Preston Claiborne joined the Tampa Yankees at the end of last season, appearing in five games and recording an efficient 3.68 ERA. The right-hander dominated with Staten Island before being promoted, striking out 30 batters in 23.2 innings. His confidence was high coming into the 2011 season and he says that might be what led to his early season struggles.
"I would go in and be amped up and try to blow it by a bunch of guys," Claiborne said. "You can't get away with making mistakes like that."
The Yankees' seventh round pick in 2010 was sitting on a 5.33 ERA this year entering Friday night's game, the result of pitches simply being left over the plate and elevated. He's given up six homers, four of them hit in his first four outings. While pitching for Tulane he said, he went through a similar stretch in which he gave up eight homers in seven outings.
"You gotta dig deep and keep working," Claiborne said in relation to how he's overcome such poor performances.
He uses a two and a four seam fastball, as well as a slider and a changeup. Tampa's pitching coach, Jeff Ware says coming in the change was his best pitch.
"With his good arm speed and the fade, you get deception from the hitter," Ware said. "It keeps hitters off balance and will get a lot of swings and misses."
The slider, however, is a different story. When Claiborne joined the organization, Ware says the pitch had a trajectory similar to a curveball, and a speed too slow to effectively fool hitters. The two worked on making it more of a "true slider" by straightening it and adding a tilt. They also worked to add a few miles-per-hour to the pitch, giving it more deception. The slider was the focus of Claiborne's spring training says Ware.
As he continues to improve the offspeed pitches that compliment his low-90s fastball, his strikeout numbers continue to impress out of the bullpen. He has 23 K's in 27 innings this year.
"I'd love to say I always go for the strikeout, because it's a pretty number to have," Claiborne said. "But at the same time, it's making good pitches. I don't want to throw a ball in the zone that will allow for a base hit."
It's impressive to see a pitcher with solid strikeout numbers also limit their walks issued, which Claiborne has done, only giving up 19 walks in the past two seasons combined.
The biggest problem is the quality of his strikes, making pitches that are over the plate without giving the hitters easy pitches to hit. Opponents are hitting .292 against Claiborne this season. He allowed four earned runs in 2.1 innings of relief on May 21st, the result of five base hits and a pair of walks.
"That was just mental mistakes on my part," Claiborne said of the outing, "not focusing on getting the ball out of the zone."
The drubbing seems to be a small speed bump in Claiborne's season though. Before then, he had pitched 9.2 innings in five appearances, only giving up one earned run. Coach Ware says it's is a result of Claiborne keeping the ball down in the zone, not falling toward the plate, and generally just focusing more.
It seems like if he can continue to throw quality strikes and keep the ball in the ballpark, Claiborne is poised to put his rough start behind him.
"He's made some great adjustments and now he's starting to pitch down in the zone," says Coach Ware. "He's getting outs and he's having success."
Claiborne Starting To Throw Quality Strikes
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