Kevin Gorman: Pirates intrigued by sidearmer Jordan Milbrath
BRADENTON, Fla. — The surprise of spring training is a sidearm pitcher whose story is as silly as his slider that doesn't end up where expected.
Jordan Milbrath's baseball career path has followed a similar trajectory.
It reached a breaking point last year, when he brought his bags to the field on the final day of spring-training camp with the Cleveland Indians and they issued him an unbelievable ultimatum.
"They pulled me aside and go, 'Hey, you can either take your release or you can start throwing sidearm,' " said Milbrath, 26.
"I fought it a little bit at first, especially at this late in my career because making an adjustment like that can either make or break it."
Ultimately, Milbrath agreed to drop his delivery from overhand to a sidearm slot. Success soon followed, as he went 5-3, with a 3.02 ERA and four saves, striking out 63 batters in 562⁄3 innings in a season split between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Akron.
What's more, after switching from a four-seam grip to a two-seamer, Milbrath's fastball improved from the mid 90s to touching 99 mph.
Now, the Rule 5 draft pick is a pitching out of the Pirates' bullpen.
"He's fighting for a spot," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's one of those rare guys who dropped his arm and his velocity picked up over the course of the season."
Milbrath can hardly believe it himself, as he was 10-24 with a 4.36 ERA in three seasons in Class A.
A 6-foot-6 right-hander, Milbrath's problem was that his head tilted to the left while throwing overhand. The Indians saw him throw sidearm while fielding grounders and asked, "Why can't you do that on the mound?"
So, he spent a month in extended spring training changing his arm slot. After going 2-1, with a 2.03 ERA in 15 innings at Lynchburg, he was promoted to Akron.
"Once we decided we were going to do it, I completely sold out," Milbrath said. "As a pitcher, you have to not only throw hard — everybody throws hard nowadays — you have to separate yourself. I feel throwing sidearm separates me from other pitchers.
"I think we're past the stage of, 'Is this going to work?' I think it's working out for me. This is what I was meant to do. I love the game of baseball. That's what I want to do for a living. I feel like this is the best way for me to do that and continue to do that."
Milbrath's motion is accentuated by his standing on the far right of the rubber, giving him good angles. Both the fastball and slider come out of the same slot, which makes it difficult for hitters to guess which one is coming. The fastball has movement, and the slider looks as if it's heading down the middle only to break outside and cause a silly swing and miss.
"That's any hitters dream — a fastball middle-middle — so if I can throw a pitch that just starts there and all of a sudden breaks out of that plane, then I'll have success," Milbrath said. "It looks like a pitch a hitter is going to want, but by the time he starts his swing, it's already out of the zone and I get a lot of nice strikeouts.
The question is whether Milbrath can find enough consistency to make the Pirates' 25-man roster.
If not, Milbrath must first clear waivers and then be offered back to Cleveland at half-price. The Pirates are taking a gamble either way, one that comes with great risk-reward if he develops.
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, for one, is enamored with Milbrath's untapped potential.
"It's something new to him," Searage said, "but, my gosh, the possibilities are endless."
And, like Milbrath has learned as a sidearmer, full of surprises.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.