Walking Away Gave Blaine Boyer's Career A Second Life
Beginning in 2011, Boyer was constantly finding a new employer every few months. FIrst it was several months with the Mets, then the Pirates, followed by the Cardinals (who had him for exactly the month of May in 2009). In August 2011 he was released by St. Louis and decided that he would put his family first over the career which had been one big, long moving day.
“I was coming and going and I wasn’t consistently there for my boys and my wife and that brought back a lot of what I went through when I was little, so she understood that,” Boyer told MLB Trade Rumors this spring of his leave of absence. “It wasn’t about me not wanting to play baseball anymore, it was much deeper.”
The love of the game pulled him back after the year off.
Boyer returned to baseball and signed a minor league deal with the Kansas City Royals but sought his release in May to join the Hanshin Tigers of Japan. That experience helped mold him into the pitcher he is today.
“They just do little things different,” the 33-year-old Boyer said of the season he played in 2013 in Japan. “It’s funny, like we go out and warm up, they don’t warm up on the [chalk] line. They throw across the field. They do stuff that, to us, it doesn’t make any sense. They got three guys taking batting practice at the same time on the field. They got guys that will go out and swing the bat 700-800 times before a game.”
Boyer missed that league’s spring training season and considers himself fortunate for having avoided the infamously rigorous conditioning methods that are better suited for raising an army rather than preparing for a child's game played by grown men.
“Their work ethic over there is different too,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said of the methods used in Japan’s version of loosening up for a game. “They get after it over there. It’s long and tedious. It’s important. Their practice time is a heck of a lot more urgent than ours. When they take BP they go balls out.”
Ryan said the game in Japan can sometimes aid a pitcher who was spit out of the majors rediscover his talents or make adjustments. Pitchers who have been baptized in the American version may get too consumed with throwing harder and snapping off bigger breaking pitches. Without the eye-popping velocity, Japan’s pitchers historically have focused more on addition and subtraction.
Beyond the physical aspect of the game, Ryan believes that there is a mental side that plays a role for pitchers. Landing in Japan means that MLB’s evaluators no longer have interest - a realization that can land a kick square in the jock.
From Boyer’s perspective, the cross-Pacific experience help revive his career. The dimensions of Major League Baseball’s zone has created a wellspring of studies suggesting it is expanding, but in Japan the exact opposite effect is happening. Boyer believes having to pitch to a strike zone in Japan which he described as the size of a tennis ball was a blessing in disguise.
“It made me better over here for sure,” Boyer said reflecting on the frustrating lesson imparted by Nippon Baseball League’s miniscule zone. “If there is one thing that made me a better pitcher over there it was that for sure. I was forced to pound that zone and aim small, miss small.”
When he returned from Japan his ability to locate his pitches with precision paid dividends. In his time before leaving the country, Boyer issued 94 walks in 234 innings of work (9% walk rate). After signing a minor league deal with the Padres, the parent club summoned him in May 2014 and he walked just eight batters in 40.1 innings (5%). Boyer’s not the only MLB pitcher to spend time in Japan and reduce his walk rate on his return. The Rangers’ Colby Lewis is another success story of someone who went to Japan and came back with improved command. Before leaving, Lewis had a walk rate of 12% but returned and cut that in half.
That’s not to say everything Boyer learned came from his time in Japan.
While in the Cardinals system, pitching guru Dave Duncan taught Boyer a sinker that he uses frequently. What makes his sinker unusual is that it is the pitch he throws when he wants to bring the heat.
“The velocity ticks up when I throw my sinker, which is backwards,” he said following an outing which saw him amp a few pitches up to 95 when facing David Ortiz. “I kinda get through the ball better when I throw my sinker so that tends to tick the velocity up a little bit.”
Boyer flicked his wrist to demonstrate the follow through which he says generates the added velocity.
“I have always been able to sit 92 to 94 or 95. I can go up and get 98 on a good day,” Boyer said of his radar readings. "Really it's the sinker. When I went to St. Louis I was just a strictly 92 to 94 guy and Dave Duncan showed me the sinker and I started throwing the sinker and all of sudden I got a huge tick. My velocity just went up. So I say it’s kind of backwards because when I throw my sinker it’s usually harder than my four-seamer.”
The Twins have been pleasantly surprised by the speed. Ryan said Boyer showed “a little bit more velocity this spring” than he was expecting - which was around 91 or 92 -- but he is also mixing in his new change-up too. With multiple fastballs -- the sinker, four-seam and a cutter which acts more like a slider ("Adam Wainwright has been trying to tell me the last couple years that it is just a slider") -- Boyer is also embracing the change-up philosophy encouraged by pitching coach Neil Allen.
“I haven’t thrown a change-up my entire life,” Boyer confessed. “I maybe have thrown two in a game but they just have been just a fake. I’m not fooling anybody with that. This is a legit change-up. I can’t wait to use that in my arsenal.”
With the Padres last year Boyer exuded dominance over right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .178 average in 97 plate appearances, but was cuffed around by left-handers who posted a .305 average against in 63 match-ups. Adding the change-up could help keep those bats at bay.
The Twins were obviously pleased with what they saw on the mound and in the clubhouse as well.
“He seems like a solid guy,” Ryan levied. “He’s just a good teammate, it looks like. He’s gone about his business professionally and he’s gone out there and when we needed him to take the ball he took it and he’s not had any setbacks. So far, it’s worked out for both of us.”
The expanded arsenal combined with the ability to pound the strike zone and surprising velocity should have Boyer contributing out of the bullpen effectively. As the season starts manager Paul Molitor said that he envisions him acting as a bridge between his starters and the back-end of the bullpen in Casey Fien, Brian Duensing and eventually Glen Perkins.
There's no telling where Boyer might have been had he not stepped away from the game several years ago. His career has been given a second life since the day he almost walked away and the Twins are hoping to benefit from that.
“I’m happy for him,” Molitor said of Boyer’s achievements. “He came over here and he’s been solid from the beginning.”
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