Press Start: May Changes His Game (Again)
There was some consternation over Minnesota's lack of offseason action on the starting pitching front, given the horrendous results that unit put forth last year. However, the rotation can potentially receive a huge boost simply by getting May back following his 2016 foray into the bullpen.
It’s an opportunity for the 27-year-old to press reset. And the stakes are high for both him and the club.
Reality is a bit more unpredictable and complicated than the virtual alternative, as May knows all too well. In a baseball sim on PlayStation, you pick your pitch, aim the joystick and press a button to deliver. You needn't deal with days where your stuff isn’t there, or with changes in your role dictated from up top, or with injuries that you just can’t seem to shake.
All of these hindrances helped turn May’s 2016 campaign into a nightmarish one. But the righty believes he’s stronger for the experience.
“I learned a lot of stuff about myself,” he said. "Getting myself ready, working through things, when I need to shut it down, when I need to battle through.”
May’s efforts to battle through recurring back problems proved counterproductive last summer, as his numbers suffered (a 1.89 ERA and .563 opponents' OPS through May 10th gave way to 7.99 and .902 the rest of the way) and a stress fracture was discovered in September.
Now, he’s got a strategy in place that he believes will keep those pesky back issues at bay.
“The problem with backs, as many people know,” May explained, “is that when you tweak it, it’s hard to relax and not be tight all the time. That’s something I learned a lot about in the offseason.”
“I’ve learned how to let myself relax.”
There are few things more relaxing than cozying up to the keyboard or controller and plugging in. Perhaps that’s part of May’s regimen. He makes no secret of his affinity for gaming, and he also happens to be pretty good at it. In February, he became the only pro athlete on an eSports team when he signed on with Luminosity.
For the uninitiated, eSports is a humongous and rapidly growing industry that involves playing video games competitively for spectators, often while commentating.
For May, the game of choice is Overwatch, a cartoony first-person shooter developed by Blizzard Entertainment. He calls the arrangement “kind of an informal thing” but both he and Luminosity have played it up, and the significance isn’t lost on people like Pete Leisen.
You might be familiar with Leisen, though not by that name. He goes by the pseudonym Panda Pete, and makes up one half of the Twins and Losses duo; they frequently post their stuff here on Twins Daily. Pete's been blogging about the Twins since 2014, but he has been a gamer for pretty much his entire life, ever since he fell in love with the original Nintendo Entertainment System as a kid.
For a lifelong baseball fan and avid gamer, May presents the ideal intersection of interests. On the field, he's a hell of a pitcher. Off it, he's an obsessive video game player with an entertaining persona.
"Being around the same age as Trevor, along with his personality, make him a must-watch," Leisen said. "Sure he's a professional baseball player, but you can tell he loves games by his reactions when things go good and bad."
Connecting with May through this medium enables Leisen to scratch two itches at once.
"Twins fans, baseball fans, and gamers alike ask him questions about his 'day job' and he almost always gives an honest answer. It's also interesting to see how baseball fans and gamers interact with each other because there are some pure baseball fans who want to support Trevor, and pure gamers who like what he streams."
It's safe to say the Twins pitcher is gaining new fans all the time, from all corners. He has a big one in Pete – heck, the two are posing together in his Twitter profile pic.
May is openly passionate about his pastime, but serious about his business. He is as self-analytical and reflective as any player you will talk to in the Minnesota clubhouse. He's also constantly looking for ways to improve.
If you hold a grudge toward Kevin Jepsen, I don't blame you. Terry Ryan gave up Chih-Wei Hu, an intriguing pitching prospect, to acquire the reliever at the 2015 deadline and Jepsen completely bombed last year when the team needed him after Glen Perkins went down.
But Jepsen did leave a parting gift. May credits the veteran with helping teach him a new curveball grip that he implemented halfway through the season with exceptional results. The new technique gives him more 12-to-6 movement and less horizontal tilt. It also comes in much faster.
"My swing-and-miss rate on it has gone up a lot since the change," he said after an impressive outing against Team USA on Wednesday. "It's been hit hard a lot less."
Who else helped contribute to this evolution? Yet another unpopular Twins castoff.
"Ricky Nolasco said, I throw my curveball slow on purpose and I grip it like that" – May repositions his fingers on the ball he's using to demonstrate for reporters, back to his original grip – "because I want it to be slow."
"He goes, you want to throw a hard curveball though right? I'm like, yeah. He's like, don't hold it like this then, idiot!"
So far, there are positive signs. On Wednesday, the difficulty level was turned up for May when he faced a star-studded lineup that featured – in his words – "the No. 3 hitter from every team." One of the right-hander's biggest pitches was a curve that dived out of the zone and coaxed Nolan Arenado to go too far with a check swing for strike three.
Arenado was the actual No. 3 hitter on a team full of them, so that basically makes him the Shao Kahn or M. Bison in this scenario. May's weapon upgrade helped him vanquish the boss. If this reinvention assists in spurring a turnaround for the Twins rotation, Jepsen and Nolasco will be accepting apologies from the boo birds while the end credits roll.
Video games are fun. The Twins 2016 season, obviously, was not. It was like lag hitting when you're in the middle of a kill streak. It was like a brand new disc freezing at the first loading screen. It was like freaking Superman 64.
"We're tired of being that team. It's time to step up and hold everyone accountable," May said.
He includes himself in that mandate, and that's why he spent his offseason getting right physically and prepping for a triumphant return to the rotation, where he showed significant promise in 2015 before being shifted to relief.
The Twins don’t need him to put up video game numbers. They’ll welcome steady mid-rotation production and May is more than capable of providing it.
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