By Brandon Warne
Trevor May’s career got off to an inauspicious start. After wearing out Triple-A pretty well — 2.85 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 1.16 WHIP — May was summoned for an Aug. 9 start last season against the A’s. May only lasted two innings, struck out none and walked seven as just 28 of his 63 pitches went for strikes.
May didn’t complete five innings until his third start, and didn’t pick up a win until his fifth. As August came to an end, May’s ERA sat at 10.42. September was markedly better — if still not perfect — for May, as he posted a 6.08 ERA with 29 strikeouts and eight walks in 26.2 innings. Over his final four starts, he threw at least 90 pitches in each, and never fewer than 60 strikes. If you wanted the breakdown of May’s September versus his August, here it is: he threw nearly the same number of balls (non-strikes) in August (151) as September (157). The difference is, he threw nearly 80 more strikes in September.
For a guy who has at times had issues throwing strikes in his career, that’s a reasonably big difference.
May himself will tell you he felt he turned the corner in September, most specifically when preparing for his final start against the Tigers. May didn’t mince words either, as a guy who isn’t shy about saying what he feels.
“I have a distinct memory of going into that start in Detroit kind of being like ‘I’m sick of letting guys dictate how I pitch. I’m really kind of tired of this Tigers team having the best time ever when they’re hitting,’” May said of his preparation for a six inning, seven strikeout performance against the Tigers. May was handed his sixth loss, but from a statistical standpoint, it was probably his second-best start of his cup of coffee with the big club.
May considers that a jump-off point for his offseason. “I just wanted to go after them,” he noted. “They got me a little bit, but I thought I had them guessing and some guys swinging through things they thought they were going to hit.” After that start, May said he realized he had run out of ‘physical gas’, and that he made a promise to himself that the poise, confidence and aggressiveness was going to be there coming into 2015 because, as he said “You can’t pitch without it.”
May doesn’t dodge questions about his control issues in the minors, and even last season. “I’m past the point of having jitters or just off my debut or all that stuff,” he said. “It’s time to get the job done.” May’s control woes were two-fold, at some points there were issues he could fix mechanically, and at other times it was just mind versus body. “There were times my body simply wouldn’t do what my brain said,” May noted. “But the vast majority of the times my big walk games were because I had a little bit of fear of throwing the ball over the plate. I’m not shy about that; it was happening.”
But it hasn’t happened this year; in fact, through five starts since his call-up, he’s walked just five batters, and just four unintentionally. May made 29 appearances last year (28 starts), and walked four or more batters on six occasions — a rather large adjustment. May attributes that to not only a philosophical change, but facing that fear head-on and pummeling it into submission. “Just being relentless,” May said of his new mentality. “Just making them beat you 100 percent of the time is, I think, a good philosophy for me to have.”
Since May is relatively new to the Twins landscape, he broke down his repertoire a little bit as well. He throws a fastball and a changeup as his strikeout pitches — his words — while the curve has been something he’s been working on with improved success in between-games action, whether it’s playing catch or side sessions. BrooksBaseball.net credits him with throwing 21 curves in Tuesday night’s game, which is more than any other two starts this year combined, so clearly that offering has evolved a bit.
Each pitch for May has a different usage, like you’ll find with pretty much every pitcher. The two-seamer — termed a sinker via Brooks’ tracking logarithm — is what he considers his groundball pitch, which the statistics prove to be true with a 58.3 percent groundball rate in his brief big league career. Incidentally, the slider has proven heavy with a 50 percent groundball rate as well, so even though May is predominantly a fly ball pitcher — he says it’s due to the run on his four-seamer — he has a couple offerings that can kill worms if he finds himself in such a situation.
The pitch we honed in on in discussions was the changeup, however. May has been a power pitcher as he’s risen through the ranks, but the changeup is something he’s wanted to reaffirm, and has done so with gusto this season. Thus far in his time in the majors, May has compiled a stellar 19.4 percent whiff rate on the pitch, a clean 10 percent-plus more than any of his other pitches. So while the fastball might be a strikeout pitch in May’s eyes, the changeup is without a doubt his putaway pitch.
He’s keenly aware of it, too. In fact, future teammate Torii Hunter approached him after the Detroit start last year gushing about it. “You got me with the changeup,” Hunter admitted. “I couldn’t see it at all.” Kurt Suzuki was on board as well, and asked May early in the spring if he was “ready to throw some changeups this year?”
May’s breakdown of the changeup is rather intriguing. “It moves exactly like my four-seamer does,” May said. “It’s an illusion. With the changeup, some guys get good action. For example, Gibby throws his as a sinker, so they see sinker action. So his action actually makes his changeup better. I kind of have a riding fastball as it is, so guys kinda have a tendency to swing under it because it’s going up over bats. But then the changeup is the same but it stays down and goes under there. It’s kind of an optical illusion, that’s what makes it so good.”
The nuance of the changeup is one of baseball’s great mysteries, at least to the casual fan. What might be difficult to understand for someone who hasn’t faced a good one is that it’s nearly imperceptible if the pitcher throws it with the proper motion and mechanics. Essentially, it’s a pitch that’s designed to look like a fastball out of the hand — same arm speed, same arm slot — but the deception is when you find yourself finishing your swing as the ball crosses the plate.
“It’s one of the harder pitches to throw,” May said. “I think fans see a lot of spin and they think breaking balls are the hardest thing to hit because it’s moving up or down or whatever. But if it’s picked up early, it’s not as hard to hit as a good changeup. A guy with a good changeup, if you can’t see, if it looks exactly the same and you can’t determine how fast it’s coming at you, you’re simply not going to hit it hard.”
Well, as long as May keeps dealing with his changeup, it seems quite likely he can keep this early-season roll going. The Twins obviously thought well enough of his start to keep him in favor of veteran Tommy Milone, so maybe there’s some fire to go with May’s smoke here.