This past season, Layden combined to go 7-1 with a 2.45 ERA and .211 average against in 66 1/3 innings between Class A Peoria and Daytona.
During his first year in the Cubs' system in the Arizona Rookie League, Layden struck out 28 and walked 26 in 44 2/3 innings, mostly as a starter. He posted a strikeout to walk ratio the following year of just higher than 2-to-1 and fanned 61 batters while walking 34 this past season.
We visited with the southpaw recently and got his thoughts on his progress in the Cubs' system, his extensive scholastic background in college, and ... a tryout for Coach Mike Krzyzewski?
You wrapped up a pretty solid campaign a couple of months ago; probably an even better one than you had a year ago. How would you put it into words?
Overall, I was pretty happy with how things turned out. Starting out, I probably would have liked to have started with the Daytona club, but talking with Lester Strode and Oneri Fleita, I had some things to work out and realized it was probably for the best to start in Peoria to get my stuff back together. Basically once the second half arrived, I hit my stride and the rest went uphill from there.
What were some of the things you wanted to work out specifically?
I know both from myself and from other coaches that we'd like to see me be more consistent throwing strikes with my fastball. It's something I've worked hard on the past two seasons and I've shown improvement from what I can tell. That's the biggest thing I feel. When I'm just throwing strikes and getting ahead of guys, everything else falls into place for me. I get in trouble a lot of times because I'm not sitting in the strike zone consistently, and guys can sit on a pitch or start walking. I'll get into some trouble that way.
Obviously control is mandatory for every pitcher, but it sounds like it's your biggest focal point. Just how important is it for you personally?
Every pitcher has to put a lot of importance on his control. Ultimately it's the thing that's going to get you either called up or called down. If you're able to throw strikes, chances are you're going to get guys out. If you can throw consistent strikes all day, you can put pressure on the hitter to produce. Once you do that, the statistics will show, but they're going to fail more times than not. About the most important thing you can do as a pitcher is just throw strikes.
What's in your repertoire?
I throw basically a two-seam fastball (88-92 mph). I work mainly with the two-seamer and a slider. I'll mix in a changeup and just a regular four-seam fastball at times, but I'd say the bread and butter of what I do is done with the two-seamer or the slider.
Do you tend to favor one of those pitches over the other with two strikes?
Yeah, a lot of times it just depends on the position. I consider my out-pitch the slider. If I get ahead of a guy, that's what I'm going to try to put them away with and it's what I feel most comfortable with throwing in that situation. I have pretty good command of it and I know if I throw a good pitch, it's going to either be a ground ball or a swing and a miss. Once I get ahead, that's the pitch I like to go with, but it's just like anything else: you can't show it every time, otherwise guys will start to sit on it and then it's pretty much useless.
You did a lot of starting at Duke and like a lot of pitchers sometimes, when you got to the professionals, you were converted into a reliever.
Yeah, in college I was mostly a starter, but I went both ways. I played first base and when I wasn't doing that, I was pitching. I had a couple of relief appearances, but it wasn't anything serious. Pretty much from the time the Cubs drafted me, they told me they wanted me to work out of the bullpen. That's where they saw me and thought I'd be more productive. I'm all right with that. I feel I've kind of adapted to the role and I like it. I feel like more games are won or lost in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings than they are in the first few innings. I kind of like coming into the game knowing that one pitch could mean the difference between a win or a loss. That little pressure I think keeps me a little more sharp and focused. Sometimes when I was starting, I'd take the first couple of innings for granted and the next thing you know, you're down 4-0 and fighting to get back in it.
Once you started to throw from the bullpen, did you notice any change in your velocity? A lot of pitchers will tell you that after they make that transition, they find a couple of extra ticks on the fastball because they're not having to conserve as much in one or two innings as they would a six- or seven-inning outing.
Once I made the move to the ‘pen, I lowered my arm slot a little bit. They wanted me to throw from a low three-quarter angle, so the increase in velocity wasn't really seen. If I was to go out and pitch six or seven innings, I wouldn't be able to keep my velocity where it is if I'd thrown three or four outings out of the ‘pen. Just in the last Instructs, me and Lester Strode had worked on refining the arm slot a little bit and being able to get a little more done as far as staying behind the ball. Hopefully that will show an increase in velocity on into next year.
That was one of the things I wanted to ask you about: the Instructional League. What all did you work on besides the arm slot?
Instructs was just a great time to really get individual instructions and to work on the smaller things like PFP's and covering bases, and what to do when the ball is hit to you. Then sitting around talking with everybody about certain situations and picking up on what somebody likes to do as opposed to what other guys like to do; just learning different ways to approach the same problem to get the result you would like.
Instructs is basically like a Spring Training game. Everyone is in uniform, you have three umpires and the games are taken pretty seriously once you're into game settings. It's kind of hard to play 140 games and then suddenly play 15 that are meaningless. I don't think that would really help anyone, but the game situations are definitely realistic as far as everybody trying to work on something in particular. You'll have guys run in counts where they normally wouldn't be running in. The thing with pitchers is, I might throw a breaking ball or a changeup in a situation where I'd never throw it during the season because that's where I want to get my work in. There's no better time or place to practice that.
With the success you've had thus far, what do you attribute most of it to? Is it like you said earlier, just a matter of being consistent?
For me, I feel my biggest path to success is going out and not just attacking the zone, but attacking the hitters in general; not giving into guys and not taking anything for granted. As long as you work hard, go after guys and trust you're stuff, you're going to be successful in this game. I feel for me that's the case. As long as I keep my head on, stay focused and carry all that energy onto the field, I feel that's the most important thing for my success.
I don't mean this as a knock on anyone else, but coming from Duke as you did, you strike me as someone who's a little more mature than a lot of players at your level. What did you major in while you were in college?
I majored in Biological Anthropology and Anatomy, BAA for short. It was one of those things where I always liked Biology. Being a Biology major required Physics and Chemistry. That was kind of tough because I also wanted to focus a lot on baseball there. BAA offered that whole Science background, but it kind of eliminated all the Physics and Chemistry and just focused more on the evolution of people and basically how people as primates and various animals function as a whole.
Did you ever play or try out for any other sports there?
I tried out for the basketball team, but that didn't work out. Just kidding! I played basketball in high school until I was a sophomore. Being 6'3" when you can't really shoot too well, and not being much of a dribbler, there really wasn't much of a future for me. After that, I just focused on baseball.