It's May 2013, one year after many people, including his previous employer, had written off Jason Marquis for the third time in his career. And Marquis is still busy figuring out how to get major league hitters out, and succeeding.
Exactly how the stocky 6'1" righty from Staten Island, now 34, accomplishes the task is hard to grasp from the numbers alone. But after earning the victory Wednesday afternoon in Baltimore, Marquis' E.R.A. stood at 3.49, which if it lasts would be the best mark of his career since he became a full-time starter in 2004.
He doesn't do it with velocity. He doesn't do it with a dazzling array of pitches. He doesn't even do it with superior command, or an ability to miss bats. Of 47 pitchers with 1,500 innings logged since 2000, Marquis is 40th in strikeout rate, 43rd in walk rate.
But unlike 20 of those 47 pitchers, Jason Marquis is still getting outs and winning games. And he doesn't much care what anyone thinks about how he does it.
"Whatever it is, I don't care, the one or the five," Marquis said of his spot in any team's rotation as we talked at his locker in Baltimore on Tuesday afternoon, the day before his most recent start. Marquis is uncommonly bright, a direct attack on the stereotypes associated with his thick Staten Island accent, as if Greg Maddux and The Situation had a baby. "What they get out of me is a guy who works hard, competes, and gives you a chance to win every time I step on the mound. And if teams don't value that, they won't value that."
What Marquis went through last season nearly ended his career. Signed to a one-year, $3 million contract by the Minnesota Twins, Marquis' spring training preparation was cut short when his seven-year-old daughter, Reese, suffered a punctured liver and internal bleeding from the simple act of falling off of her bicycle. Sixteen days at the hospital and ten blood transfusions later, Reese went home, and encouraged her father to return to work.
"That was a decision my family and I made," Marquis said. "I contemplated possibly not going back. Maybe taking the rest of the year off and seeing where this year took me. But talking it over with my wife, my kids, especially my daughter -- she's old enough now to realize what I do, help make decisions -- she still wanted me to play baseball."
But that proved easier said than done for Marquis. His mind still very much on his daughter's recovery, he never found his way with the Twins, posting an 8.47 E.R.A. over seven starts, with more walks than strikeouts. The Twins released him, and at age 33, with a diminished fastball velocity from a peak that wasn't exactly blazing, it looked like Marquis was finished.
The San Diego Padres disagreed. They brought Marquis in, and he immediately started succeeding with them. Marquis certainly would have preferred pitching closer to home, but as he put it, "Beggars can't be choosers. You look at the numbers, and sometimes G.M.s and teams can't look past it." The hometown New York Mets, for instance, a team that certainly could use Marquis right now, didn't have any interest. Still, he'd gotten to see them on this East coast swing; when we spoke Tuesday afternoon, Marquis had just arrived after taking the train down from New York to Baltimore, and Marquis smiled as he explained his wife and three children would be coming out to San Diego for an extended trip.
"And then we're on the East Coast for a lot of July, for the All Star break," Marquis said, cycling through a calendar in his mind. "We make it work. When I can't do it anymore mentally, and my family can't do it mentally, that's when I know it'll be time to hang it up."
Making that adjustment, psychologically, is the difference between Marquis' pitching in Minnesota and San Diego, he believes.
"I'm not a guy who makes excuses, but my daughter nearly lost her life last year," Marquis said of his time in Minnesota. "Leaving home, and being away from her really affected me more than I actually thought [it would]. But I've still got to go out there and compete, make pitches, and I didn't do that. But at the same time, one door closes, another opens, and how I threw the ball here in San Diego my last fifteen starts is indicative of more of what I'm capable of."
His manager, Bud Black, also indicated his utter lack of surprise over Marquis regaining his form. It's not the first time Marquis returned from baseball oblivion. He pitched to a 6.02 E.R.A. in 2006 for the Cardinals, then came back to post a pair of solid seasons for the Cubs before making the All Star team with the Rockies in 2009. Then he pitched to a 6.60 E.R.A. for Washington in 2010 -- but came back in 2011 to pitch to a 3.95 E.R.A. for the Nationals and became a trade-deadline pickup for the Diamondbacks.
There's a divide between those who can look at his numbers and be genuinely confused about how Marquis has succeeded for so long, and those who work with him and are convinced he'll figure it out.
