The last time the Tigers started grooming a closer with 100 mph heat and a tattoo running down his forearm, things didn't go according to plan. Joel Zumaya, who sported flames on his skin and whipped his elbow high into the air and seemingly above his cap, struck out 97 batters in 62 games as a rookie in 2006. His violent motion limited him to an average of 27 relief appearances over the next four seasons, and he hasn't pitched in the Majors since 2010.
Bruce Rondon is not Joel Zumaya.
Despite the triple-digit radar recordings and his own Bruce Lee-inspired body ink, the 22-year-old Venezuelan has a sleepy quality on the mound. He's busting at the seams below his uniform, as he goes on to explain, but you never get the sense he's giving too much effort. His easy, three-quarter arm slot is more deceptive than it is demanding.
And his style gets results. After saving 29 games with three Detroit affiliates last season -- nine more than his Opening Day goal -- Rondon is MLB.com's No. 92 prospect and in his first Major League camp. If he succeeds there, few among the long-tenured Tigers will remember at all the hurler he only slightly resembles.
Thanks to Tigers official Aileen Villarreal for transcribing and then translating Rondon's Spanish into English.
MiLB.com: How would you describe your mind-set and approach while on the mound?
Rondon: That I'm the best.
MiLB.com: Has that always been your attitude?
Rondon: Always. Every time I'm on the mound, I always think I'm the best. Off the mound, I don't think that, but when I'm on there I have to have that mentality, that I'm the best and that I'm invincible.
MiLB.com: Your repertoire should inspire self-assuredness. Tell us about it.
Rondon: Fastball, slider and changeup. The fastball, I try to throw over 100 [mph]. The changeup is around 92-93. The slider is around 86-88. From last year 'til now, I would say I have [improved my] control. I've worked very hard to control them.
MiLB.com: You're obviously known for your fastball. Were you always able to throw hard growing up or did a specific mechanical change in your career increase your velocity?
Rondon: Yes, I could always throw the ball pretty hard. Actually, they didn't let me pitch when I was young because I threw the ball too hard. Everyone knew [I could pitch], but they wanted me to hit. [Then I was converted] into a catcher.
MiLB.com: Could you have ended up playing that position?
Rondon: Honestly, I never loved being a catcher; my love was always pitching. It was something that always inspired me, that caught my attention, that motivated me. I felt happy pitching, and it was just always what I loved. so when they asked me if I wanted to pitch I was very excited and of course said yes. [That was when] I signed with the Tigers [on Sept. 12, 2007].
MiLB.com: Before you made your way to the States, what was baseball like at home in Valencia, Venezuela?
Rondon: The crowds over there are very aggressive. It's a little crazy, but it can be motivating because when you do well, the whole stadium gets up and cheers. On the other hand, when you don't have a good outing, you have to know how to handle it with the crowds. The greatest thing in the world for me is when my family is able to watch me play. Sometimes I'm sad when I'm playing here and look in the stands and they're not there. When I was growing up, I would always tell my dad that I was going to pitch professionally so that they could watch me play.
MiLB.com: How good of a hitter were you? Do you think you could have made it as a position player?
Rondon: During batting practice, I was good, but not really during the game. Maybe after practicing, I could learn, but I don't think so.
MiLB.com: How old were you when you turned to pitching full-time?
Rondon: I was 15. [I had] never practiced. I knew I could throw, but I had to start from point zero. When they told me I was going to pitch, I was so excited that I was going to be pitching that it didn't matter about taking the hits I was going to take. I wanted to learn, so I started with just my fastball. I didn't have any other pitches aside from my fastball. Once I got to the Tigers, they helped me with my pitching and I have really learned a lot.
MiLB.com: What is the fastest reading you've registered on a radar gun?
Rondon: 104 mph -- against the [Class A Advanced] Yankees at their stadium in Tampa. My teammates told me after the game. They said, "Rondon, we have some news for you." I asked them what had happened. They told me I had thrown the ball 104. I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. Then they showed me the radar gun and I said, "Wow."
MiLB.com: Have you ever been on a team with a pitcher who threw harder than you?
Rondon: It has always been me so far.
MiLB.com: That would seem to inspire a nickname. What's yours?
Rondon: Up to this point, I have not gotten one.
MiLB.com: Bruce doesn't seem like it would be a popular first name in Venezuela. Where does it come from?
Rondon: My dad loves Bruce Lee. My dad wanted to name me "Bruce Lee." My mom didn't want the "Lee," but she was fine with the "Bruce."
MiLB.com: Where does your dad's admiration for the martial arts master come from?
Rondon: He loves all the Bruce Lee movies. He always asks me to get him Bruce Lee movies from here and shirts and those kinds of things. [Lee] was big for him because he made it to the United States by himself. My dad would always tell me that I would make it to the United States by myself and I was going to accomplish big things ... and here I am now. Things have happened where I think, "Wow, my dad was right."
MiLB.com: So your name works on a couple different levels ...
Rondon: Maybe he chose that name became [Lee] never lost faith. I would always tell him that I loved baseball and he'd tell me, "Son, you have to work a lot and work hard because it will be very difficult for you to be in the United States by yourself." I didn't believe him because I was young, but everything that he told me was true. Sometimes [now] my family will call me and tell me, "Son, you came out in the newspaper next to Miguel [Cabrera]," and I tell them sometimes, "I'm next to him and can't even believe it."
MiLB.com: What would it mean for your family back in Venezuela if you make a Major League Opening Day roster?
Rondon: I'll tell you this, they probably wouldn't sleep the night before. They really wouldn't sleep because that's what they've been waiting for. If [the Tigers] tell me I'm making it, I probably won't sleep that night, either, from thinking about it so much. Thinking to myself, "Wow, it's me -- I'm the closer." It would really be something special if they gave me that news, like a dream come true.
MiLB.com: Do you notice a different feel to the ninth inning, compared with pitching in the seventh or eighth inning?
Rondon: Honestly, I don't like throwing in the fifth, sixth, seventh innings. It just isn't the same attention, it's not the same adrenaline. When you come out in the ninth inning, people are waiting for the ninth inning. People are thinking, "Wow, there comes the closer." And that is what motivates me, what gets me going.