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Pat Neshek is 100 percent badass

Jake Shapiro Avatar
August 29, 2017

DENVER – A sinker that rises. That’s probably the place to start. Pat Neshek even chuckles when I try to wrap my head around it.

I tell the Colorado Rockies pre-trade deadline acquisition that I’ve long been a fan of the way he dealt from the rubber. I tell him this as I stand in his locker before a late summer’s game at Coors Field. He’s in good spirits, as usual. I go on to tell him that I don’t really understand how he’s successful but that it’s really fun to watch.

He laughs again, then shakes me off and says, “I just do it, and when I feel really good, I’m good.”

What “it” is that the soon-to-be 37-year-old righty from the midwest is referencing is his pitching style.

The 6-3, 220-pound Neshek is somewhere between Walter Johnson, Dan Quisenberry, Chad Bradford, and Kent Tekulve. In his delivery that is, he’s younger than all of those great hurlers but his style comes straight out of baseball’s golden age.

With his cap lowered to his eyebrows and his socks pulled up to his knees, Neshek, like Johnson, rocks from right to left in the wind-up as his arms come unfurled from his belt and carry to his knees. His hips and legs are a bit more fluid, like five-time Reliever of The Year, Quisenberry, while his back bends and his arms come off-axis like the star submariner Bradford. He quickly pushes his torso back upright and winds from the side like the Hall of Fame Big Train. After releasing the rock Neshek hops up all in one motion like the All-Star Tekulve.

Similar to Neshek’s extensive card collection, it’s a brief tour of the different eras in baseball, yet it wraps with a nearly-impossible-to-pick-up sinker, slider or change-up.

None of what Neshek does is on purpose. Or at least… it wasn’t at first.

Credit: Sam Weaver, BSN Denver

How is a major league career born?

Of course, talent and work ethic are probably the two most important attributes that take a little leaguer to the highest level of baseball. But Neshek has something in common with fictional Rookie of The Year Henry Rowengartner, who broke his arm and suddenly started throwing MLB heat because of the accident.

A 45th-round pick of the Twins out of high school, Neshek was batting in his final high school game, the switch-hitting Neshek blocked a pitch headed for his head with his right arm. The resulting bruise left a mark—one he still has—on his throwing arm, that derailed his days as a shortstop. The summer before he went to Butler, he realized he’d need to stop throwing overhand to stop the pain.

While he already had the talent to be drafted before the injury even occurred, Pat Neshek became Pat Neshek when he took that high school heater off his throwing arm. He’s the closest we’ll ever have to a real life Rowengartner.

After three years in the minors and two more in the majors his career was just taking off, but like many, he fell victim to a torn UCL, costing him most of 2008 and all of 2009. The toughest part about his Tommy John surgery was trying to figure out how exactly he got outs in the majors the way he did.

“It’s tough to replicate (my delivery,)” he said. “When I had Tommy John surgery in 2008 and 2009 I missed so much time that I kinda forgot what I did with my legs and arms and I’d watch video and go ‘How the heck did I do that?’ It’s something that you can’t really teach… you just do it.”

It took him until he was 31-years-old in 2012 before he became elite again after his injury. Since then, he’s been named to three All-Star teams. Over that period, he has the 17th-best ERA in baseball among relievers at 2.54.

There have been jokes made by many about the blur of his arms and legs and how tough it is to figure out what is coming and from where. While it might be funny to the fans, to hitters and catchers his jerkiness is somewhat harrowing.

As a rookie when he was warming up at the Metrodome, Twins backup catcher and the current Rockies bench coach Mike Redmond would direct Minnesota infielders from the area around the hill. Redmond was scared he would lose the ball in Neshek’s white uniform.

“They’ve got to move so I don’t wear one,” Redmond said in 2006.

“He’s the exact same as when I caught him,” Redmond said 11 years later.

Redmond, a World Series champ and a 13-year veteran with a now vast amount of experience coaching, had another interesting point.

“He’s always had the same delivery and it’s quick and he can mix it up get even quicker to the plate so he’s tough to steal off of too. That’s part of what makes him effective, not just the delivery but the effectiveness, you don’t see the slot often either,” he said.

Since 2012 only 15 people have even tried to steal off of Neshek, 10 have succeeded.

Baseball Reference has a stat called ‘Stolen Base Opportunities’ which tallies the number of plate appearances against the pitcher with second or third base open ahead of the runner. There have been 428 such chances since 2012, meaning players have only attempted to steal three percent of the time when possible off Neshek. Compare that to Noah Syndergaard, who had runners try to steal off of him 24 percent of the time in 2016.

While his ability to hold and subsequently strand runners isn’t his main attribute, it’s another interesting quirk.

“He’s the total package,” veteran Rockie Ian Desmond, who is a 1-7 off of him, said.

“He’s throwing the ball underhand at you,” two-time All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy said about facing him. “You really have to try to get on top of it as a hitter because the ball is coming up at a different angle and you’re not used to hitting. That’s his advantage, he just throws from a different angle and it’s really deceptive. He’s the only guy that throws that hard from there.”

His underhand sinker muddled research on this story by confusing databases because it makes you ask the question, ‘is his vertical movement up or down?’ With every other pitcher in baseball, the answer is obviously that the ball drops due to gravity.

“It’s the same pitch, for me, I kinda look at the heat maps of batters that I face and I see their cold zone,” Neshek said of his sinker which sinks low and rises high. “It’s the new normal, guys like the ball down to try to lift it so guys are seeing some success seeing the ball pitched up in the zone. I know with the Cardinals or earlier this year I’d try to let the ball rise. I know Lucroy and I talk about it, it’s a hard thing to pick up on.”

“Both hitting and catching him,” Lucroy spoke to the difficulty as he tried to wrap around what Neshek is doing by diagraming things with his own hands. “We’re taught to swing up to the ball so if you think about it from an angle standpoint you need perfect timing against him. It’s a very unique arm slot.”

Credit: Sam Weaver, BSN Denver

Maybe it’s the way he stands on the rubber with his feet spread apart pitching plate wide or his beard combined with the classic look but there’s something earnest about his eccentricity.

The oddities add up whether it’s his plant foot floating from side to side or his mechanics stupefying hitters, pitching coaches and fans.

In a sport where relievers are the oddballs, Neshek might be the oddest ball the game features. It’s part of what makes him so good, and he’s not afraid to admit it. Is he gimmicky? Sure. But he’s gimmicky in the same way Luis Tiant was. It doesn’t really matter what he looks like or if some think if it’s cool or ridiculous, all that matters is he gets outs and he’s done so consistently for years.

As for Neshek, he knows what he does is ridiculous, stating he wouldn’t even attempt to hit off himself in a video game.

“I used to play MLB Power Pros on Wii and they had everything (his mechanics) down and it was fun. I’ll play against myself eventually,” he joked as he shied away from the notion of trying to face himself, a task too tough for professional hitters on baseball’s brightest stage.

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