Brad Ziegler’s locker space in the Arizona Diamondbacks clubhouse is tucked away in a back corner, bookended by the locker of bullpen mate J.J. Putz and a vacancy, occupied only by a mini refrigerator and assorted odds and ends — a pair of pink cleats, leftover game giveaways from seasons past, shoeboxes.
There, the lanky 32-year-old keeps to himself with Twitter and baseball cards and charity.
Reservedness in a major league clubhouse isn’t aberrant altogether, especially for a guy whose career has been made in the humdrum of sixth and seventh inning damage control situations but, unlike some of his other teammates, Ziegler isn’t a foghorn blower or a prankster or a smack-talking heckler. Even though he’s a seasoned veteran and third-year Diamondback, he doesn’t holler to teammates clear across the room and he rarely has to face the claustrophobia and popcorn questioning of a media huddle.
Nonetheless, when he is called upon — whether by his manager, by a menial reporter or by a nationally-renowned columnist — he delivers.
Ziegler’s done it from the beginning.
Though once a releasee who spent time in the independent league, the 20th round (and 31st round) pick holds a jaw-dropping debutant record, a historic groundball rate, a 2.39 career earned run average and something no other current Diamondbacks relief pitcher can boast — a perfect saves record in 2013.
While instability — in the form of two skull fractures, a bout with the swine flu, a dramatic change in delivery and, in effect, a reputation as a situation-only pitcher — has often sought to derail his major league career, it’s now apparent as ever that stability is its foremost mark.
At risk of only superfluity, he delivers.
Here Ziegler is, in Arizona — the place he learned his colophon submarine delivery just shy of seven years ago — the preferred closer to the tenured J.J. Putz and Heath Bell, who have 356 saves between them.
“If everyone in our bullpen was throwing lights out all year, I would have never gotten the chance to close and I’m totally fine with that,” Ziegler says of his month-old role.
The career that began with a historic 38-inning scoreless streak is now in its most important chapter, charged with the tall task of closing for a team that is hanging by a thread in the pennant race it once dominated; the race, you could say, it lost ground in due to its unstable bullpen, the one that has blown an incredible 21 saves.
Seven minutes before the Diamondbacks clubhouse closes Friday, as I scour for a story, receiving the usual cliches and platitudes that seem to pollute conversations with major league baseball players, I set my eyes on Ziegler, the closer there in the corner.
There’s a story.
He hops to his feet, supporting a 6-foot-4 frame, as I approach.
I want to know why someone as atypical as he has found success in the revolving door that is the Diamondbacks closer role.
How has he, a sidearmed-throwing, mid-80s-fastball-wielding, down-to-earth — not-Valverde or Rocker or Wendell or K-Rod or, even, Putz or Bell-esque — guy actually found the save secret?
Ziegler delivers 11 minutes of answers and I’m well past closing time.
Bred as a prototypical situational guy, the name you call upon when you need a double play with the bases load, Ziegler’s knack for the ninth seems curious.
“I know it’s a little different, but I had some closing opportunities in the minors, and so it wasn’t like I was completely foreign to the ninth inning,” he explains.
“The pitches that you throw to get guys out doesn’t change. And how I prepare doesn’t change. It’s just a matter of executing. It’s the same mentality of just going out there and getting outs.”
Fine, but Ziegler doesn’t often get closer-esque outs. Closers are guys named Mariano Rivera, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman. Closers are guys named J.J. Putz and Heath Bell. They throw heat and they get strikeouts.
Ziegler heaves 86-mph fastballs from just 36 inches off the ground and the many baseball bats that hit them fail to lift them off that plane.
No closer Ks. Try 1-3, 6-4-3, 3-U.
First-amendment-clutching conventionalists have every right to question this.
But the pitcher’s manager would never.
“We’ve gotten some pretty good ground balls out of him, and that’s what we’re trying to do — keep the ball in the park when we get to the ninth inning now,” Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson said a couple of weeks ago when expounding on his recent roles switch-up in the bullpen.
The notion of chasing the prototype, chasing strikeouts, chasing that whole mold elicits laughs from Ziegler.
“I never chase strikeouts,” his smirking lips mutter.
Even in the ninth inning, Ziegler couldn’t care less about the strikeout. He prefers its product.
“It doesn’t really matter how you pitch, you just got to get outs.”
Surely, though, with that pedestrian velocity and that side-winding delivery, he faced some discrimination at the lower levels.
“There are some teams that have a predisposition against sidearm/ submarine guys and they prefer the hard-throwing guys all the way up and down their bullpen. But the bottom line is getting outs and if you’re able to get outs early in the game, managers are going to see that and you may get a chance later in the game. And if you’re doing well in the seventh, eighth inning, you may get a shot at the ninth inning here and there,” Ziegler explained.
“And if you struggle in the sixth, seventh inning, you’re not going to get a shot at the ninth inning.”
As told by his exposition, Ziegler was successful in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings this year, prior to taking over the ninth inning role, sporting separate scoreless streaks of 11.1 innings pitched and his current 13-inning one.
A stable, steady approach has allowed him to get outs, regardless of the inning, or context, of his appearance in Diamondbacks games.
“From the time I start warming up, it’s the same plan,” says Ziegler.
“My plan for executing my pitches doesn’t change. From the beginning of an at-bat, I’m just trying to attack and be aggressive and make quality pitches.”
Likewise, nor does the pressure change for Ziegler based on the situation.
“I really don’t feel any different when I’m out there.”
Although he’s been here, before the H1N1 virus disabled him to the benefit of replacement, and future AL Rookie of the Year, Andrew Bailey, the significance he’s found in the ninth inning isn’t something he’s going to take for granted.
“I’m realistic in that I realize that I’m not going to be playing this game for 10 more years, so with that being the case, I’m just trying to enjoy every single day.”
Yeah, like more than three-fourths of the opposing hitters he faces, Ziegler’s grounded out.