Adjustments paying off for Tufts

HICKORY, N.C. - With a 2.22 ERA in 52.2 innings, Hickory reliever Tyler Tufts is having an excellent season by the numbers alone. Add in a couple of key adjustments by pitching coach Brad Holman, and Tufts is quickly turning into a legitimate relief prospect. Lone Star Dugout takes a look at Tufts' season in this feature story.

Nearly thirteen months after he signed his first professional baseball contract, right-handed pitcher Tyler Tufts is beginning to look like more than the average 32nd round pick.

Tufts spent his career at the University of Indiana as a starting pitcher, and the Texas Rangers selected him in the 32nd round of the '08 draft after he posted a 6-5 record with a 5.65 ERA in 86 innings for the Hoosiers. Tufts allowed 129 hits while walking 32 and striking out 52.

The Rangers instantly made Tufts a reliever and appointed him to the rookie-level Arizona League. The youngsters in the AZL proved to be no match for Tufts, as he surrendered just two earned runs in 18.1 innings [0.98 ERA].

Much like current Hickory teammate and fellow 2008 draft pick Erik Morrison did, Tufts went to Bakersfield late in the season to fill an open spot. Although he had a 1.93 ERA in 14 innings, he gave up 19 hits and walked six while striking out just three.

Tufts moved down a step, going to Single-A Hickory to open the 2009 season. Although he's playing at a lower level, the reliever is having success, and—more importantly—his stuff is improving thanks to the help of his pitching coach.

The 22-year-old has logged 52.2 innings with the Crawdads, going 3-1 with a 2.22 ERA. He has yielded 53 hits [.260 BAA] while walking nine and striking out 46. Tufts has kept the ball on the ground, surrendering just one home run all season and getting a 2.45:1 groundout-to-flyout ratio.

Although Tufts isn't quite satisfied with his team's performance this season, he's pleased with where he stands personally.

"On a personal level, I feel good," Tufts said. "The individual stuff is great. But more importantly, you want to win as a team."

When Tufts pitched in Bakersfield last season, he worked with an 88-90 mph sinker to go along with a slider and a changeup. But Crawdads pitching coach Brad Holman saw room for improvement.

"Brad changed some things," he said. "My lead arm, my left arm, is a little higher. I have a little more leverage, and a little more velocity on my pitches. Other than that, I made my stride a little bit longer. But the main thing is that left arm is getting up a little higher now."

Holman made the adjustment because he felt Tufts has more velocity in his arm.

"I had success with my arm down," Tufts said, "but [Holman] just said, ‘It looks like you're not even trying to throw hard. I think we can get more velo out of you.'"

He was right. Since making the adjustment, Tufts' sinker has sat in the low-90s and he reaches 93 and 94 mph on occasion. Even more importantly, he has continued to show excellent command, he's still throwing strikes, and he's still getting ground balls.

In a recent relief appearance against Lake County, Tufts pitched three scoreless innings, giving up one hit, walking zero, and striking out five. He used his 77-78 mph changeup to get a handful of strikeouts and one important double play ground ball.

Being a starting pitcher for most of his baseball career, Tufts has always used a changeup. But it wasn't always this effective.

"Last year I used my changeup quite a bit," he said. "It was a different changeup, though. They hit it harder. This year it's a lot better. Hopefully I can get it rolling and use it a lot more this year."

The new changeup is yet another development brought along by Holman.

"About two weeks ago, we were messing around with a changeup," Tufts explained. "I threw it to the first lefty and struck him out. I said, ‘Alright, maybe I'll throw it again.' Then I threw it to another lefty and struck him out."

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Ohio native is using a different grip on his changeup. The pitch wasn't perfect, as it sometimes stayed up in the zone during the outing versus Lake County, but the pitch had good enough action to fool the hitters.

"I'm not slowing down my hand," he said, "so it looks like my fastball and it has the same sink as my two-seam."

Tufts has confidence in his pitching coach, an important factor when changes need to be made.

It certainly helps when the adjustments immediately produce better results.

"Yeah, he's messing with everything, isn't he?" Tufts joked. "It's working out well, though. The man knows what he's talking about, that's for sure."

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