In his 11-year major league career, Marlins reliever Brad Ziegler never needed to make a big mechanical adjustment.
Other than in 2007, when he was sent to Double-A in the Oakland Athletics’ farm system to convert to a submarine-style pitcher, the only fixes he made were for bad habits that developed when he felt overused.
Before 2017, Ziegler had just three seasons with an ERA above 3.00. It was never broke, so he didn’t fix it.
But last year in Miami, that number rose to 4.79, and his 29 strikeouts were the fewest of his career.
This season, things went from bad to worse. On May 30, Ziegler blew a save against the Padres and was subsequently removed from the closer role. Two days later, he gave up a run in one inning against the Diamondbacks, and his ERA rose to 7.88.
So Ziegler made a change the next series, when the Marlins went to St. Louis.
It’s relatively simple. When Ziegler sets, he holds his glove up around his face. In the past, he kept it down by his belt.
“I threw a little bullpen with the mechanical adjustment,” Ziegler said before Miami’s game against the Rays on Tuesday. “And … still, it was a big enough change that for probably three or four games after that I was still kind of feeling a little bit. But in that time, I was able to have a little bit of success.”
The veteran suggested the change to his coaches, and it’s paid dividends. Since then, Ziegler has given up one run in his 16 appearances spanning 17 innings of work, with nearly as many strikeouts as the rest of the season. That 7.88 ERA has dropped all the way down to 4.83.
Ziegler says the adjustment has helped with the health of his back and the “freeness” of his arm when he’s throwing. In fact, he says he wishes he made the change five years ago.
“It’s just the idea that my hands, like, I kind of felt like I was getting stuck on my hip when I had my hands low, but I’ve always done it,” Ziegler said. “From the time I started throwing submarine, until literally the first of June, I’ve had the same delivery and decided to make the adjustment this year, and hopefully I’ll be able to continue to feel as comfortable as I do now.”
Originally, Ziegler was in the closer’s role due, in part, to his lingering back problems.
He says he’s been seeing a chiropractor, “basically every series for two years now.” It’s a problem that comes from his submarine motion, which puts more torque on his back and hips than an overhand pitcher, and it really acts up when he warms up in the bullpen multiple times without getting called on to pitch.
Manager Don Mattingly and the Marlins’ staff thought they could avoid this problem by giving Ziegler the closer’s role, where he would know exactly when he would be pitching, lessening the chances of getting up, warming up, sitting back down, then warming up again.
This mechanical adjustment has alleviated some of those concerns, since his back health has improved with it. It’s also helped him ease into his non-closer role. And with the success Ziegler has seen this month, along with the emergence of Kyle Barraclough as closer and the Marlins’ bullpen as a whole, it’s unlikely Ziegler or the Marlins will be changing back to the old way anytime soon.
“I mean, I’m confident,” Mattingly said Tuesday. “I think we’ve thrown the ball well. Again, I think since we made the (Barraclough) move, we’ve really gotten pretty consistent. And I think you take ‘Clough’ with (Adam) Conley, because those two guys have added two pieces to our bullpen, and Ziegler’s been lights out in a little bit of a different role.”
It seems Ziegler’s mechanical adjustment has breathed new life into his career.
This is the last year of his current contract, and even with his history of success, Ziegler might have been in trouble if his season hadn’t turned around. It would have been tough to convince a team to take a chance on a 38-year-old reliever with a 7-plus ERA.
Now, though, Ziegler is looking like his younger self. And with the trade deadline less than a month away, a shutdown middle-to-late-inning reliever could be valuable to a contender.
Ziegler admits he thinks about that, but only so he and his family are prepared to move on short notice. He’s not really worried about what happens at the deadline.
“I have no control over it, so you know, if it happens it happens,” Ziegler said. “If not, I’m happy here. I like the guys here. I think we’re starting to do something really good here, and I like being part of the beginning of it.”
He says his mindset and his preparation on the field haven’t changed.
Of course there is at least one thing that changed. Ziegler holds his glove a little bit higher now when he sets.
As it turns out, that could make all the difference.