Joe Savery might be the best story of the 2011 season. The 25-year-old Phillies left-hander saw his pitching career bottom out last year — his record in Triple-A Lehigh Valley was a dismal 1-12 — and when this season began he’d been converted to a position player. By mid-year it looked like a successful transition, as the former collegiate two-way player was hitting .307/.368/.410 with high-A Clearwater, Fla. But earlier this week he made his big-league debut — as a pitcher.
The Rice University product went 5-0, with a 1.50 ERA, in 25 appearances in the minors after being moved back to the mound this season — a year in which the former first-round pick planned to give up his major-league dream so he could return to college this fall. He talked about his circuitous journey in an interview during the final weekend of the Triple-A season.
David Laurila: How would you describe your 2011 season?
Joe Savery: It’s been interesting. It’s also been a good year. I enjoyed being a hitter again — as well as playing the field, running the bases and sliding, all of the things I hadn’t done in awhile. It has also been very humbling, and exciting, that my arm has come back the way that it has.
DL: What is the story behind your position changes?
JS: Toward the end of last year, I was going on three very up-and-down years where I was inconsistent and didn’t have a lot of command. It was very frustrating. I was only throwing in the mid- to high -80s. When I was drafted [in 2007], I was throwing in the low-90s, so I certainly wasn’t the player I was on draft day. I tried everything, and it just wasn’t coming back. I felt like my shelf life as a pitcher was shortening up. I felt like I needed to make a move to try to stay in this game, so I approached the Phillies about swinging the bat.
I did that for half a season, and for whatever reason, my arm came back. I think a big part of it was playing in the field and having a shorter arm motion. Rest was probably part of it as well. I’ve just really been a different pitcher since that happened.
Once my arm came back, I decided that it was time to give it another shot on the mound. Going into spring training, we agreed that I’d throw some on the side — we didn’t completely close the window on me pitching again — just in case hitting didn’t go well.
DL: The hitting actually went pretty well.
JS: Yes, the hitting did go well. That said, I was playing first base, and the outfield, and didn’t show as much power as a corner guy needs to show. The goal all along, from both sides, was to find a way to get to the big leagues. So once my arm showed it was working well, it was a pretty easy decision to start focusing on pitching again.
I threw some bullpens [as a position player], although I was doing them infrequently. I would say that I was on the mound seven or eight times from when spring training started until mid-June, which is when I was told I was going to start getting regular time. I had to throw once in a 23-inning game in A-ball.
DL: What had caused you to lose velocity?
JS: I don’t exactly know, and that’s what was so frustrating. I felt fine. I came out of surgery — I had surgery in the summer of 2006, less than a year from draft day — and I showed some big velocities right before the draft. It looked like my arm was going to come back to what it was before, but once I got into pro ball, every year it seemed to slip a little bit.
We tried everything — or at least I felt like we did — to try to fix it, to try to find it. But it just looked like it wasn’t going to come back. I had gotten stronger, and I had no pain, but it just wasn’t there.
DL: Are you the same mechanically now that you were before?
JS: Well, I’ve tried to keep a shorter arm path, much like that of an infielder. I think that has allowed my body to work in sync a lot better, which has provided for increased velocity, a better breaking ball and better command. My velocity has been back in the low-90s. It has been consistently 90-93, and I’ve touched 94 here and there.
DL: What about your breaking ball?
JS: It’s just sharper. It’s harder and it’s sharper. I believe that it’s a legitimate pitch now. I can compete with it. It’s a slider and I’m throwing it anywhere from 81 to 85. It’s a hard-breaking slider, at least that’s what I’m shooting for it to be. Again, it’s more along the lines of the pitch I threw pre-surgery. It just hadn’t been there since then.
DL: Outside of what you’ve already said, is there an explanation for why your arm came back?
JS: I think there are several reasons, but it’s still very hard to explain. It could be the rest. I think a good portion of it is my shorter arm path, which, again, is allowing my body to be in a more powerful position. But I don’t think those things fully explain how much better my arm is working. It is tough to explain, but I’m very thankful that it has.
DL: Can you say a little more about how your stuff compares to what it was at Rice?
JS: It’s very comparable to when I was drafted. I think my breaking ball is actually better than when my arm was working at its best. I was never a command pitcher, regardless of whether it was pre-surgery, post-surgery, college, high school or professional. I never had great command. I’ve shown much better command this year, and the mechanical changes account for that. I’m a better pitcher now.
DL: Did you learn anything about pitching by hitting every day?
JS: I absolutely did. There are a lot of things, and the one that sticks with me the most is getting strike one. That’s something you hear over and over as a pitcher. You hear it so much that it almost goes in one ear and out the other. Being a hitter really reinforces that the difference between being 1-0 and 0-1 is huge. I’m now constantly reminding myself to continually put the pressure on the hitter. Hitting is tough, and it’s tougher when you’re behind in the count.
DL: Circling back to how you ended up back on the mound, what was the actual sequence of events?
JS: Well, I hit for exactly half a season, in A-ball. I got promoted to Double-A, and as far as I knew, it was to be a hitter. About a week after I got to [Reading], I was told, “We want you to start throwing out of the bullpen again.” They said they were going to try to get me in to DH against the American League teams, but against National Leagues teams I was going to be in the bullpen. I did that for about three weeks. I got nine innings in Double-A.
Chuck LaMar called me into his office and said, “The way your arm is working — and the way we’re seeing things — we think you’re a major-league prospect again. You‘ve already competed at this level, so we think it‘s time to put the bat away. We want to see what you can do for the rest of the year.” I totally understood that. Again, the goal has always been to get to the big leagues, and I want to do whatever is going to give me the best chance to do that. A few days later, I was in Lehigh Valley, throwing out of the bullpen.
DL: Any final thoughts on your strange, and amazing, season?
JS: What a difference a year makes. I won one game last year in 130 innings, so I knew that my window of opportunity was closing. I knew that I really had to show something this year. Even at the beginning of the season…. I had registered to go back to school this fall; I did all the paperwork and got all of the approvals. When you’re 25 years old and in A-ball, you’re not in the most promising place for a baseball career.
This game can be funny. You go from one year where don’t seem to catch any breaks to another year where, for some reason, the stars are aligning. I’m closer to the big leagues now than I’ve ever been. [Whether] I get there is out of my control, but I think I had a good year. Hopefully everything works out, and if it doesn’t — if my arm strength leaves me again — I’ll just move on to the next chapter of my life.
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