Bryan Shaw hadn't started a game in college or in the pros before this month, even though he has a strong body that figures to handle the rigors of pitching several innings in one outing. During the instructional league last fall, the Diamondbacks front office hinted that they wanted Shaw to throw more innings in 2009. Then early this spring, they confirmed that Shaw would be used as a starter, at least for the 2009 season.
Shaw immediately justified the organization's decision by throwing five strong innings at Rancho Cucamonga in his first career start. He got the win while allowing five hits, one walk, and one run over five innings, striking out four.
Unfortunately, his second start was as bad as his first start was good. With the newly-named Visalia Rawhide carrying a 10-0 record into that start, Shaw allowed six runs and failed to get out of the third inning. He was saddled with the Rawhide's only loss though their first 13 games, and Shaw took full responsibility for the defeat.
"The hitters scored some runs for me and the defense was fine," Shaw admitted. "I just didn't pitch very well, so blame it on me."
A California native, Shaw had family members attend that first home start, but he didn't attribute the poor outing to outside pressure. Rather, he believes that he may have overanalyzed things a little in trying to nail down a routine as a starting pitcher.
"[I'm] trying out different routines and finding out what works for me, finding out what exactly I need to do to get ready for the game, and obviously what I tried last game didn't work," Shaw surmised after his rough outing. "So [I'll] change it up a little bit and go at it again on Friday."
His adjustments apparently worked, since Friday's start closely resembled that first outing. Against the same Modesto team that he struggled against the previous start, Shaw tossed four innings of four-hit ball. He once again allowed one run, one walk, and struck out four. He also took the loss again, but on this occasion, the offense and the bullpen did let him down, as the Nuts defeated the Rawhide 9-3.
Critical to Shaw's early success as a starter has been his ability to add two pitches to his repertoire. A starter has to face hitters three times in the same game, and if he only has two pitches that he can rely upon, he will not remain successful deep into ballgames.
"When I came out in Montana I only really had a fastball and slider," Shaw explained. "Then I showed [Diamondbacks coaches] I had a curveball; I've been working on that as my third pitch. I showed them I have a split, and they see that as one of my out-pitches also. In a changeup count, I have two out-pitches in my slider and my split."
Considering that his four-seam fastball reaches the mid-90s and his two-seamer hits the low-90s, having two quality offspeed pitches is quite sufficient. If he can work his curveball into more than just a show-me offering, he would have one of the most impressive overall repertoires in the organization.
Left-handed batters have nevertheless given Shaw some problems in the early going. They have batted .387 against him, while Shaw has held right-handed batters to a .238 clip.
"In all three outings, I've thrown all my pitches to each hitter," Shaw responded when asked about his approach to left-handed hitters. "The slider is obviously a good out pitch against righties. Against lefties, either in towards the back foot or backdoor is fine. The curveball is good for backdoor against lefties or just drop it in for a strike 0-0 against righties. The split's good for both lefties and righties as long as I can keep it down and don't hang it."
Besides the new pitches and new preparation, there are other things that Shaw must consider in his transition from the bullpen to the rotation. As a reliever, Shaw would sometimes crank his four-seamer up to 97 or 98 miles per hour, but as a starter, that isn't possible.
"I'm used to throwing one, two, or three innings at most out of the bullpen and just throwing it as hard as I can and strike everybody out," said Shaw. "Obviously as a starter, you've got to conserve your pitches a little bit and conserve your pitch count to try to go later in the game, but still stay with that fire and that attitude of getting guys out."
Conversion to a starter is only one of the challenges facing Shaw this year. He has moved from college, to Rookie Ball, to Low-A-Ball, to Advanced-A-Ball in a matter of months, baseball-wise. Granted, Shaw faced a high level of competition while playing at Long Beach State, but he has still noticed a gradual improvement in the hitters that he has faced at each level.
"Hitters are more patient," Shaw began. "They're looking for better pitches. They have more of a plan of attack. They're not going to go up there and just swing at every pitch. Obviously, hitters get better as you start [advancing in the organization]. I've just got to stay with my pitches, throw what I want to throw, commit to it, and I should be fine."
There's no question that getting stretched out as a starter and succeeding in that role is shooting Shaw up the prospect ranks. Developing additional pitches now will still aid him if he returns to a bullpen role later in his career. The organization will obviously need to see more of Shaw as a starter before making a decision on his future, but if it were up to Shaw, which role would he choose for himself? Starter or reliever?
"I actually like starting a lot. You throw more innings, face more hitters. It's just fun being the guy who walks out on the mound to start the game and hear the anthem on the mound. Obviously, that's the first time I've experienced that since high school, and it's kind of fun to do that. So I think I like starting."
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