Wednesday, October 08, 2008

New and Improved: A Dissection of Grant Balfour

Once upon a time in the fast-paced 1990s, the Minnesota Twins drafted an Australian and transplanted him from the Land Down Under - where women roam and men plunder - to Fort Myers, Florida (which has three Outbacks) to develop what international scouts had discovered was a dominate fastball.     
Splitting his first three professional seasons with the GCL Twins, Elizabethton and Quad Cities, Balfour worked 247 innings with a record of 17-11 and a 213/84 K/BB ratio.  At 22 years old and his first season of A+ ball in Fort Myers, the Twins organization thought he would contribute most from the bullpen - able to rely on his fastball at full-tilt and not have to spread it out over six innings or more.  Balfour transitioned well.  The following season in 2001 he opened up the season in AA New Britain where in 50 innings of work, he struck out 72 and converted 13 save opportunities, earning a promotion in July, taking the roster spot of Quinton McCracken.  Like most prospects, Balfour's introduction to the higher level came with growing pains.  Unfortunately for Balfour, his first call of duty would be against the Seattle Mariners.  
The 2001 Seattle Mariners would score nearly six runs per game (5.74) on their way to 116 victories.  The young fireballer was like a lamb to the slaughter at Safeco Field.  Kyle Lohse would start the game and throw 4 1/3 ineffective innings, kindly leaving a nice mess of Bret Boone on third and John Olerud on first with only one out for Balfour to clean up.  His first major league matchup was with Mike Cameron, whom he would strike out for the second out.  He would walk Al Martin to load the bases but induce an inning-ending grounder out of third baseman David Bell to conclude his initial outing.  The next inning would not go so smoothly as he would give up a walk, sacrifice bunt then a bunt base hit to Ichiro (not a rarely feat considering he had 242 that year) followed by a sacrifice fly to give him his first earned run of his career. 
 Five days later, the Twins would find themselves doing battle with the same Mariners at the Metrodome.  Once again Kyle Lohse would be the starter who would last just five innings against the potent run-producing lineup.  Down 8-3, manager Tom Kelly would call upon Grant Balfour as his third pitcher of the night.  Balfour would surrender a solo home run to Ichiro followed a batter later with a two-run blast by Bret Boone.  The loss would move the Twins in a tie with the second-place Cleveland Indians.  Deciding that more calvery for the bullpen was needed if they expected to compete all season, Terry Ryan sent left-handed starter Mark Redman to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Todd Jones.  One day later, Ryan would make room for his new bullpen arm by optioning Balfour to AAA Edmonton.  Jones, of course, would be no help as the Twins spiraled to the finish, going 25-39 the rest of the way.  Balfour would continue his trend in AAA:  In 11 appearances, he worked 16 innings while striking out 17 but walking 10 and giving up 10 earned runs.
Balfour would spend all of 2002 in AAA, posting very good numbers are the parent club would return to the postseason for the first time in eleven years.  In 2003, when Mike Nakamura was unable to provide relief to the bullpen, Balfour would be recalled in July.  In 26 innings of work, Balfour posted a decent 4.15 ERA and a 30/14 K/BB ratio.  His 2003 performance would allow him to return to the Twins bullpen in 2004 when he would toss 39.1 innings with a 4.35 ERA and a 42/21 K/BB split, but not before being placed on the DL for six weeks with a sore shoulder to the ire of the coaching staff.  Making it back to the playoffs, the Twins would keep Balfour and his mid-90s fastball on the postseason roster.  In the deciding Game 4, Balfour would be asked to replace Johan Santana going into the sixth inning with Twins 5-1 lead over the Yankees.  Balfour's two scoreless innings provided Ron Gardenhire with some brief reassurance that he made the right move, that is, until Juan Rincon surrendered a three-run home run to Ruben Sierra. 
Deploying a hard fastball (69% of the time) and a slider (10%), the Twins began dreaming of a 2005 bullpen that would consist of Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon, JC Romero and Grant Balfour.  It would, however, remain just that: a dream.  In spring training, Balfour began to indicate he had forearm tightness and missed the majority of spring training.  Since he was jerked back and forth from the minors to the majors, Balfour was out of options and would have to either start the season on the DL or pass through waivers before being outrighted to Rochester.  Balfour's inability to give the Twins coaching staff any sort of timeline irked them with the season opening swiftly approaching.  "He [Balfour] said, 'I felt fine for the first eight minutes, but not so good the last two,'" Gardenhire said. "What am I supposed to do with that? Is he good to go, or does he have a problem?" 
