Tewksbury’s Notebook: Facing Barry Bonds

Earlier this month, former St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Bob Tewksbury discussed how he approached pitching to 10 of the best hitters of the 1990s. He did so with the help of his old notebook, which includes scouting reports, results of individual at bats, and more.

In the fourth installment of Tewksbury’s Notebook, the veteran of 13 big-league seasons talks about how he pitched to Barry Bonds. From 1987-1994, Bonds went 15 for 46 versus Tewksbury, with three home runs, three walks, and four strikeouts.


Tewksbury on facing Bonds:
“He had power to all fields and was very disciplined at the plate. You really had to manage the damage when you faced him, especially in key situations. I had to mix it up against him. Everybody did, because even guys throwing 100 couldn’t throw the ball by him. I needed to try to get him off balance and expand the zone, which was really difficult. He almost never expanded his zone. He was a great, great hitter, really tough.

“He’s the only guy to hit two home runs off me in a game, and the only guy to hit a grand slam off me. In San Diego he hit a two-run homer early and then in the sixth inning, with the score 2-2, he came up and instead of walking him and giving up one run, I pitched to him. I thought I had found something in a prior at bat. I thought I could throw the ball in on him with a two-seamer, then start the breaking ball in and get a mis-hit. It’s not a pitch I threw very well — it was kind of an invent-a-pitch — and I didn’t get it in. He hit it out of the ballpark.

“One thing I wrote down in my notebook was, ‘Can throw backdoor breaking ball.’ What you hope to do — and maybe it wouldn’t work now because of the way the strike zone has changed — is throw a backdoor slider, and maybe he’d give up on it, because it looked like a ball. Maybe it was, but you might be able to get the call.

“If you got to a point where you could sink the ball out there… Greg Maddux used to talk about making Xs. What I mean by that is, with a left-handed hitter up, if you throw a slider on the outside part of the plate, it comes into the plate. Then the next pitch is a sinker, and that pitch goes away from the plate. If you track those pitches, they would essentially make an X. The path of the ball would make an X.

“Basically, I would try to steal a strike and then try to make him expand the zone based on something that looked like a strike. For me, that would have been a backdoor slider.

“Another of my notes was, ‘Start away, in under the hands.’ You had to come inside against him, because he was so good hitting the ball the other way. He was so good at getting extended. You had to get it in and hope you could get a mis-hit. All home run hitters have to be crowded. You can’t let them extend their arms. The thing with Barry was, if you didn’t get it in enough, or up and in enough, he would hit it out of the ballpark.

“After another game, I wrote ‘Go inside, he doesn’t like that.‘ He was on the plate, and I liked to pitch lefties in. Maybe his body language said he was angry, but I don’t think he got mad at me. I doubt he feared me. I just think he didn’t like it when you crowded him. No hitter does. That’s in off the plate; make them a little bit uncomfortable.

“Another note — this when he was still in Pittsburgh — was, ‘It looks like he’s fighting off fastballs with two strikes, looking for breaking balls.’ At the time, when I got to two strikes he was probably looking breaking ball. He knew I couldn’t throw the ball by him, so he was content to keep fouling off fastballs and sit breaking ball. Hitters will eliminate pitches and they’ll eliminate sides of the plate based on what the pitcher has and what he can throw over the plate. They probably had a book on me saying I would throw breaking balls with two strikes.

“I faced Barry earlier in his career, but I don’t think he really changed as a hitter. He just got bigger. His approach stayed the same. You mostly just had to keep the ball down and hope he hit it at somebody. If you could keep him in the ballpark, you were successful.

“Over time, everybody started to pitch around him. I hated pitching around people, so I don’t think I would have done it. The manager probably would have made me do it, but I’d have hated it. I liked the opportunity to set up hitters. Even the good ones are going to make an out 65 percent of the time. I trusted the command of my pitches to where I felt I could put myself in a position to get those outs. Of course, Barry was obviously more challenging to get out than just about anybody.”

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA

14 Responses to “Tewksbury’s Notebook: Facing Barry Bonds”

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  1. Monty says:

    Though Tewk is right – even good hitters make outs 65% of the time – it’s worth noting that Bonds only made outs about 55% of the time.

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  2. eltorostrikesagain says:

    I think Bonds is a piece of sh-t, but that’s another story. This was fascinating. Any time you can get a look at the inner thoughts of a major league player, especially one with a long career like Tewks, it makes for a good read IMO. I find that watching pitchers with marginal stuff, (not to say that was Tewks, but generally speaking), can be one of the most interesting things ever. The stuff about Maddux making the X’s was great. Good read.

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    • Dan says:

      What is the purpose of your first sentence?

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      • Jaack says:

        To start the inevitable steroid debate.

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      • Mike says:

        Maybe to express an opinion? I know, you never see something like that on the internet so it can be confusing. I also have no love for Bonds. But my opinion is irrelevant. His three year peak is just silly. The kind of numbers that make you think there should be a higher level league for this kind of guy. I can’t speak for others, but part of my invective for Bonds is the fact that he was already the greatest player of his generation without chemical enhancements. But, for whatever reason, that wasn’t enough for him.

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        • Deelron says:

          I actually thought it was fairly well established (McGwire/Sosa press and appreciation) why it wasn’t enough for him.

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      • sopcod says:

        I think some people can’t acknowledge Bonds’ greatness as a player without qualifying that acknowledgement first.

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  3. anonynous says:

    Who cares?? Bonds was on ‘roids. Swollen head, people!!

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  4. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Tewksbury pitched to the pre-PED Bonds,(likely), and still held him in high regard.

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    • Kumar says:

      During the time in which Tewksbury pitched to Bonds, he was basically Mike Trout- a player that could approach 10 WAR and didn’t have a weakness. He was that player not only before alleged PED usage, but before going to the Giants. People forget how amazing he was in his early yeras.

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  5. citrus says:

    This may be stupid question, but does anyone know how to verify the “only gave up 1 grand slam” claim? I can’t seem to search by grand slams in Baseball reference.

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    • salvo says:

      Citrus, on Tewksbury’s bb-ref page, go to the tab “HR Log,” and under the column “bases.” it lists all the possible baserunner combinations. Next to the “123″ (that is, runners ion 1st, 2nd and 3rd) is the total HRs given up in that situation, and the number is, in fact, 1.

      On his career, he only allowed 13 three-run homers (out of 142 total), which seems low to me (although maybe +/- 10% of total homers is normal).

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