Split decision could assist Byrd
Veteran tinkering with pitch as weapon against lefties
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- His first Grapefruit League outing was complete, and Paul Byrd made a stunning announcement Thursday afternoon."I'm going to turn it up this year," Byrd joked. "I'm going to become a fastball pitcher." Actually, Byrd was only half-joking. He'll continue to be the pitch-to-contact type of arm he had always been in his 10-plus years in the big leagues. But this year, he's adding a split-finger fastball to his repertoire against left-handers. "Left-handers have hit me really well the last two years," Byrd said. "In Kansas City [in 2002], I had my best year when they didn't hit me. I'm trying to get back to that." Back in '02, Byrd mixed it up against lefties with a changeup. He didn't get the results he wanted from that pitch last season, so he's worked on mastering the split -- a pitch he's only tooled with occasionally in the past and didn't use at all in '06. "I've goofed around with it in the past," Byrd said. "But I've never committed two months of the offseason to learning it before. I'll mix that in and see how it goes. It gives left-handers something to think about." Byrd, 36, certainly has good reason to hope the new pitch works out. Coming off a disappointing '06 in which he went 10-9 with a 4.88 ERA in 31 starts, Byrd knows he has plenty to prove to the Indians. Yes, he was a positive, veteran influence in the Tribe's young clubhouse during a tumultuous season, but that's not exactly where his bread is buttered. "They pay me $7 million a year to get guys out," Byrd said, "not to be a good influence in the clubhouse. I'm here to be a solid pitcher in the rotation." All too often last year, Byrd struggled to be just that. His was a season marred by inconsistency. A walk total of 38, which tied for the highest of his career, a hits-allowed total of 232, which ranked as the eighth most in the American League and a runs-allowed total of 120, which tied for sixth most in the league, are three numbers that stand out. But for Byrd, the big number is the .369 average he allowed to lefties. "They hit me very well," he said. "That was pretty much the key." So when the season ended, Byrd did some light reading. He needed a "how to" manual on attacking left-handed batters, and he found it through one of his favorite authors -- himself.
For the last seven years, Byrd has kept a journal of various tips and techniques he has learned that have benefited him on the mound. He turned to that '02 season with the Royals, when he won 17 games, including two shutouts and seven complete games, and made note of how effective the changeup was as an out pitch against lefties.This year, Byrd hopes the split-finger will work in a similar manner. He'll utilize the Tribe's slate of Grapefruit League games to test it out, in addition to soliciting advice from pitching coach Carl Willis, who leaned heavily on the split during his playing days with the Twins. On Thursday, the pitch didn't get Byrd off to the best of starts. "I was throwing it well in the bullpen," he said. "Then I came out and threw the first four in the dirt. I was thinking, 'I don't know what I was working on this offseason. I could have watched more TV.'" As the outing progressed, he got a better feel for the pitch. He struck out left-hander Luke Scott in the fourth, which was one of his two scoreless innings of work. It might seem odd for a pitcher who's been around as long as Byrd has to be discovering a new pitch this late in his career. But manager Eric Wedge is all for it. "[Byrd] can throw anything he wants to out there," Wedge said. "He has a tremendous feel for the baseball in his hands. He sees the plate very well, and he knows what he wants the baseball to do." What Byrd wants it to do this season is get more left-handers out. And with his arm feeling good and his spot in the Tribe's rotation written in ink, he's going to take advantage of his job security to try something new. "I'm not in a position where I have to have a perfect spring to make the team," Byrd said. "That's why I kept throwing it [Thursday, even after the early troubles]. In a regular game, I wouldn't keep throwing it to find it. But for me, working on that pitch is what this spring is going to be about."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.