Doctors would confirm that it was a muscle strain, shutting him down for the remainder of spring training, making him a DL candidate to start the season.  After being cleared to begin throwing off the mound, Balfour experienced setbacks, noting pain in the forearm when throwing 80% in sessions.  At the end of April, the Twins decided to have Balfour get exploratory surgery done on the arm to determine once and for all if he would require Tommy John surgery.  The surgery would reveal an 85% tear in his elbow ligament necessitating the Tommy John.  "It was nice to go in there and find out why I was having trouble with my arm," Balfour said. "It rules out all the questions."
The surgery followed by rehabilitation would take Balfour out of the game for over a year.  After briefly working out in Fort Myers in the fall at the Twins complex, the team ultimately decided to offer a 2006 contract to Balfour.  It didn't take long for the Cincinnati Reds to take out a flier on him, giving him $340K in hopes that Balfour would be ready by the second-half.  "He was originally operated on by Dr. Kremchek, so we have a pretty good idea here of what's involved," Reds general manager Dan O'Brien said in January. "He's currently in rehab. He will be reporting to major league camp, but will not be physically able to compete for a job in spring training. If everything goes as planned, he could likely return about midseason."  Balfour would only throw nine innings in the Reds farm system before being claimed by the Brewers in October, selected by O'Brien who was ousted at his GM position and took up a special advisor role in Milwaukee. 
The 2007 spring training started off poorly for Balfour. "So far, not that great a couple of games," said Balfour, after giving up six earned runs on seven hits in just 3.3 innings of work. "I feel like I got some ground balls. There are other parts of the game where I could have made a better pitch and helped myself buy getting out of the inning. With two outs, I kind of let things slide instead of bearing down and getting more focused and getting the hitter out."  The regular season wouldn't be much better.  In July, Balfour was recalled along with Manny Parra, a left-handed prospect that had once pitched along side Balfour at the Futures Game in 2003, only to implode in his three outings, logging 2 2/3 innings will seceding six earned runs, four walks and four hits.  On July 30th, the Brewers shipped him to Tampa for Seth McClung, ending O'Brien's experiment of reviving the righty. 
According to, Balfour's fastball was only registering 92.9-mph while in Milwaukee, well below the 96-mph that he was hitting with the Twins prior to the Tommy John surgery.  In addition to the decline in his velocity, Balfour leaned heavily on his slider, spinning it nearly a quarter of the time.  The Brewers may have given up on Balfour too prematurely, because by August, Rays manager Joe Maddon was singing his praises.   "I definitely see a power arm," Maddon said. "I've seen him beat fastball hitters in fastball counts when they know a fastball's coming, and that's always nice to do that. I've been impressed. I would like to get to the point where you can start using him two days in a row. We see a possible bright future with this guy, so we want to take care of him. We want to get a good look and take care of him at the same time."
Once in Tampa, Balfour begin using mainly his fastball again (77%), which was regaining speed, up to 93.2-mph on average at the end of the season.  "The scouting of Balfour was really good," said Joe Maddon. "When Andrew [Friedman, the Rays' vice president of baseball operations] picked him up, he told me about his strike-throwing and velocity and all that other kind of stuff -- his breaking ball. This guy just needs opportunity. He's been waiting for this moment. He's interesting, because I think as he gains arm strength [based on recovery from surgery], he could be very good."  In his 22 innings with the Devil Rays, Balfour struck out 27 and walked 16 while allowing just one home run, providing a solid arm for the Devil Rays projecting into 2008. 
In 2008, his fastball had been dominate.  But it didn't begin according to plan.  The Rays decided to designate Balfour for assignment, effectively making him available to anyone that wanted to pay the waiver fee and opting to keep Scott Dohmann on the roster in Balfour's stead because of "overall strike zone command".  The Australian accepted his assignment to AAA Durham and continued his resurgence, working 23.2 innings, allowing just five hits and striking out 39.  On May 29th, with Rays closer Troy Percival needing DL time, the team decided to recall the flamethrowing right-hander that had been lighting up the International League. 
"Pitching is about confidence," Balfour said upon his return from Durham. "Get on a little bit of a roll and take it from there. Just go out there and drop a zero. Then go out there and drop another one. Like hitters getting hits. I just tried to roll with it as long as I could. Everyone loves to pitch in close games. I enjoy the pressure of key situations. I think you come in really zeroed in, really focused.  You should be focused every time you go out there. But when it's 10-1, 11-1, it's different. Guys will tell you that. It's different when the game is on the line."
Using his 94.6-mph fastball nearly 92% of the time, sprinkled in with an 86-mph slider has led to a groundball rate of 61% and a 12.65 K/9 - the second highest among AL relievers.  It is evident that not only is Balfour one-hundred percent healed, but he has a new-found confidence that has propelled the Rays bullpen deep into the 2008 playoffs.