Fame-bound pitcher Randy Johnson than Hall of Fame-bound ace Tom Glavine.
And yet, during Minor’s formative years in Chapel Hill, Tenn., a town of 1,500 people nestled between Nashville and Chattanooga, he opted to emulate the style of Glavine — in terms of changing speeds, mixing up pitches and nibbling corners.
“My dad always told me to pitch like Tom Glavine; he was a finesse-type pitcher who didn’t really throw hard,” recalls Minor, a southpaw. “Randy Johnson, that guy’s a freak … being 6-foot-10 and throwing something like 98 (mph).”
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It’s funny how Minor uses the “freak” description when reminiscing about Johnson, for his own numbers from the final five starts of last season (4-0, 0.87 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 28/9 K-BB) were eerily similar to The Big Unit in his heyday. Freakish, if you will.
Having trouble remembering Minor’s excellence from September? That’s because Braves Nation had already been swept up in Medlenmania, the result of pitcher Kris Medlen posting absurd numbers from July 31-Sept. 30: Over 12 starts and 83.2 innings, Medlen posted a 9-0 record, 0.97 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 84/10 K-BB ratio.
For 2012, essentially his third season in the big leagues, Minor posted rock-solid, yet rocky-at-times numbers (11-10, 4.12 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 145/56 K-BB) for the 94-win Braves. For the first three months, Minor walked 38 total batters and allowed 13 homers — contributing to a mushrooming ERA that hovered in the 6.00-plus range for all of June.
Then on July 5, his last outing before the All-Star break, Minor began to sow the seeds of trust with coaches and execs, surrendering just two earned runs and striking out six batters in the Braves’ victory over the Cubs. From that point forward, Minor would allow three or less runs in 13 of his next 14 starts. In turn, the walks (only 18 from July-October) and home runs allowed soon dissipated, as well.
“We felt, when we left spring training last year, that Mike had turned the corner in maturity,” said Braves general manager Frank Wren. “He got off to a great start in the first month and then had two months of growing pains, before finally figuring it out the rest of the year. We look for Mike to build off what he learned from last year.”
For July-October, Minor’s scintillating marks (73/18 K-BB ratio, two months of a sub-2.00 ERA, two months of a sub-0.75 WHIP) rivaled that of Medlen; and yet, Minor has essentially been consigned to the No. 3 pitching slot heading into this season, behind Medlen and Tim Hudson.
It’s a prominent spot, minus the burden of carrying a viable title contender out of the chute.
“I think every season’s a new season,” said Minor, who pitched alongside American League Cy Young David Price at Vanderbilt. “It happens every year: A player who batted .320 or a pitcher who won 15 games thinks they’re going to do it every year. But they’re not. Sometimes, the game’s mean to you.
“I tell myself, ‘I’ve got to prove it again.'”
Minor’s resurgence in the latter months wasn’t some random occurrence. To combat the early-season struggles, he began a comprehensive ritual of working with catchers and pitching coach Roger McDowell on side throwing sessions, consulting with Braves hitters about his own tendencies (self-scouting) and talking to video guys.
The one-on-one sessions with McDowell were especially fruitful. They worked on “mostly attacking hitters more, not being scared to throw strikes when I’m down in the count,” said Minor. “At times, when the count was 3-0 or 2-1, I still didn’t want to throw a fastball. I’ve always wanted to throw a changeup, or something off-speed, because (the hitters) knew a fastball was coming.”
A Tennessee resident during the offseason, Minor likes to resume throwing in early December, allowing time to ease into the process of prepping for spring training just in case the unpredictable winter weather wreaks havoc with his schedule. The extra physical time, however, doesn’t lead to extraneous thoughts — or overthinking — the mental side of pitching in the majors.
“I just focus on quality starts” (surrendering three or less runs in six-plus innings) “and everything will take care of itself,” says Minor.
In that respect, Minor may encounter a reduction in bloop singles this season, now that Atlanta boasts a star-laden outfield of Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton.
From an offensive standpoint, each of the aforementioned talents have posted at least one 20/20 season in the last two years. From a defensive perspective, Heyward and the Uptons have the range, instincts and premium speed to effectively improve the ERA and WHIP tallies of any Braves hurler.
Namely fewer doubles in the power alleys.
“With pitching, you still have to attack the hitters the same. (Upton, Upton, Heyward) is just a nice thing to have,” said Minor, who once fanned 12 batters in only his fourth MLB start (August 2010). “You have three really, really good outfielders out there. They’re all fast, they hit for power, hit for average. It’s great to have them in the lineup. It’s great to have them in the outfield.”
That peace of mind on the mound could lead to more hits when Minor takes his cuts from the 9-hole. In late August and early September (2012), he had a season-high hitting streak of three games.
“It’s kind of (an inside) joke. When I got my first hit (of that streak), I started working with the hitting coach (Greg Walker), saying, ‘I need some tips. I need some pointers to help myself out (when pitching),'” recalls Minor, who scored three of his five seasonal runs during The Streak.
Minor’s offensive prowess should serve him well throughout his career.
After all, he’s no freak. He only throws in the low- to mid-90s.