In his speech at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony a few weeks back, Greg Maddux talked about the most important lesson he learned from his high school pitching coach. "You throw hard enough," Maddux quoted his coach as saying, "but as you face better hitters, you're going to need more than just velocity to get hitters out. Movement and location will last longer than hard and straight." Maddux worked the advice to perfection. He pitched with success into his early 40s and watched one young gun after another come to the big leagues as a flamethrower, only to find that the hitters could eventually catch up.
Then there was Jake Peavy. He and Maddux comprised two-fifths of the San Diego Padres' rotation in 2007, when Maddux was 41 and near the end of his career, and Peavy was 26 and becoming a star. Peavy's four-seam fastball averaged 95 mph that season -- and he struck out nearly 27 percent of the batters he faced. But Peavy's four-seamer wasn't his only weapon. He also threw a two-seamer which acted like a sinker and helped Peavy to a 44 percent groundball rate. Peavy threw hard and straight and with movement and location. His 2.54 ERA led the majors, and helped him win a National League Cy Young Award.
Now, at 33, Peavy's trying to live the lesson of Maddux's high school pitching coach. The 95 mph four-seam fastball is gone, down to 91 mph on average. Batters are whiffing on his pitches only 8.8 percent of time, a slight improvement over last season's 8.2 percent whiff rate, but a far cry from his rookie season in 2002, when it reached a high of 12.9 percent. His strikeout rate is only 18.4 percent, the lowest of his career, and a tough adjustment for a pitcher who's recorded 1,888 strikeouts since 2003, second only to C.C. Sabathia. He's also given up 20 home runs, for an 11.7 percent home run-to-flyball ratio.
Yet, after several years in decline, Peavy's groundball rate is over 40 percent this season, the first time since he pitched for the Chicago White Sox in 2010. That's the good news. He's also now out of the American League East where smaller ballparks tend to produce more runs. In two starts for the Giants so far since being traded from the Red Sox on July 25, he hasn't given up a home run.
That doesn't mean it's been an easy transition. Peavy was thrown into the fire of the NL West division race the day after he arrived in San Francisco and was asked to take the mound against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He gave up four runs (three earned) and took the loss when the Giants couldn't mount much offense off the Dodgers' Hyun-Jin Ryu. His next start began brilliantly, when he carried a perfect game against the New York Mets into the seventh inning on Saturday night at Citi Field. But he unraveled in the seventh when a flyball that could've been caught sailed over the head of left fielder Michael Morse. Then a bloop, a hit by pitch and two line drive t hits and the Giants were down 4-0 after looking like they might make baseball history. Again, Peavy took the loss.
Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt is thrilled that Peavy is now wearing the orange-and-black after years of facing him. "Peavy is fierce. He talks to himself on the mound. He pitches angry but a competitive angry," Affeldt told me. "He's battling with every pitch, so as his teammate, you do the same. He's fearless." Affeldt empathizes with Peavy's transition away from a strikeout-first pitcher. The 35-year-old lefty reliever had to learn the hard way, too. "When you lose velocity, you need to focus on movement," he told me, echoing Maddux's speech. "Instead of getting the batter to swing and miss, you want them to swing and mis-hit. It's not about strikeouts but about quick outs."
It's the formula Peavy used through six and a third perfect innings against the Mets. But when the dam broke, he appeared to let his emotions get the best of him and the late movement on his pitches worked to the batters' advantage. It's a pattern Peavy's had to overcome much of the season.
Peavy's goal is getting the Giants to the postseason. In fact, he arrived in San Francisco almost a year to the day from when he was traded from the White Sox to Boston and helped the Red Sox win their third World Series in ten years. I asked him if the Giants have what it takes to do this season what the Red Sox did in 2013. "No question," he told me. "You wouldn't necessarily know it by watching them play through their rough stretch, but when guys have World Series experience, they understand what needs to get done. There is no panic in this clubhouse." He also praised Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti for getting him ready to pitch against the Dodgers less than 24 hours after he landed at San Francisco airport. "Rags is awesome. He made me feel as prepared as I could be. Having Boch around to affirm that Rags stands for everything we stand for, is huge."
Boch is Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who was managing the Padres when Peavy broke into the majors in 2002. The two have been close ever since. So close, that when Peavy's White Sox were at home after the 2010 and 2012 seasons, he converted to a die-hard Giants fan. "Friendship transcends the game," he told me. "I pulled hard for Boch and Flan," referring to Giants third base coach Tim Flannery, who was with Bochy on the Padres staff.
He paused and then added, "It would be special if we could win a World Series together."