Young Pitcher Searching for Control

There is an unusual device resting in the locker of Zach Hammes at the Dodgertown base for the Instructional League. It's a very large fork with the inner prongs missing. Stretched between the two outer prongs is a wire on which a baseball is located, suspended loosely so it can spin. This is the latest weapon in the effort to bring out the best in Hammes' pitching.

To watch Zach for even an inning is to know the agony and the ecstasy of his work. The ball explodes from his right hand and travels with considerable movement and quickness toward the plate. Where it arrives, though is the problem. Sometimes it's in the strike zone and is predictability tough to hit. Even more often it may get there high and away or low and away, easy pitches for the batters to ignore.

Ask Zach about his 2005 season at Columbus and he admits "I couldn't throw strikes." The result was 52 walks as opposed to only 46 strikeouts in 63.2 innings. That translated to a 3-4, 4.81 season, this in his third stay in the South Atlantic League where it was hoped he would be a dominant pitcher.

It didn't begin that way at all. In the 2002 draft, the Dodgers owned two extra picks for losing Chan Ho Park to the Texas Rangers. With their own first round choice they went for James Loney. With the supplemental pick at the end of the first round, they selected Greg Miller. Then with the Rangers slot in the second round, they took Hammes. Following that it was Jonathan Broxton with L.A.'s own second-round choice. So Hammes was surrounded by Loney, Miller and Broxton. That's pretty good company. And the fact that he was taken in the middle of that group shows what promise he had.

He certainly looked the part that summer as he posted a 2-2, 3.27 mark for the Gulf Coast team. At 6-6, 225 he's an imposing mound figure and can certainly bring it plateward in the required manner with a fast ball in the low to mid-90's and a power curve. But there's that lack of command that began showing up in his second year and has, if anything, gotten worse in the ensuing years.

He was only 7-11, 5.54 for South Georgia in 2003 so was sent back to the same team, now called Columbus in 2004, only to shrink to 5-8, 4.58. All this time, he's been the subject of endless tinkering by coaches seeking to find the key to the mystery of his loss of control.

At first they worked on getting his lower body into his pitches more, then it was his mechanics as they labored as feverishly as those NASCAR pits crews to get his gears meshing. Now, "They're happy with my mechanics," he reports. But the pitches still stray too far away. What's the diagnosis this time?

It's the grip, they feel. "I'm putting too much pressure on with my middle finger," Zach explains. "They've take away my two-seamer and want me to not tighten up with my fingers so much." Hence this device which he uses to practice spinning the ball out of his hand.

During spring training, some in frustration were advocating his release. Others noted, there's never been anything wrong with his arm nor his stuff, pointing out that he's only 21. If they can harness that energy and get it focused, he's a deadly weapon.

That he was invited to the Instructional camp is an indication that they've not given up. It's rather like a loose cannon on the deck of those old sailing ships. You have to get it tied down and pointed in the right direction before it self-destructs. Then you have a formidable weapon.

If they succeed, then Zach can really be mentioned with those other early draft picks that year as prospects to be reckoned with.