When baseball fans hear the term "side-armer," most will likely think of a soft-tossing junk-baller who relies more on deception than a good fastball to get outs. Please allow Pat Neshek to change that perception.
While side-armers like Mike Myers and Chad Bradford have trouble breaking 90 mph on the radar gun, Neshek shut down International League hitters with a legit mid-90s heater, helping him win MiLB.com's Triple-A Reliever of the Year Award.
Neshek dominated the league with the Rochester Red Wings for three months before moving up to Minnesota and helping the Twins make their improbable run to the AL Central title. Neshek went 6-2 with a 1.95 ERA in the Minors, saving 14 games while holding opposing batters to a meager .189 average -- all with a delivery that looks like a rejected move from "Dancing with the Stars."
The 26-year-old right-hander starts off with both arms extended in front of him, almost like a gun barrel with the glove acting as the sight. After he takes a step back and kicks his leg up, Neshek begins to resemble Wile E. Coyote after he gets squashed by a boulder on Looney Tunes. Neshek's 6-foot-3 frame folds in half at the hips while his limbs extend, making him longer than he is taller. As his body turns toward home, Neshek's left arm folds in while his right arm whips around parallel to the ground, finishing with Neshek hopping up on his left foot.
"It definitely is strange," Neshek said. "Nobody has really said anything to me. The only things that I've been told to look for are when I don't stay down and my head pops up. Then I just have to relax, take a breath and slow down. Other than that, I haven't had much mechanical trouble."
But right-handed batters had plenty of trouble with Neshek, hitting just .161 against him. Neshek walked just 14 batters in 60 innings while striking out 87. Neshek, who averaged over 13 strikeouts per nine innings, was among the International League's strikeout leaders before getting called up in early July.
"In addition to that unorthodox delivery and his fastball, he could also hit that low outside corner against a right-hander," Rochester manager Stan Cliburn said. "That spot out there, he could paint that [corner] nine out of 10 times if he wanted. With that delivery coming from the side of a right-hander and the perspective of the pitch coming across the plate, a lot of hitters give up on that pitch and you're seeing a lot of called strike threes."
While the batters are wondering "How do I hit that?" everyone else is asking "How does he throw like that?" As Neshek details on his personal Web site, he originally had a conventional over-the-top delivery until he was hit in the forearm (he still has a lump from that injury) by a comebacker from future Phillies farmhand C.J. Woodrow. The then-18-year-old took some time off to rest, but found that his range of motion was still limited. Neshek solved this problem by resorting to the throwing motion he used while playing shortstop and started slinging the ball from the mound.
"Once I got to Butler University, they taped the way I threw and once I saw it, I couldn't believe what I was seeing," the Minnesota native said. "I actually was a little embarrassed because it looked so weird, like I didn't know what I was doing. For the next year, I tried to fix my whole delivery."
Neshek and the Butler coaching staff spent the next two seasons trying to fix his "problem," but midway through his sophomore year, Bulldogs head coach Steve Farley finally decided to let a good thing go. Neshek was eventually drafted by Minnesota in the sixth round of the 2002 draft, but still lacked the velocity that would elevate him to one of the top young relievers in baseball.
In the middle of the 2004 season, the Twins decided to send Neshek down to Class A Advanced Fort Myers after struggling in a few appearances with Double-A New Britain. Neshek pleaded with his coaches, even with the knowledge he would not see much time on the mound, but to no avail.
"It really [ticked] me off," Neshek said. "I told them I'd rather stay and rot in the bullpen than go down to A ball. But it's weird looking back on it now, because it was the best thing for me. It really lit a fire in me and provided a lot of motivation for me ever since. Plus, I met my eventual fiancée, Stephanie there, who really got me into weight lifting and a proper diet. Now I'm throwing 93-94 mph where before I was lucky if I touched 90.
"I still have trouble trying to figure out the demotion, but I'm glad that it happened. I don't know if I'd be the same person."
As the International League found out early in the season, the American League will be wishing the Twins granted Neshek's wish and let him rot in the New Britain bullpen. Neshek knows any chance of him closing out games for the Twins are remote with Joe Nathan firmly entrenched in that role, but he -- and his herky-jerky motion -- are more than ready to take on any role that comes his way.