Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wagner's repertoire evolving with age

Billy Wagner won't pitch for the Red Sox on Thursday. He instead threw a bullpen session around 4:30 p.m. and will be available to pitch out of the bullpen on Friday against Toronto.

Still, though, he's in Boston and otherwise ready to go.

His role?

"Whatever role they want me to (fill)," he said. "Water boy, towel guy, lefty specialist. I don't care."

He's not necessarily the same pitcher he was in his prime with the Astros and Phillies. He probably isn't going to touch 100 on the radar gun, and he might not throw the same breaking ball that "could take your skin off," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.

But he's not going to reinvent himself, either.

"I haven't made any adjustments," he said. "I attack the zone as much as possible. My fastball has got a lot more life right now, and my slider is a little bit harder and sharper than in the past."

He then chuckled and divulged one adjustment.

"I've added somewhat of a changeup," he said, "so this whole Tommy John thing ain't looking too bad right now."

He actually debuted that changeup even before his surgery and was throwing it in the weeks leading up to his surgery. He was not, however, throwing it at the start of last season. Here's how his chart looked during a 17-pitch outing with the Mets in April of 2008, a year and a half ago:

Here's how it looked on Monday in his final appearance with the Mets:
The key change, of course, is that changeup -- he threw twice as many changeups as sliders in his final outing before his trade to the Red Sox. His fastball hasn't lost much velocity in the process of going through Tommy John surgery as you'd think: He's not throwing 98 or 99, but he was in the same 93- to 95-mile-an-hour range on Monday as he was before the surgery.

His slider, despite his assertion to the contrary, has lost a little bit of its break. But the addition of the changeup, a pitch that moves the same way his fastball moves, might offset the diminished break on his slider.

For Wagner, the most important thing is that he's pitching again. Most players take upwards of 14 months to recover from Tommy John surgery, but he's pitching in the major leagues less than a year removed from the procedure.

A pitcher who underwent Tommy John surgery in September of 2008 normally would hope just to be pitching again by Opening Day of 2010. But when doctors began to tell Wagner his career was probably over, that lit a fire under him.

By April, he and his trainer both set September as a goal for his return.

"I came down to work out for the trainers, and I was a good shape," he said. "Chris Correnti, he told me, 'You're going to pitch this year,' and he told the Mets I was going to pitch this year. Each month just seemed to get better and better. I wasn't having any setbacks, and things just seemed to be working out. I just got stronger and felt good and was recovering.

"I've never worried about the next year. I'm worried about today, considering what I've come through. I've worked for the next day, to get there and to be able to pick up the ball."

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