Kevin Gorman: Pirates put faith in Trevor Williams to throw first punch
BRADENTON, Fla. — Trevor Williams could wear his second half of last season as a badge of honor, when the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander ranked among the best pitchers in baseball.
But Williams doesn’t find his identity in the game, even though he is thankful to count his blessings that he plays in the majors every time he puts on a uniform.
“I know that baseball isn’t the most important thing in the world to me,” Williams said Tuesday at Pirate City. “I take my job very serious. It’s my craft. It’s not my life mission, but it’s my life’s work. It’s my job.
“However, I’m a lot of things before I’m a baseball player.”
For Williams, his Catholic faith is his foundation. There are reminders all around Williams, from the St. Benedict crucifix on his locker to his tattoos, from the AMDG on the inside of his left wrist — an abbreviation of the Jesuit motto Ad mairoem Dei gloriam (“for the greater glory of God”) — to the raven on his right arm that allows him to evangelize about its role with St. Benedict of Nursia.
That faith has served Williams in all walks of life, first and foremost his family, but also is the bedrock for his baseball success. It has kept him grounded and helped Williams find the balance he needed to overcome his first-half struggles to go 7-3, with a 1.38 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 71 2/3 innings.
“Because, in baseball, the highs are extremely high and the lows are extremely low,” said Williams, who finished 14-10, with a 3.11 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. “It’s a very humbling game, and baseball will humble you very fast.”
Williams was humbled after losing four of five starts before the All-Star break last year and a meeting in the office of Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to figure out how to handle a skid where he “got punched in the mouth.” Hurdle credited Williams for having an honest self-evaluation, then working with pitching coach Ray Searage to make the necessary adjustments to live up to his bulldog reputation and execute pitches.
“In his mind, it was all fight,” Hurdle said. “There wasn’t any flight.”
A self-described “introvert in a nonbaseball setting,” Williams admits to having an alter ego on the mound. That’s where his competitiveness comes out, and he recognized his need to pitch angry but do so in a way where he could still be precise in pitch location and selection.
“I’m the guy that has to throw the first punch,” Williams said. “I can’t sit back and see what happens. My pitching game is a chess match at 92 miles an hour, but it’s ready to be on the attack from Pitch 1.”
Hurdle was impressed by Williams’ ability to create soft contact, relying on the command of his changeup and slider to hold hitters to a .216/.274/.304 slash line in the second half despite averaging only 6.91 strikeouts per nine innings.
“It was as impressive a volume of work as I’ve been around in a long time as far as weak contact, velocity off the bat,” Hurdle said. “In my mind, he is a guy who is diving in to be a master craftsman, and his power tools are different than other people’s power tools. It’s not about velocity. It’s not about dynamic spin. But he’s got pitches. He’s got effective velocity — what it looks like versus what it is. The tunneling of his pitches has become a weapon. And his overall command is top shelf and elite, as far as fastball command and not just the courage but the conviction in throwing it as much as he does.”
That conviction comes with the confidence of the craftsman building within Williams, as he constantly tried to achieve a balance in both life and on the pitching mound. As much as facing adversity was a challenge, it’s one Williams believes will help him in the future. He realized he needed to make a full commitment to the pitch that was called and accept that it was out of his control once it left his hand.
It was a lesson learned, one Williams is counting on to continue this season. He came into spring training with an understanding of what was clicking and believes he picked it up in his first bullpen session right where he left off last season. Now comes the biggest challenge for Williams: showing he can be as effective as he was in the second half last year for a full season.
“You can’t repeat a year that you had. You can’t repeat a half. You can only do better or worse,” Williams said. “I did a lot this offseason to move in a positive direction and, hopefully, do better.”
The Pirates have faith Williams is ready to throw the first punch.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .