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Beavan still searching for velocity06/12/2008 12:57 PM ET
By Bryan Smith / MLB.com
It came as no surprise that Blake Beavan dominated in his pro debut April 29, holding Great Lakes scoreless over six innings. After all, this was the kid who shut out Cuba at the World Junior Championship in 2006, the kid who threw a perfect game in high school, the first-rounder who allowed two earned runs in 11 starts in his final season at Irving High School. However, while the result stayed the same, there certainly was a different means to the end.
"My velocity hasn't been anywhere that it was in Spring Training or my senior year," said Beavan, just 19 years old. "Everything feels great. It's just the velocity isn't there, and trying to pitch without it is tough."
The dip on the radar gun is a baffling one, given Beavan's health and his classic pitcher's body at 6-foot-7, 210 pounds. The frame, the dominance and, of course, the 95-96 mph fastball led to Beavan being selected 17th overall in last June's draft by his hometown Texas Rangers. Now in Clinton, Beavan's velocity has been somewhere between 88-91 mph, touching 92.
"I've never had to pitch without velocity," Beavan said.
The prevailing belief is that Beavan's velocity loss is a combination of factors associated with his first season in the Minor Leagues. He's throwing everyday, with starts every five days and bullpen sessions to break it up. The conditioning program leaves him running and weight-lifting on a near-daily basis. With such a grind, fatigue is certainly forgivable for a teenager.
"We're taking it slow with him," said LumberKings pitching coach Danny Clark. "He's facing guys who've been in the Minor League system for two or three years. They can make adjustments. They know the pitch sequences a little better."
If pitching without his usual fastball and against advanced competition is difficult, Beavan has certainly made it look easy, with a 3.47 ERA in nine starts. The most significant difference is the change in Beavan's strikeout column. His shutout of Cuba in the fall of 2006 yielded 11 whiffs; in his perfect game a year ago, he struck out 18. In eight starts with the LumberKings, Beavan has just 22 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.
"The biggest thing is he's got to forget [the velocity loss]," said Clark. "As long as he's got command in the zone right now, the velocity is going to come back."
While the organization does believe Beavan will return to the mid-90s soon -- Clark predicts it will come during the season's second half -- the Rangers are also taking significant precautions with their investment. The right-hander is throwing fewer pitches in bullpen sessions than his teammates, and even icing his arm after pitching in the bullpen.
"It can take a toll on your body for that first year -- you just have to get used to it," Beavan said. "I'm really trying to get in the mode where it's just baseball, and that's all you focus on."
The 11th youngest pitcher in the Midwest League, Beavan has shown no problem attacking hitters who are as much as four years older. The right-hander has walked just three batters this season, with no walks in more than half of his outings.
"I've never had a problem with throwing strikes," Beavan said. "That's what I've always been pretty good at, making the hitters beat me. That's what I was taught and brought up around."
For Beavan, the tangible change -- at least partially due to the velocity loss -- has been trading in strikeouts for groundballs and pop-ups.
"Strikeouts in high school, that was something I had to do," Beavan said. "I think it's just easier now to just mentally tell yourself you don't have to strike everyone out. That's what [the defense] is there for, that's what they're paid to do."
Defense is also something the LumberKings in particular do very well. When Beavan was assigned to Clinton on April 29, the team was 17-5 and well on their way to the best record in professional baseball. The team is just one win from clinching a spot in the playoffs with the best record in the first half. While winning is not everything in player development, it's not something you can tell the players.
"This club and this team, we have a real good chance of doing something special," Beavan said.
The key does remain development, and for Beavan it means working on his secondary pitches, a slider and a change-up. The latter was a pitch that Beavan began implementing just two seasons ago, and the pitch that has seen the most drastic improvement this season.
"I'm trying to stay on top of change-ups and sliders, not drag the arm as much or tip my pitches to hitters," Beavan said. "Not everything is doing good, but I think I'm doing good in terms of how hard I've been working. I've been doing all the stuff the pitching coach and the organization have been asking."
While the adversity of living away from home for the first year and focusing on the sport everyday can derail a lot of teenagers, Beavan said it's done nothing but make him more mature.
"He's a strong-minded person," said Clark. "Whatever you provide for him, he's going to be able to grind on it and learn to accept it. That's the most important thing."
So for now, as Beavan continues to work on tightening up his slider and heighten the percentage of change-ups per inning, he and the organization play a waiting game for the return of that mid-90s fastball, and ultimately, a return to power pitching.
"I'm just waiting for that velocity to come around," Beavan said. "And I'll be able to tell when it does. Your arm tells you when you throw, 'That's not the gas you're used to.'"
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.