Starkey: 'Vanimal' act scores with Pirates
TribLIVE Sports Videos
After a year in hibernation, “The Vanimal” is back. This time on the other side of Pennsylvania.
Three years ago, Vance Worley crashed an icon-laden Philadelphia Phillies rotation and made the baseball world take notice. Nobody had seen a pitcher like this — unless that pitcher was Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn from “Major League.”
Mild-mannered away from the diamond, Worley morphed into Vanimal Lecter on the mound. It wasn't that he had overpowering stuff. It was his fearless attitude and offbeat appearance.
The bespectacled Worley wrote messages to himself on his hat, shook his raised glove like a fistful of dice before each pitch and attacked hitters with a barrage of strikes. He was baseball's best animal act since Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.
Worley also won a lot, going 11-3 in 2011 and finishing third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. But the ride ended abruptly. Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed his career. The Minnesota Twins made him their Opening Day starter last year, but Worley's ERA soon ballooned into the 7s. His control made Ricky Vaughn look precise.
And that is how Pirates general manager Neal Huntington landed Worley, 26, for “cash considerations” in March. Three months later, the man looks like a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.
I caught up with Worley by his locker (yes, the Vanimal shelter) late Thursday, after a home debut at PNC Park (yes, Vanimal House) in which he'd stepped into his Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam” cleats, strapped on his Wild Thing glasses and beaten the Mets, 5-2. He has allowed four earned runs in three starts.
Worley has quite a story to tell. Several, actually. And since it looks like he might stick around for a bit, we should probably get to know him better.
So pull up a chair, Vanimal friends, and learn about …
• The glove shake. “In college (at Long Beach State), in an intersquad game, our assistant pitching coach was calling out my pitches from the dugout 'cause in Southern California everybody's trying to be smarter than everyone else. They were picking my pitches. I'm thinking, these guys are cheatin'. So I started moving the glove, and when I started beating them, I looked in the dugout and said, ‘Yeah, I got your tricks.' I've been doing it ever since.”
• His Asian heritage (Worley is one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Taiwanese and 50 percent European descent; his mother is from Hong Kong). “It's a fun game when you're half-and-half. You start looking at other people, wondering what they are. Eventually you meet enough of them that you start playing the game with them and guessing what everybody is.”
• Avoiding alcohol in high school and college (and largely thereafter, he says) because his once-wild father warned him of the dangers: “I always obeyed everything he said. I never really went out. All my friends, they liked to go out and have a good time, and I knew what I wanted, and that was to play professional baseball.”
• How the “Vanimal” nickname, given to him because of his weight-room work ethic in college, became known in the majors: “I don't go around telling people that's my nickname or anything, but when I got to the big leagues (in 2010), I was in the lunch room one day, and guys started passing my glove around the clubhouse. I'd written (“Vanimal”) inside it. So all the guys started calling me that, and they're like, ‘It's on your glove, really? How professional is that?' I'm like, ‘Come on guys, it's not that big a deal, is it?' The fans started seeing it on TV, and that's just how it went.”
The glasses, meanwhile, came about years ago because Worley's eyes dried up whenever he tried contacts.
Well, Worley goes by the Twitter handle @VANIMAL_46 and has more than 50,000 followers. He may have been destined to pitch for the Pirates because he attended McClatchy High School in Sacramento (named for the great-grandfather of former Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy). And he can still pitch. Just a bit differently. His strikeout rate isn't what it was in Philly, but he changes speeds, works the corners and walks almost no one.
Pitching coach Ray Searage loves what Worley brings. Namely, strikes.
“He does everything the organization tries to teach the young guys,” Searage said. “Work quickly, throw strikes, get ahead, stay ahead, put 'em away. He attacks.”
The Pirates have become something of a home for stray pitchers — The Vanimal Rescue League, if you will (although you certainly don't have to). Jim Benedict, a special assistant to the GM and noted pitching guru, has a lot to do with that. Worley says he wouldn't be here without Benedict's help in rebuilding his confidence and reworking his mechanics.
Will it last? Worley is focused only on his next start as the Pirates' rotation returns to health.
Searage isn't looking ahead, either.
“Right now, he's got the feeling for it,” Searage said. “We're just going to ride it out.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pittsburgh police break up customer fights over Air Jordan 11 shoes
- Police crash victim’s death ruled accidental
- Cal U students aid Fayette survey
- North Huntingdon residents warned about vehicle break-ins
- Undersized Beachum quietly excels at 1 of game’s pivotal positions
- Penguins missing Martin, Ehrhoff, Adams; prized prospect Pouliot called up
- Butler County COG, Humane Society aim to control cat population
- Seneca Valley team places 1st at Carnegie Science Center competition
- Mars Area students put science theory into practice
- Man’s holiday spirit lights up Belle Vernon
- Seneca Valley bands, choir put on holiday performance for senior citizens