At this time last year Alex Torres was an afterthought. A mere footnote in Tampa Bay Rays' history as one of the players acquired from the Angels in exchange for Scott Kazmir. A former prospect who appeared to flame out before his time in the sun. This is the way a lot of stories end in baseball, but not for Torres. Instead, the 25-year-old went back to basics -- quite literally -- in order to get his career back on track.
Despite his compact frame, Torres' has always had stuff. He is equipped with a low-90s fastball and changeup that have rated as average or better, especially in the case of the offspeed pitch. He also keeps around a breaking ball that flashed plus in the past. Meanwhile, his mechanics were not always clean, which lead to bouts of lost control and a lack of command.
Last season was abysmal for the left-hander. Following a mostly successful 2011, which included his first call-up to the majors, he nearly walked a batter per inning (67 in 80.1 innings) while pitching for Triple-A Durham Bulls. His ERA sat above 6.00. Following an injury late in the summer, the Rays sent him to Port Charlotte to work in the Gulf Coast League, essentially the bottom rung on the minor-league ladder.
Perhaps a curious move to the outside, but Tampa Bay rarely makes a move -- let alone an unorthodox one -- without a logical explanation. The reasoning in this case was a who: Marty DeMerritt, the GCL Rays' pitching coach.
A former minor-league pitcher, DeMerritt, has spent 13 years as a coach in the Rays' organization. He is currently in his second season as the GCL pitching coach. He has coached at the major league level before (Giants and Cubs) and taught internationally with stops in Korea and Venezuela (Torres' homeland and where DeMerritt resides in the offseason). In addition to his coaching knowledge, DeMerritt also had first-hand intelligence on Torres, whom he met when the lefty was just a teenager.
Be it the teaching of DeMerritt, maturity, or happenstance, things began to click for Torres. He returned to Durham in September to make one impressive start (10 strikeouts and one walk in 5.2 innings) before dominating the winter league in his native Venezuela. Though far from returning to any prospect lists, he was more of a wild card than a lost cause entering 2013. He returned to Durham to start the season and the seeds of his recent work began to bear fruit. Torres opened the season tossing 21 innings in April and allowing just three earned runs. He struck out 29 batters, and more importantly, walked just six.
Injuries at the major league level led to an interesting month of May. Following three starts, Torres was promoted to the big leagues where he made two relief appearances. He returned to Durham to make two unimpressive starts before receiving the call to St. Petersburg once again. This time possibily for good.
Initially called up to provide a fresh arm to an overworked bullpen, Torres has tossed 18.1 scoreless innings with a 24:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His strikeout percentage of 37.8 is the fourth-highest among left-handed relievers (minimum 60 batters faced). Opponents are hitting just .068 against him with a .242 OPS. Torres is not just a lefty specialist either. Of his 64 batters faced, 36 have been right-handed batters.
Mechanical changes including a simpler delivery and shift in rubber placement (more on those adjustments here) have apparently cured Torres' diseased control. That said, there are some lingering command wrinkles to be ironed out (elevated fastballs). In terms of arsenal, his fastball and changeup are working with unison while his breaking ball of choice (now a slider, formerly a curveball) has taken a back seat. The ability to make his changeup look like a fatigued fastball that burns out arm-side and down has been instrumental to his success against batters on both sides of the plate. Hitters have missed on nearly half of their swings against his offspeed offering.
Torres' sudden and dominant success -- coupled with injuries to David Price and Alex Cobb -- have some calling for his return to the rotation. Those supporters may get their wish of seeing him more frequently, but not in the role they prefer. Since making 52 pitches on June 1, he has thrown 128 total pitches over six appearances. In five of the six games, he pitched two innings or less, the other coming in the second half of Tuesday's doubleheader in which he threw 2.2 innings but needed just 32 pitches to get the eight outs. As he gets acclimated with his new duties -- including eventually pitching on back-to-back days -- his leverage responsibilty could increase as well.
His success could not be more well-timed. Already on his fourth option year, he will be out of options next season, meaning a spot on the major-league roster or waivers. Another lost season in the minors might have spelled the end of his time with Tampa Bay. However, his new-found success could lead to a long-lasting relationship.
Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Rays.