Scheppers working with new arm slot

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Following a disappointing 2011 season in which reliever Tanner Scheppers struggled with fastball command and didn't reach the major leagues, the right-hander has lowered his arm slot slightly. Lone Star Dugout features the 25-year-old, who is pitching in his third big league camp.

When right-hander Tanner Scheppers entered spring training last season, the Texas Rangers planned to develop him as a starting pitcher. But that plan never got off the ground after he went down with an injury during his second spring outing.

The Fresno State product was quickly sidelined with a nagging lower back injury––a nerve issue that caused numbness in his leg. After seeing his fastball velocity drop into the upper-80s during one early-spring outing, Scheppers was sidelined until April 16, when he made a start with Triple-A Round Rock.

In that game, Scheppers worked only two innings and 39 pitches, giving up three runs on four hits. There were still lingering injury issues, and he returned to the disabled list for more rehab and core strengthening at the Rangers' minor league complex in Arizona. He eventually returned on June 19 with Double-A Frisco and remained with the RoughRiders until August.

Upon his second return from the injury, Scheppers moved back to the bullpen for 27 total relief appearances between the Double- and Triple-A levels. He rejoined the Express on August 7 and posted the following line in his final 10 outings––18.2 ip, 19 h, 7 er (3.38 ERA), 11 bb, 17 k.

The positive for Scheppers is that, through two full seasons, the arm troubles that bothered him in college haven't been an issue. But various other nagging injuries have sidelined him at times and he's yet to pitch in the major leagues despite two full seasons at the upper levels.

The Rangers surely planned on getting the 6-foot-4, 220-pound hurler to the majors at some point last season. But the injuries, coupled with some command issues, led to a 3.71 ERA and 21 walks (with 44 strikeouts) in 43.2 innings––an overall disappointing campaign.

Stuff hasn't been Scheppers' problem. He sits anywhere between 93-98 mph with his fastball and features a knee-buckling curveball. Over the last two years, Scheppers says he's learned a lot about the value of command over pure stuff. He too often worked up in the zone and fell behind in counts during the 2010 and 2011 campaigns.

"Just getting to your balance point and not rushing it––not trying to overthrow or anything like that," Scheppers said when asked about his focus this spring. "It's about location and not really about how hard you throw.

"I found out over the past couple years that it's about location and where the ball is at, so that's what I'm really focusing on."

Now, the 25-year-old is entering his third major league camp, and he's doing so as a full-time reliever. Hoping to finally crack the Rangers' bullpen at some point this season, Scheppers doesn't care about his role––he just wants to reach Arlington.

"Wherever they tell me to go, I'm just going to go out there and throw," he said. "So whatever role that is, I'm just going to go out there and throw the rock."

Scheppers spent most of October and November this offseason pitching with Magallanes in the Venezuelan Winter League. In 14 relief appearances, he surrendered just one earned run on five hits over 13 innings and struck out 16. But he also walked 13.

While with the Venezuelan club, Scheppers worked on using a new arm slot and began throwing his previously under-developed changeup with greater frequency.

The California native has entered this spring with a three-quarters arm slot––slightly lower than his previous high three-quarters delivery. He calls the new mechanics a "little more natural" and says it should help him keep the ball low in the strike zone.

"I worked on it a lot in Venezuela," Scheppers said. "I got a lot of game experience there in Venezuela with it. I definitely feel like it has increased my command. My misses are a lot better––it's not as big. I'm still working on a lot of stuff. But for the most part, I think this feels a lot better."

Between his three spring training outings thus far––one intrasquad appearance and two ‘A' games against the Royals and Dodgers––Scheppers is not only using his changeup more often, but he's also doing it with better results.

His 87-88 mph changeup is looking like a usable third offering out of the bullpen. The pitch has some deception and fading action. Perhaps most importantly, he's been able to locate it low in the zone. Scheppers has thrown the pitch for a strike six of seven times in the three appearances, getting three swings and misses.

"I think (the changeup) just works a little bit better (with the new arm slot)," he said. "I keep my wrist a little bit stiffer, being at a little bit of a lower slot. I learned how to grip it in Venezuela from a pitching coach. I just thought it had good action on it, so I like to use it."

Knowing he has the plus curveball in his arsenal, Scheppers is holding back the breaking ball early this spring in an effort to develop his changeup. While he's used the change seven times in the three one-inning appearances, he has mixed in just three 81-82 mph curveballs––all going for called strikes.

"It's early," Scheppers said. "I would rather see a little bit more changeup. It's a good time to work on it and see something that you haven't really thrown much of. That's what I'm out here doing. But I'm still working on everything. It's just pitch-by-pitch."

Scheppers' raw stuff looks fine early on. His fastball is ranging anywhere between 93-97 mph to go along with the 87-88 mph change and 81-82 mph curveball.

His curveball, however, is slightly different with the new arm slot. The pitch now has a little less vertical depth with more slurve-like action, though it still looks like an above-average pitch capable of missing bats. It's difficult to tell exactly what the ‘new' (or slightly modified) breaking ball will be simply because he hasn't thrown it much yet.

The prospect says he, too, isn't exactly sure what his curveball will look like as he continues to get accustomed to the new arm slot.

"It's still early in spring, so we're working on a lot of stuff," he said. "It's still building up on (the curveball)."

At the end of the day, Scheppers' ceiling will be determined by how well he commands his arsenal. Although he had some trouble with flying open and missing to the armside with his fastball in his first intrasquad outing, his mechanics and command have been improved since.

The right-hander is certainly hoping that the new arm slot helps him keep his plus to plus-plus velocity, breaking ball and changeup low in the zone this season. If it does, he could be a factor out of the Rangers' bullpen in 2012.

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