For a 20th-round Draft pick who, at 23, was already on the elder end of the prospect spectrum, reaching the Major Leagues was a far-reaching dream.
Toss in getting served release papers six innings into his professional career, a stint in independent baseball and two skulls fractures -- one that very easily could have ended his life, let alone his days as a pitcher -- and you'll still have only part of the story of Brad Ziegler's evolution into one of the game's best submarine-style relievers.
"I'm a big believer that things happen for a reason," Ziegler said. "And I don't always understand them until later."
In a span of five seasons, the former Phillies castaway joined the A's and became a Major League record holder with a pair of spikes enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Ziegler's feat is even more impressive considering the leap of faith he took toward the end of the 2006 season, switching from overhand throwing to submarine style.
Although Ziegler wasn't immediately sold on the idea when then-Minor League instructor Ron Romanick -- now Oakland's bullpen coach -- initially approached him, the increased odds of reaching the Major Leagues were enough to persuade Ziegler to give it a shot.
"[The A's] were willing to take the time to teach [me] this in Arizona," Ziegler recalled. "That, to me, felt like the first real investment they had made in me after three seasons. So I decided I was not going to let my stubbornness get in the way."
Romanick, who'd been a Major League pitcher for three seasons, had converted several players to submarine-style while serving as a pitching instructor in Seattle. Ziegler's long and lanky build, coupled with the above-average defensive skills necessary for such a ground-ball inducing motion, made the 26-year-old a prime candidate to make the switch.
"He wanted to make it [to the Majors]," Romanick said of Ziegler. "He has a fire in his belly which you have to have to make it in any sport ... that was the sell of [making the switch]. We were embarking on an approach that allowed his gifts to come to this level."
Despite a respectable season at Double-A Midland, in which he posted the second-lowest ERA in the Texas League, Ziegler headed to Arizona at the end of the year to start his tutelage with Romanick.
The mechanical overhaul was hardly glamorous. In addition to core and back work to avoid injuries associated with his new arm slot, Ziegler spent three weeks laboriously mimicking his new throwing motion without a baseball. He worked with Romanick for two or three hours daily, studied photographs and watched video to help foster a better mental image of his motion.
Ziegler laughs when imagining what thoughts may have crossed the minds of some of the prospects in attendance during that instructional league.
"I'd show up at 9 or 10 a.m. and there would be all these young Draft picks, and here I am 27 [years old] just going through the motions of a delivery by myself in the outfield," he recalled. "To me, guys had to just look at it and [think], 'What in the world is this guy doing? How can this be productive to a guy that's 27 years old?' They probably thought I was trying to grab on to one last chance."
In Ziegler's mind, it was a far different story.
"I felt like it was just something to take me to the next level," he said of adopting the submarine style, which also called for him to trade in his starting duties and learn how to warm up as a reliever.
Growing pains aside, Ziegler and Romanick couldn't have predicted just how quickly the new motion would catch on. In his first rollout as a reliever, Ziegler dominated in Double-A, pitching to a 4-0 record with a 1.14 ERA in 15 appearances.
He was quickly promoted to Triple-A Sacramento, where manager Tony DeFrancesco would routinely watch from the dugout as Ziegler's sinkerball kept opposing hitters tied in knots.
"He was pretty much unhittable at that level," DeFrancesco said. "He worked hard on his delivery and movement."
Still in the infancy of his new motion, Ziegler was constantly tweaking arm angles, and he developed a change-up in Sacramento that helped keep left-handed hitters off balance. He discovered the best way to drop and add velocity to his fastball, and as his comfort level improved, so did Ziegler's command.
"With Brad, as he worked through this stuff to figure out this approach, [the mind-set] was, don't change or go back to what you know," Romanick said. "Instead, fight through this and ingrain this. And because of his attitude and his makeup, he's been able to do that.
"He never looks at being passed over in a negative way. He just tries harder and stays patient and is absolutely relentless."
That patience was tested when Ziegler didn't break camp with the A's in 2008, despite being told by one club official that he would have been called up in '07 if the team had been contending for a playoff spot. With a July 1 opt-out clause as his deadline for making it in Oakland, Ziegler allowed just one earned run in 19 Triple-A games to start the season.
With his frustration mounting, Ziegler remembers calling home and telling his father he intended to sign with another team as soon as the calendar flipped to July.
Fortunately for Oakland, Ziegler never got his fresh start. He got called up the next day and went on to hurl 39 1/3 consecutive scoreless relief innings, a Major League record for a player beginning his career.
While Ziegler downplays the record, modestly giving credit to his defense, Romanick is quick to point out that Ziegler's body of work is extraordinary.
"You are climbing a mountain," Romanick said of the work involved in switching to submarine-style pitching ."For every Brad Ziegler, there's a couple more guys [learning submarine style] who don't make it.
"I'd love to have more like Ziegy; he's got the whole package."
Minor League career breakdown
2003: After signing with Philadelphia, Ziegler struggled with tendinitis and following just six innings with Batavia was released at the end of the season. "I was frustrated," Ziegler said. "It just felt like I hadn't been given a chance." |
2004: While pitching in the independent league, the right-hander was signed to a Minor League deal by Oakland, where Ziegler was assigned to Class A Advanced Modesto. |
2005: Ziegler split the season between the A's new Class A Advanced affiliate in Stockton and Double-A Midland. |
2006: Despite posting a 3.37 ERA for the 'Hounds, Ziegler agreed to overhaul his pitching motion to submarine style. |
2007: Ziegler's new motion helped the River Cats to a Pacific Coast League championship. In 35 games, he went 8-3 with a 2.96 ERA. |
2008: After allowing just one earned run in 19 appearances, Ziegler made his Major League debut in relief on May 31.|