SARASOTA, Fla. — When the Orioles signed right-handed relief pitcher Ryan Webb in December, executive vice president Dan Duquette quickly compared him to Jim Johnson, who had been traded earlier that month.
And while the comparison wasn't necessarily fair since the departed Johnson had compiled back-to-back 50-save seasons before he was dealt to the Oakland Athletics, both possess heavy sinkers that can lead to early contact and quick outs, which can be valuable while pitching in critical late-inning situations in the American League East.
Webb, who signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal with the Orioles after being nontendered by the Miami Marlins, pitched in a number of roles last season. He came in for situational appearances, threw multiple innings in other outings, but for the most part, he saw action in the seventh and eighth innings. Pitching for the Marlins, who lost 100 games last season, didn't provide much opportunity to pitch with a lead.
Overall this spring, Webb has given up three runs and 11 hits in six innings. After pitching a scoreless eighth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, he gave up four straight hits without recording an out to allow Toronto to score the game-tying run in the ninth.
The Orioles are still trying to find where Webb, who enters his sixth season in the major leagues, fits in a revamped bullpen.
"I think you just kind of trust his track record a little bit," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Each time he's pitched, he's been a little more, 'OK, I've got it now.' He can miss the sweet part of the bat with the sinker behind in the count. That's important for those guys, especially left-handed bats. So far, so good. His personality is starting to come out a little bit. He seems comfortable."
Because of his experience, the 28-year-old Webb likely will be used in the late innings along with veteran right-handers Tommy Hunter, who is the favorite to take over the closer role, and Darren O'Day. All present different looks: Hunter is a fireballer, O'Day is a submarine pitcher and Webb relies on his sinker.
"I don't think I've ever been told what my role is going to be," Webb said. "I think those things, you can talk about it all you want and speculate about it all you want, but what it really comes down to is whatever Buck is comfortable with, and performance. I know we're serious about winning. We want to win games here.
"Hopefully everyone is performing and pushing the next guy, and we can go with whatever Buck is comfortable with. The only thing you can do personally is go out and put up zeroes. That's cliché as it sounds, that's the idea. That's why we're here. The more people do that, the more success we're going to have, and we're all going to be happy."
Changing arm slots
Webb wasn't a sinkerballer by nature, and his path to becoming a ground-ball pitcher took an interesting turn. In high school, Webb had a low arm slot, and after being drafted by the Athletics in the fourth round in 2004, coaches steadily raised his arm slot through the minor leagues while he pitched as a starter.
Eventually, Webb was a 6-foot-6 overhand thrower with a mid-90s fastball. But after being traded to the San Diego Padres in July 2009 and moved to a relief role, he was asked to drop down again during spring training in 2010.
"I had come up with Oakland as a starter, and I was a real hard over-the-top guy. I actually was more low three-quarters in high school, but then I got drafted, and they got my arm angle up every year. And then I got over to San Diego and thought I had finally made it, and I was throwing 100 mph, and the coach comes to me in spring training and asks me if I wanted to drop down. I said, 'Drop down? That's crazy. Why would I do that?' "
Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley's idea to lower Webb's arm slot to a three-quarters angle might have saved his career. Instead of trying to overpower hitters with a mid-90s fastball, he developed a sinker that lured hitters into pounding the ball into the ground.
"I could get it up to 97," Webb said. "I could throw hard, but I left the ball up in the zone a lot. I was a kid who threw and you get away with mistakes [in the minors] because you're throwing 97, but big league hitters also know how to hit that. I had never been a high strikeout guy for throwing that hard. I think they honed in on my skill set a little bit more and realized my potential as a sinkerballer. and that's the path I took."
Webb doubted the transition at first, especially when he was sent to the minors one week after changing his delivery. But after he allowed just two earned runs in 202/3 innings at Triple-A Portland, he was recalled by San Diego in May. Seeing results made Webb realize that the conversion could be a difference-maker in his career.
"When he asked me to do it, I said: 'I just spent the last five years getting up to where I am now, and you want me to just drop back down right when I get here?' " Webb said. "The funny thing was that, as soon as I dropped down and threw the first bullpen, then I was all excited about it, and they sent me down. I thought I had a chance to make the team out of camp, and I had to go to the Triple-A team, and I had my best start of the season in Triple-A I ever had. I needed that. It was a good confidence builder for me to kind of hone that skill, and I did it in three weeks.
"If it wasn't for that, I don't know how long my big league career might have been," Webb said. "I definitely think it was the right decision. It just worked out. That was a big turning point."
Fitting in Baltimore
Webb's arm slot has changed slightly since then, but his focus still remains on using the sinker. And last season, he enjoyed his best major league season, pitching to a 2.91 ERA in 801/3 innings for the Marlins.
"What I've seen so far is like a lot of sinkerball guys," Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "It's coming around as we go on. Two weeks ago, it wasn't as crisp as it was now, and I would suspect two weeks from now, it will be better than it is now, going into the season. He has a sinker. He has a slider. He's pitched the last couple of years out of the bullpen in the National League. It looks like he can be a good piece of our bullpen, come in get a ground ball and get out of the situation. We're going to wait and evaluate that as the season starts."
In looking for a new team this offseason, Webb said the Orioles' defense — as well as playing for a contender — definitely played a role in coming to Baltimore. As Johnson showed, a groundball pitcher can shine with a good defensive infield. And the Orioles' infield had two Gold Glove winners — shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Manny Machado — and another Gold Glove finalist in first baseman Chris Davis.
That definitely will allow Webb to pitch with more confidence, even at hitter-friendly Camden Yards.
"I think the best weapon about having a sinker is that you get quick outs, and if you can control it for strikes, you have the confidence to throw a pitch down the middle of the plate for a strike and not worry about them hitting it out of the park," Webb said. "If you just naturally let it work for you, they're usually going to hit it on the ground or not make solid contact.
"Just to know you can take a step back, catch your breath, throw a pitch over the plate and get some weak contact on it. Having that in the back of your head, you can take a few more chances and try to hit corners and really try to carve some people up."