FORT MYERS, Fla. – His 2016 season consisted of a mostly lousy April in Miami, a demotion to the minor leagues, and two well-deserved releases within a month. So when Craig Breslow sat down and evaluated his 15-year pro career last August, it was obvious what most ballplayers would decide to do next.
But Breslow — Yale grad, molecular biophysics major, World Series champion — isn’t most ballplayers.
“I realized I was probably going to be out of baseball,” the 36-year-old lefthander said. “So I decided I had to make some changes.”
Six months later, he was choosing among 10 different contract offers, an unlikely bidding war for a one- or two-batter lefty specialist who hasn’t kept his ERA below 4.00 in three years. Breslow used his arm to create interest from MLB teams — but mostly, he used his head.
“When you’re home in August, you have some time to think about how to proceed,” Breslow said with a laugh. “I started thinking about this, planning this, figuring out how to approach it, which I did pretty methodically. Analytically.”
He didn’t have the physical gifts of baseball’s best pitchers, neither a blazing fastball nor an eat-you-alive slider, not even close. So after watching numerous recordings of great relievers, he decided to experiment with the height of his arm and the grip on the ball in order to create the greatest movement possible on his pitches. He retreated to his laboratory, in other words, and tried to turn his Jekyll pitches into Hyde weapons.
“I got this machine [called Rapsodo] which measures movement and spin rate and was able to quantify the changes I was making. I could measure how much the ball moves horizontally from each arm slot, and how much vertically, and how much better I was getting as I worked on it. And I could show teams, here’s how much my pitches used to move, and here’s what they do now,” Breslow said. “The difference was sometimes five or six inches. That felt like it could be effective.”
He settled on lowering his arm angle to just above sidearm, and made another heartening discovery.
“There’s another piece of technology, a sleeve that you can wear that measures stress on your elbow,” Breslow said. “As I lowered my angle, the velocity went up and the stress went down. The obvious conclusion is, ‘Why didn’t I do this years ago?’ ”
Well, the technology is fairly new, but more important, so is the ability and willingness to utilize it. But Breslow could hardly have found a better match for his approach than in the Twins’ new front office, which intends to aggressively search for new ways to evaluate players and maximize their talents. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine were looking for bullpen help; Breslow not only offered it, but he had the data to convince them.
“It was very unique,” Falvey said of Breslow’s pitch to the Twins. “Anytime you can talk about an evidence-based approach, that’s what we’re trying to do with all our players. … Not just data, but some evaluation that we feel has real evidence. … When you make a bet on something, you want to make sure you have the information behind it.”
Breslow said he was offered more money by other teams, and could have signed with more likely contenders. But a player often billed as “the smartest man in baseball” made an intellectual connection with Falvey, who wanted Breslow for his leadership and experience as much as his pitching.
“I spoke to Derek for hours. He’s really innovative, he’s got a vision for where he wants to take this organization, and I think he’s going to be successful,” Breslow said. “It’s exciting and compelling to be a part of that.”
Breslow agreed to an incentive-laden minor league contract that could pay him as much as $2 million if he repeats the success that made him so important to the 2013 World Series champion Red Sox. Of course, that’s the great unknown in the Ivy Leaguer’s research.
“Yeah, the only thing [the data] doesn’t show is whether I can get hitters out,” Breslow said with a smile. “I can know how much the ball is moving, how fast it’s going, where it ends up, but I can’t tell how easily a hitter can pick it up. Or how easily does a hitter square it up. But that’s why we’re here.”