Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jason Grilli; Jump Into The Fire...

Hey, the guy's been here a year and already established himself as one of the better set up men not only in Pittsburgh, but in MLB. In 67 outings for the Bucs, Jason Grilli has gone 3-4-2 with 33 holds, pitching to a 2.21 ERA. He averages 12.1 whiffs per nine innings with a WHIP of 1.125.

And if that's not enough, Grilli doesn't do it against the league's meatballs. Clint Hurdle calls on him as often as not to face the heart of the order before handing off the ball to Hanny. 40 of his Pittsburgh appearances have been during high leverage situations when the game can turn on one hung slider. His first Pirate appearance was against the Cards on July 22nd, 2011, and he pitched a scoreless ninth while facing Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. Things haven't changed much; he started out jumping right into the fire and still is.

Grilli was chosen by the Yankees when he was tossing ball for the Baldwinsville Baker HS Bees, located in upstate New York between Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes. The Bronx Bombers spent the 24th round of the 1994 draft to go after him, but he wisely passed on that offer.

In 1997, the Giants inked him as the fourth overall pick out of Seton Hall, where he once struck out 18 batters in a game, with a couple of years honing his craft in the Cape Cod summer league. It netted him a $1.9M bonus, allowing him to buy his first car. He was soon to embark on a journey that would cross a lot of interstates and turn over the odometer on that set of wheels.

In 1999, he was shipped by SF to the Marlins as the key component of the Livian Hernandez deadline deal. Grilli labored in their system, with a strong AA line but not so much in AAA while getting six Fish starts in 2000-01 and not looking very impressive. Then he lost 2002 to Tommy John surgery, his second elbow procedure.

The White Sox selected him as a Rule 5 player in 2003. The Sox gave him eight starts, and though he was 2-3, his ERA was 7.40. Two years later, Chicago released him as he again struggled in AAA, and he signed a minor league deal with the Tigers. He had a good year at AAA Toledo, going 12-9 with a 4.01 ERA,

Grilli pitched for Team Italy in the 2006 World Baseball Classic (he has dual citizenship). He built on that with a strong training camp, switching to a long man's role and earning his first full time MLB job. Detroit fully converted him to the pen (his last start was in 2005 as a call-up), and he pitched pretty solid ball for them. In his four seasons, he appeared 120 times with a 4.31 ERA, inflated by a rough 2007 campaign.

Motown dealt him to the Rox for a minor leaguer in mid season 2008, and he climbed the hill for 52 outings and put up a 2.93 ERA for then Rox skipper Hurdle. It's also when he discovered his swing and miss stuff, averaging 8.7 K per nine; after that season, it would never dip under a strikeout per inning. But 2009 wasn't very kind to him, and Colorado sold him to the Rangers in June after being DFA'ed, where he continued to be less than stellar.

In the off season he inked a minor league deal with the Indians. That gig didn't last long; his knee gave out while zigging through cones during agility drills in spring training. Grilli broke his kneecap, rolled up his ligaments and tore his quadriceps muscle above the right knee, an injury usually associated with football. The surgery by Dr. James Steadman to repair it cost him the season. At the time, it was thought that it might cost him more than that; the injury was so severe that it was considered to be likely career-ending.

Grilli didn't agree, and began twice-a-day workouts to get back into baseball shape. He became a free agent after his rehab year and joined the Phillies. He posted a 1.93 ERA in 32-1/3 innings with 43 whiffs for the AAA Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, where he was stashed as an insurance policy for the big team. He had an opt-out clause in his contract if he were to receive a big league offer after June 1st, and in July of 2011, he did. Neal Huntington, facing a burnt out bullpen, came a' calling, major league contract in hand.

The big righty (6'5", 225 lb) was excited, not only to be in the show again but to come to a place on the upswing that valued his ability. He even tweeted  ”Black & Yellow! Black & Yellow! Black & Yellow! Cannot wait to join the new squadron.”

He made his first appearance the day after he was signed, and on August 25th, he won his first game in nearly two years when the Bucs out-dueled the Brew Crew 2-0. Brought in as a middle inning, bridge-type guy, he quickly earned Hurdle's trust, as he went 2-1-1 with a 2.18 ERA and 10+ K per nine.

Arb eligible for the last time (he's a FA after the season), the Pirates inked him to a $1.1M contract for 2012 and then named him as the set-up man during spring camp. Some questioned if he could repeat at the age of 35, but so far he's made 39 trips to the bump with a 1.96 ERA, 1.064 WHIP and 13.7 K per nine using a fastball/slider combo.

He still has his faults; his control has never been pinpoint, and he's walked 4.2 batter per nine as a Buc. Ditto with the long ball; he yields 0.9 per nine innings as a Pirate, a little on the high side and an off-and-on sore spot throughout his career. Occasionally his stuff will be elevated, the bane of all tall pitchers.

But he has a back-end reliever's perfect mindset: a pit bull mentality that relishes a battle coupled with a short memory. His velocity generally lets him overcome any control issues, and that combination of speed and wildness keeps batters from settling in very comfortably in the box. Heck, he fuels up on peanuts and Red Bull before the fifth inning to get his metabolism going on game days.

His four seamer is clocked at 94 MPH, the same as it was in 2007, and its resurgence is probably because of all the leg work he did in 2010, ultimately strengthening his base. His big-breaking slider comes in at 83, pretty much in line with his career average.

The slider is his out pitch, and he uses it 30% of the time. Grilli credits Jeremy Bonderman with showing him the basics back in 2006 when he was converted to a reliever in Detroit. As his command of it increased, so did his K totals. Grilli has become purely a two-trick pony, as are most late inning guys. He's ditched his show-me changeup almost completely as a Pirate.

Nature/nurture might have played a role in it, too. His dad Steve pitched for the mid-seventy Tigers and Jays, coming out of Erie's Gannon University. Steve and Jason are one of just four father and son duos with MLB saves (the others are Julio & Jaime Navarro, James & Jeff Russell and Pedro Borbon Sr. & Jr.). Grilli is an only child; he and his dad still talk every night after a game, and Jason wore his dad's #49 as a Tiger.

Grilli and his wife, Danielle, who was his high school sweetheart, have one child, their son Jayse. The Grilli clan lives in Orlando, Florida during the offseason.

Baseball isn't his only iron in the fire. Grilli calls himself a "jeek," a cross between a jock and a geek, and knows techie stuff as well as he knows his release point. He has a popular twitter account @GrillCheese49 for you peeps, and been on a couple of live local webcasts.

He also runs a company called Perfect Pitch Marketing, which sells videophones and other telecomm stuff. PPM is also heavy into SEO and mobile/social media marketing. Oh, he's an author, too - his book is "9 Innings for Social Media Success."

But we wouldn't look for GoDaddy.Grilli to go on line full time anytime soon. The way he's dealing, he still has some tread on the wheels and a few more miles remaining on his MLB journey.

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