The Retooling of C.J. Riefenhauser

C.J. Riefenhauser has always been a pretty good pitcher, but after refining his approach on the mound and upgrading his pitching arsenal, the left-hander is fast becoming one of the Rays best pitching prospects. The ongoing transformation of Riefenhauser has come about from a lot of hard work and the help of a myriad of pitching coaches, and because of it, he has dominated the FSL so far in 2012.

A man walked towards me in the press box of George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL shaking his head.

"Do you know anything about this Riefenhauser kid?" he asked.

"I've seen him a little bit," I replied. "He's pretty good isn't he?"

"Pretty good?", the man said smiling, "He's the best pitcher I've seen in the Florida State League this year. Whoever has been working with this kid deserves a lot of credit. He's very impressive."

The man, who was an independent scout, sat down next to me and we began to talk. I told him about Riefenhauser's history and performance in the Rays' system and he told me about all of the positive things he was seeing from Riefenhauser on the mound - many things which I, myself, had noticed about the 22-year-old from Mahopac, New York.

All of the things that one sees from Riefenhauser on the mound; the way he works quickly to hitters, the clean mechanics, the devastating curve ball and the impressive changeup, are the culmination of his work with a myriad of Rays pitching coaches since he joined the organization in 2010 as a 20th-round draft pick.

The sum total of Riefenhauser's work with Rays coaches and instructors is the dominant pitcher that fans and scouts alike are seeing on the mound in ballparks around Florida this spring.

"This year you can see his experience has grown, said Stone Crabs manager Jim Morrison. "He's really locating all of his pitches, he's down in the zone, moves the ball around, understands hitters better and obviously if you look at his numbers, he is at the top of the list."

When Riefenhauser makes his third start on Wednesday night in Port Charlotte, he'll take a Florida State League-leading ERA of 0.70 to the mound. He'll also bring a strikeout total of 50, which is third to only Rays pitchers James Shields and David Price in the organization. He is also tied for the FSL lead in wins with 6, despite making only two starts and working primarily as a long-reliever and spot-starter.

Recently named the Florida State League Pitcher of the Week, Riefenhauser has a true desire to get better, according to his manager, and that has contributed immensely to his success.

"There's a lot of really good things to say about him," said Morrison. "He comes and competes every day and he is one of those guys that even if he has a great game today, he'll try and fix some of the things that went wrong and continue to try and get better and better."

Riefenhauser, who began the season pitching out of the bullpen and has recently been inserted into the rotation because of an injury to Wilking Rodriguez, is taking his recent success in stride and is quick to credit those who have helped him achieve his recent run of good results.

"It's been good right now. I'm just trying to keep it going," said Riefenhauser during a phone interview earlier this week. "I'm working hard. Between them [pitching coaches Dick Bosman and Steve "Doc" Watson], my defense behind me and the catchers calling the games , I've gotten a lot of help from everywhere."

In three seasons, Riefenhauser has a career ERA of 2.33 in 204.2 innings.

Last season between Low-A Bowling Green and Charlotte, Riefenhauser posted a SO/9 rate of 8.0. This year in 38.1 innings, Riefenhauser has 50 punch-outs and a SO/9 rate of 11.7, a jump of almost 4 strikeouts per nine innings.

"When you throw so many strikes with several pitches – his changeup's been working for him, his breaking ball's been working for him and his fastball has some nice sink on it and he can run it inside as well - the hitter is kind of off-balance a little bit," said Morrison when asked about Riefenhauser's high strikeout totals this year.

Morrison continued, "Of course, when you're throwing a lot of strikes, they'll chase the balls just off the plate as well. His breaking ball has been nice and sharp and tight and the arm action on his changeup has been very good and his fastball has been located. He's a difficult guy to pin down to try and sit on something, that's what makes hitting him so tough."

Riefenhauser says that his high strikeout rate is due to the reworking of his breaking ball that is now more of a 11-to-5 curve ball, rather than the east-to-west slider that he threw in previous seasons.

"It wasn't great," he says of his old breaking ball. "That was one of the goals of Instructional League was to get that breaking ball down and he [Rays minor league pitching coordinator Dick Bosman] helped me with it. I worked on it all off-season and came here and made some adjustments with Doc Watson, our pitching coach, and it seems to working for me good right now."

Another important ingredient to Riefenhuaser's early dominance of the Florida State League is that he works quickly and lives in the zone. But according to the southpaw, working quickly is something that he has only recently begun to do.

"I actually never pitched like that until I got into pro ball," he says of working quickly. "My first year was in Princeton with Dog [former Princeton Rays and current GCL Rays pitching coach Marty DeMerritt] and he told me 'just get the ball back and get right to it.'"

Riefenhauser was again reminded of the importance of working quickly during this year's spring training by Bosman.

"Get the ball and go, stop thinking so much about how perfect you have to be. The quicker you go, the more you are going to repeat your mechanics . Your mind isn't going to be contradicting itself. Once the catcher puts down that finger, just go.", Riefenhauser says he was told by the pitching coordinator.

Riefenhauser has also begun throwing his changeup again, a pitch that he had not been throwing in games until a few weeks ago, in large part because of his work with Stone Crabs pitching coach Doc Watson, who Riefenhauser says is "a master at grips".

"I bagged it the first part of the season because I couldn't throw for it a strike," the southpaw says of his changeup. "It was either a fifty-footer or it was going arm side-miss. Me and Doc were working on grips again and we got it down. I've been trying to throw it every outing a little here-and-there ever since. I used it more in my start, because it called for it a little more. But I feel really comfortable with it right now."

Riefenhauser will start Wednesday night, but his future in the rotation is still up in the air. In 50 minor league appearances, he has made 29 starts but says that he is "comfortable" starting or relieving.

"I honestly have no idea", Riefenhauser said when asked if he was in the rotation for good. "I try not to worry about things like that. After my start, he [manager Jim Morrison] told me that I'm going to make his [Wilking Rodriguez] next start. I try not to worry about things I can't control."

Despite his tremendous success so far in 2012, Riefenhauser says that his short-term goals "vary from outing-to-outing" depending on what he needs to work on. The left-hander works on his mechanics, grips and delivery daily however and his long-term goal isn't much different from any other player in the minor leagues.

"You ask anybody in minor league ball what their goal is and they'll tell you it is to get to the major leagues any way possible. I'm no different. That's my long-term goal."



John Gregg is Publisher and Senior Editor of Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaysDigest. He can also be reached via e-mail at raysdigest.com@gmail.com.

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