Erbe's new delivery paying dividends
Young right-hander making an impression with Orioles
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Baseball players, and pitchers in particular, are creatures of habit. Meticulous and often superstitious, they are taught to never give up, a notion that breeds resistance to even the slightest form of change.
But when Brandon Erbe's Minor League career started to stall, the highly regarded Orioles prospect took it in stride, agreeing to abandon the delivery that made him a third-round Draft pick in favor of a more fluid approach.
Two seasons later, and despite an injury-plagued 2009, the risk has paid off. Erbe's first Major League camp has turned heads in the Orioles' organization this spring, with manager Dave Trembley singling out the 22-year-old's first few bullpen sessions.
"Boy, that was something," Trembley said after watching Erbe throw on Monday. "He threw 35 pitches and he didn't throw two that were above the knees. Everything was down. He's really cleaned up his delivery a lot."
Coming off a dismal 2007 at Class A Advanced Frederick, Erbe showed up to instructional league that offseason ready for a mechanical overhaul. He had finished 6-8 with a 6.22 ERA in his third professional season, and while his strikeout ratio was impressive (8.4 Ks/9 IP), his control left much to be desired. Erbe averaged nearly five walks for every nine innings pitched, frequently hitting his pitch count by the fifth inning.
Minor League pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt had watched the tapes. Erbe's jump move, where the right-hander moved both his feet up in the air, had to go. The motion didn't lend itself to balance and direction, the two things you want in a pitching delivery. To break the habit, Schmidt had to break down Erbe's motion from the beginning.
The pair worked together on a series of five drills, and for three weeks, Erbe wasn't allowed to throw the baseball. Schmidt wanted him to commit the new motion to memory before moving Erbe to the bullpen to throw a few side sessions. Just 19 at the time, Erbe was a quick study, surprising Schmidt with his progression and ability to repeat the new motion. More impressive still was when Erbe showed up at Frederick the next spring with his delivery still intact.
"He's worked very hard," Schmidt said. "It's one thing for me to suggest, or anybody to suggest, to a player that he needs to make some changes, but until the player buys into it, it's not going to work. He knew it was going to be key for him to be able to make those changes to get to the next level. And it has allowed him to have better command."
Erbe walked 12 fewer batters and pitched 31 1/3 more innings in 2008, lowering his ERA nearly two runs in the process. His numbers at Bowie last season weren't as indicative of his progress, given that Erbe was slowed by a minor ankle problem and missed more than two months with a shoulder injury that he says was a residual effect of his old motion.
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"Last year was kind of a little injury-plagued season, but I think the [old] delivery was probably the means for all that," said Erbe, who described his previous style as aggressive and "kind of violent."
"For me, it's been a huge, huge battle, working with my delivery and my mechanics," Erbe said. "It's been kind of a struggle the last couple of years to get consistent. I'm finally at a point [now] where I don't have to think about it constantly and it's starting to come natural."
Schmidt likens the transition Erbe has made from that of a thrower to a pitcher.
"He's always had a tremendous arm," Schmidt said. "He's got great arm strength, can throw very hard. But now [his delivery has] enabled him to kind of take advantage of that and throw the ball over the plate, and use that stuff to get hitters out."
Entering his sixth season in the Orioles' organization, Erbe acknowledges that it has been frustrating to deal with injuries and learn a new delivery, things that have undoubtedly slowed his ascent.
"I was 17 my first year, so for me, it seems like I've been playing in the Minor Leagues forever," he said. "But realistically, I've learned a lot and I've grown so much as a baseball player that -- injuries aside -- it's been good, solid time.
"I haven't really been [in the Minors] wasting away. I've been progressing, getting better the entire time. So hopefully I can shorten that gap between now and the Major Leagues and continue to progress."
Schmidt sees no reason why the Owings Mills, Md., native can't someday don his hometown black and orange.
"I see him as a Major League starter," Schmidt said. "I do. I see him as having the ability to be a Major League starter. I think he has the pitches, I think he has the stamina and he has the mental makeup to handle things that might be thrown at him at that level."
For now, though, Erbe is focused on maintaining consistency and control, the self-described "downfall" of his formative years. Although upon hearing Trembley's praise, Erbe struggles to contain his excitement.
"It's kind of neat," said Erbe, who was raised as an Orioles fan. "This whole thing is kind of strange to me, because I'm from Baltimore, [and] I grew up five minutes from the stadium. So it hits home a little more for me."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.