SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — “I try not to change.”
Those five words might dampen expectations when considering the source.
After all, right-hander Trevor Cahill has not exactly come as advertised since being acquired back in Dec. 2011 from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for highly-touted prospect Jarrod Parker.
With two seasons under his belt as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cahill has been more of an enigma than a quality No. 2 or No. 3 starter.
The combined production, or lack thereof — 21-22 record with a 3.87 ERA, 1.34 WHIP and 3.6 walks per nine innings average — speaks for itself.
Cahill’s up-and-down numbers on the mound were initially thought to be a byproduct of his conditioning and dietary habits, but healthier food consumption and a 15-pound weight loss before the start of the 2013 campaign didn’t yield better results.
He dropped 10 of his first 13 decisions, including a five-start span in June in which he allowed 27 earned runs in 22.1 innings of work. Instead of being sent down to the minors, though, the Oceanside, Calif. native was placed on the disabled list with a hip contusion.
The hiatus from the bump seemed to refocus Cahill’s attention after arguably the toughest three-month stretch of his young career.
After a pair of mixed results in his first two starts off the DL, the right-hander found his stride during a scoreless four-inning relief appearance in Arizona’s 18-inning win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 24.
Cahill went on to win his final three decisions and didn’t allow more than three runs in any of his last six appearances.
While an encouraging September might convince some that he’s turned that corner from a mediocre starter to a reliable, middle-of-the-rotation guy, the 25-year-old admits that the late-season statistics didn’t quite reflect how he was actually throwing the ball.
“Obviously the record was there [at the end], but I still wasn’t where I wanted to be at all,” said Cahill, who led all of baseball with 17 wild pitches in 2013. “I felt like I didn’t pitch all that great. I felt like the best I pitched was at the beginning of last year, even though the record didn’t show. Then, I had that middle part where I was getting hit all over the place.
“But definitely there’s carry over [from last year]. Sometimes you’re going to need that, give up some runs and still get a win. It helps sometimes. It gives you confidence.”
If there is a carry over, it definitely seems to be in that confidence department — which might just be the biggest change between the pitcher Cahill has been the past two campaigns and who he’ll be in 2014.
“I was told good or bad, when you come in the clubhouse nobody should be able to tell how you did,” said Cahill. “You should hold your head up high. You should have fun. If you’re a guy who jokes around and has fun out there, you should try to be the same way. You shouldn’t be the guy who pitches bad and then for four days is in a bad mood. I try to come in every single day and have fun with the guys. We’re playing a game. Sometimes you have to step back and realize how lucky we are.
“I’m focused now, no matter the result, how I pitched. I mean with pitching, after you let the ball go you can give up seven runs and hit all your spots and they hit you that day. Or, I’ve gone seven shutout innings and not felt like I hit a spot. They just rolled over on them. With this long of a season, it’s important to stay even-keeled.”
That demeanor was a big part of the reason he won 18 games during his second full big-league season back in 2010.
Call it blissful ignorance or the naivety of a young pitcher trying to hold his own at the highest level, but at 22 years of age very little affected Cahill on the mound.
“That year, I guess I never had back-to-back bad starts,” said Cahill, who made the American League All-Star that season. “My three worst individual outings were that year, but I was able to turn the page. I started the year in Triple-A, so I was kind of able to relax. I felt like an underdog who wanted to prove them wrong.
“As far as consistency, my routine, my workout regimen and work ethic are a lot better now as I’ve matured. Then, I was young and able to turn the page on stuff quickly. No one bad outing ever hurt my confidence.”
So, what’s the key for Cahill to get back to that point?
According to him, it’s a matter of regaining a level of enjoyment for the game — not just every fifth day, but throughout the entire process.
“Honestly, it was just more fun [in 2010],” said Cahill. “Our pitching staff at one point had 20 or 30-something quality starts in a row. Baseball was just fun. When you start struggling, you tend to get frustrated. Every single day you come here, you get through your workout and start saying, ‘Oh, this isn’t working.’ And, you start questioning yourself. When things are going good, especially when the whole pitching staff is rolling like that, it’s easier to feed of. There’s not a lot to it for me, except to get back to having fun.
“I enjoy pitching. The process in the middle, the running and doing all that stuff, you do so you can throw to the best of your ability. Over the years, you learn to have to enjoy that process. I remember a pitching coach telling us that you have five days and it’s a routine. He said, ‘You have to learn to enjoy the process or it’s going to translate over when you’re pitching.’ I’ve learned that a lot. I enjoy the process, because I know it’s going to help me on the fifth day when I’m actually having fun and on the mound.”
Benefits from that approach already appear to be creeping into the forefront.
Monday, Cahill threw in early-morning live batting practice session — one that left his manager awfully impressed.
“He’s throwing the ball really good,” Kirk Gibson said. “I don’t think he’s thinking things out too much. It’s coming naturally to him. His mechanics are good. He seems to be repeating keeping the ball down and letting it work.
“We talk about the good sinker that he has, but today he had a filthy curveball as well. He kind of eliminated some of the things he used to do. I think he’s in a good spot.”
As it turns out, it might not be a dietary adjustment or a mechanical tweak that ultimately reroutes his career in a positive direction. For Trevor Cahill, it might just be turning that frown permanently upside down.