Slider sending Gregerson up reliever ranks
Right-hander becoming huge asset for Padres out of 'pen
SAN DIEGO -- An old scout himself, it makes sense that Kevin Towers has made a point to always carefully consider the words and opinions of his scouts, those who are charged with finding gems, players of promise and projectability.
The scouts, as Towers has said, are his eyes and ears.
So imagine the reaction Towers had during a conference call in the spring of 2009 when scout John Vander Wal, a former Major League outfielder, dialed in to give a report on a pitcher he was dispatched to see in Jupiter, Fla.
"He's telling me how this guy can get big league hitters out right now and how he has a wipeout slider that plays to righties and lefties," Towers recalled the other day.
Then Vander Wal uttered the words Towers won't soon forget, words that right then and there essentially sold the then-Padres general manager on relief pitcher Luke Gregerson and his devastating slider.
"He said it disappears," Towers said.
That was enough for Towers, who for three months had been carrying around the names of three players from the St. Louis Cardinals, potential players to be named later that he could choose from, the result of a deal that sent shortstop Khalil Greene to St. Louis in December 2008.
"A lot of times, people think just because the guy is the player to be named that he can't be the key guy in the deal. Sometimes, they are," Towers said. "What it does is it gives you more time to get a better look at a guy."
|"He's answered the call. He's answered the test."|
-- Padres manager|
"Considering our options in our bullpen at the time, well, business was wide open," Towers said. "He threw pretty well the first few times with us, and I realized that this guy was better than anyone else we had right then. It was bad."
Gregerson, 26, has emerged as one of the top relievers in the Major Leagues this season, though you still get the feeling not everyone has caught on.
Relying heavily on that slider, a pitch he throws nearly 61 percent of the time, the right-hander has a 1.57 ERA in 31 appearances this season. Gregerson has allowed 14 hits in 34 1/3 innings, with two walks and 41 strikeouts.
He's been part of a 1-2-3 trio at the back of the Padres' bullpen -- along with Mike Adams and All-Star closer Heath Bell -- that has helped San Diego to a Major League-best 3.06 ERA and a 38-28 start heading into Friday's game against the Orioles at PETCO Park.
Gregerson gained some national acclaim earlier this month when the Padres were in New York for a three-game series against the Mets. In consecutive appearances, he struck out all six hitters he faced, including Jeff Francoeur in each game.
But, it's important to note, Gregerson isn't a one-trick pony. Consider Francoeur's plight during that series, a vexing sequence exacerbated by the fact the Mets' outfielder really felt like he had Gregerson figured out.
"The other night when I faced him in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game, I was sitting on a slider and he threw me nothing but fastballs," Francoeur said. "And tonight was the complete opposite. You're looking ... maybe he's going to try to sneak it by me, and he threw some great sliders."
Gregerson said his success this season stems from several areas: With his rookie season behind him, he's more comfortable. He has a better idea of the hitters in the league and what they're looking for. He's using his backdoor slider more, which accounts for why he's throwing more sliders (60.8 percent) in 2010 than last year (49.6). He's also moving it more around the strike zone.
Gregerson also placed a greater emphasis on not getting ahead of himself. The next pitch he throws is always the most important one, a lesson occasionally lost on young pitchers who get caught up in the pitched they just threw.
"I kind of talk to myself a little more when I'm out there. I tell myself, 'One pitch. The only thing that matters right now is this one pitch.' I kind of try to reinforce that to myself as much as I can -- that right now, nothing else matters but what I'm going to do right this second with this one ball.
"Then after I throw it, it starts all over again. You try to focus on the one thing you're doing at each time, and that's what I've been trying to do a little more this year, and it's helped me out."
So far, it's worked wonders for Gregerson and the Padres.
"The internal numbers [statistics] speak for themselves, but when you look at the types of game he pitches in, situations where the team is tied or were ahead by a run ... those are high-crisis, high-importance innings," Padres manager Bud Black said. "He's answered the call. He's answered the test.
"I don't think that's gone unnoticed."
Before people noticed, though, Gregerson was just a name on a piece of paper, one that was passed on to Smith, who is in his 19th year with the Padres. Towers first dispatched Smith to see Gregerson and the other players the Padres were considering -- a position player and another pitcher -- in Spring Training of 2009.
But Smith had already seen Gregerson, from making his scouting rounds through the Midwest League in 2008.
"My first report on him was from 2008, when he was pitching in Springfield," Smith said. "I saw him there in April, and I thought he pitched well. He had a bulldog approach and a good breaking pitch. I saw him a couple more times where he wasn't quite as good, but I still liked him."
It wasn't until that winter that Smith had what essentially amounts to an epiphany about Gregerson. And, oddly enough, it didn't come from watching him throw a single pitch.
"The thing that really put me over the hump with Luke was when I saw him play during the winter in Venezuela. The kids from the states are typically out of their element there, and they don't mix too much with the locals," Smith said.
"But on an off-day, I saw him in the stands with five or six of the Venezuelans. And they are conversing, and I'm sure he [Gregerson] didn't know a word of Spanish. It showed me that he was willing to reach beyond his comfort zone with these guys. That told me a lot about his makeup."
After Smith saw Gregerson again in the spring of 2009, Towers sent another set of eyes to Florida to see Gregerson. Vander Wal, who played 14 seasons in the Major Leagues, including parts of 1998-99 with the Padres, was quickly impressed by what he saw.
"KT said go look at these guys and give me your thoughts on what you feel. I didn't talk to Van at all, just to keep our opinions separate," Vander Wal said. "I remember that his slider had a lot of bite that day, it kind of reminded me of Mike Jackson from my playing days. It had a lot of tilt and a lot of bite.
"None of the other guys we were considering looked that good. I figured this was a guy who was probably going to be thrown into the fire quicker than he was probably ready, but he had a bulldog approach and moxie. Look at what he's done now."
Indeed, look at what he's done now.
Gregerson figures to be in the conversation for the All-Star Game next month in Anaheim, and his manager -- who is part of the National League staff for the game -- has said that he would put in a good work with All-Star manager Charlie Manuel of the Phillies.
"Occasionally," Smith said by phone last week, "you'll run into a kid you can stand tall for."
"When I first saw [his slider] as a solid-to-average ... maybe a little bit better-than-average pitch," Smith said. "Now, it's a better slider than I saw. It's become better. He's become better."
Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.