"There were things going on, off the field, that I think actually got in the way of his performance, which is understandable," Black said of Marquis after Wednesday's game, sitting in his office in the Orioles' visitors' clubhouse. "But once he got to us, he's pitched really well. And from that point on, he's been a solid contributor for our club, both on the field, and in the clubhouse, as a veteran presence."
His strong run with the Padres began immediately. He pitched six innings of one-run ball on June 7 against the Giants. He followed it with six shutout innings against the Mariners, the seven innings of two-run ball against the Rangers. That 4.04 E.R.A. was his best since 2009, when he made the All Star team and won 15 games for the Colorado Rockies. And before you dismiss that comparison, given the vast difference pitching home games in Denver or San Diego, keep in mind that his home E.R.A. of 3.92 last season was actually higher than his 3.67 home E.R.A. in Denver in 2009. Last year was no Petco Park creation.
But Marquis' fastball velocity dropped even further in 2012, to a career-low 88.6 miles per hour. In 2013? He's at 87.2. And yet the E.R.A. is lower than ever, while he pitched eight shutout innings last Thursday against the Marlins. Shocking, right? Not to Marquis, who expressed surprise that his velocity has dropped during his recent run, but doesn't put much stock in the relationship between fastball velocity and success.
"For me, it's about the delivery," Marquis said. "When my delivery's right, there's so much more movement, the life on my ball, there's so much more quality on it when things are going right. To me, life and movement on the ball -- you can ask hitters, a guy throwing 93, his ball could look 89. A guy throwing 89, his ball could look 93. And that's life on the ball, perceived velocity, whatever you want to call it."
Nor is Marquis' work in San Diego any surprise to his catcher, Nick Hundley, who seemed almost affronted by the idea that Marquis would be anything but successful on the mound.
"The guy's pitched fifteen years in the big leagues," Hundley said, invoking Marquis' success itself to explain the success. "So just 'cause a guy had a rough month, or a rough couple of outings..."
I pointed out that Minnesota gave up on Marquis, and asked Hundley if Marquis is any different now than the moment he first threw to Hundley after arriving last year.
"I think he works the exact same," Hundley replied. "I think he puts the time in as good as anybody I've been around."
And that preparation, according to Marquis, is what suffered in Minnesota, due to his mind being elsewhere. That's not surprising, given what Marquis went through; it also makes all the sense in the world that a guy with limited raw stuff who's been beating hitters with his brains for well over a decade needs full focus to do so.
"When mentally, you're not there -- not even saying mentally just during the game, but preparation, your bullpens, that's the part to me that's more important than anything," Marquis said. "All that repetition and the hard work that you put in, you shouldn't have to think about that on the mound. It should just translate. And those parts, the dead time, not the competition part, the dead time, that was like, 'Man, I could be with my family right now'. It really wasn't so much the game, it was really the proper work and preparation that I didn't really get to put in in between starts obviously translated to games."
The preparation didn't fully translate Wednesday afternoon, as it sometimes doesn't for any pitcher. All Marquis' pitches had been working for him when he shut out the Marlins last Thursday. But against a vastly superior Orioles' lineup, Marquis did not have much use of his slider. A sinker/slider pitcher without a slider has one weapon, really, and that's the ability to change speeds with his changeup, which Marquis has dialed back as his fastball velocity has abated to keep the differential sufficient to keep hitters off balance.
Still, Marquis walked four, and faced a difficult situation in the second inning, with two men on for Many Machado, the Orioles' phenom third baseman. Marquis threw him a sinking fastball, 87 miles per hour. The plan wasn't to get ahead in the count for Marquis, who had no putaway pitch. The plan was to get Machado to hit the ball, and he did -- right to second baseman Jedd Gyorko to start an inning-ending double play.
Facing the same situation in the bottom of the fifth against center fielder Adam Jones, Marquis made his pitch, that 87 mile per hour sinker. Jones hit into a double play, this time a grounder to shortstop Everth Cabrera. Crisis averted.
"That pitch is going to produce more ground balls than any other pitch," Marquis said after Wednesday's game, an 8-4 Padres win. "You force them to try to hit the top of the ball. The infield grass is nice here for a sinkerball guy, slows the ball down a little bit. We were able to turn two big double plays. You've got a guy who's not a swing-and-miss guy like myself, you've got to get some quick outs. I've had some good success with that.
"Some days, you're not going to feel as good as others," Marquis continued. He'd lasted into the sixth, allowed two earned runs on seven hits, and earned the victory, the 117th of his career. "I don't want to keep putting myself in those situations, but when you do, you've got to find a way."