Small Laffey thriving in the big time
Young southpaw uses mental edge to keep batters at bay
CLEVELAND -- He's listed at 6 feet tall, which is probably an exaggeration. His listed weight of 180 pounds might even be a slight exaggeration, too.
Physically, there is little to Aaron Laffey that is imposing -- save, perhaps, for the tattoos etched into his skin. And as far as raw stuff is concerned, he's not gifted with the ability to hurl a fastball in the upper-90-mph range.
Yet if you scoured the Indians' clubhouse, you'd be hard-pressed to find a player more competitive and more confident than the 23-year-old Laffey, whose 1.59 ERA as a fill-in for the Tribe's rotation is the best mark in the American League since April 17.
"Everyone in here has the talent to be here," Laffey said. "But the focus and the mental aspect are such large parts of this game."
Focus and mental grit have been strengths for Laffey for a while now.
Duane McMinn, who coached Laffey's baseball team at Allegany High School in Cumberland, Md., and taught his world history and psychology classes, can attest to that.
"The hardest guy on Aaron was himself," McMinn said. "I've known Aaron since he was in eighth grade, and he's always been that way, athletically and in the classroom."
Laffey's athletic abilities at a young age often made him the center of attention on the field and court.
On the days he wasn't pitching for his high school baseball team -- compiling a 0.00 ERA in his senior season -- he was either at shortstop or in center field.
He was the quarterback of his football team through eighth grade, before he hung up his cleats in fear that some defensive lineman would break through coverage, yank his arm back and put his pitching career in jeopardy.
Laffey was also the starting point guard for his high school basketball team, though that arm of his was sometimes too strong for his -- and his team's -- own good.
"To this day," Laffey said with a laugh, "my high school basketball coach [Ted Eirich] says, 'You would have had a lot more assists if you didn't throw so hard.'"
Laffey threw hard, but he also worked hard. And no sport piqued his interest quite like baseball. He knew early on that pitching could guide him to a college scholarship (he committed to Virginia Tech before the Indians took him with their 16th-round pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft) or, perhaps, a professional career.
"We'd see him all fall on the baseball field with his dad, throwing bullpens," McMinn recalled. "If the weather was nice enough, after basketball practice, he'd be outside throwing."
Impressive first impression
The Indians learned a lot about the value of Laffey's hard work during Game 6 of last fall's AL Championship Series against the Red Sox.
It was only the third inning when the Tribe was already well on its way to a laugher of a loss. Starter Fausto Carmona and reliever Rafael Perez were roughed up for a combined 10 runs, and the Indians simply needed somebody to eat up some innings to preserve the bullpen for Game 7.
|"The hardest guy on Aaron was himself. I've known Aaron since he was in eighth grade, and he's always been that way."|
|-- Duane McMinn, Aaron Laffey's high school coach and teacher|
They went to Laffey, who hadn't pitched since the regular-season finale, 20 days earlier.
Because of the series' end result, some people may forget Laffey's 4 2/3 scoreless innings of work against the potent Red Sox offense. But the Indians remember them.
"You think about his respect for the game and his respect for himself," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "He did all the work on the side and everything he needed to do to be prepared for his opportunity when it came, and he was able to take advantage of it. It's tough for anybody to sit that long and come out and have his stuff as if he had pitched two days ago. I thought that was really impressive."
Willis and the Indians' higher-ups were just as impressed with the confidence and maturity Laffey displayed in nine starts at the end of the 2007 season, when he took the demoted Cliff Lee's rotation spot and went 4-2 with a 4.56 ERA.
Demotion, then promotion
Laffey had the Indians' attention after '07. But when the club opened Spring Training this year, it was clear he and fellow young left-hander Jeremy Sowers were both behind Lee in the battle for the fifth starting spot.
Lee had a guaranteed contract and 54 big league wins under his belt, and he pitched well throughout camp. Laffey, meanwhile, fell victim to the temptation to overthrow while trying to impress the decision-makers early in camp, before settling in late. By that point, his ticket back to Triple-A Buffalo was all but punched.
"I was fine with it," he said. "I knew there was a possibility it was going to happen. And I knew that, regardless of where I started this season, there was a good possibility I could get back up here."
So did the Indians.
"It was tough to send him down," Willis said. "But it was a comfort to know you had someone of that caliber waiting in the wings."
Laffey, remember, wasn't even the Indians' first choice among spot starters when Jake Westbrook went on the disabled list on April 22. The club's first call went to Sowers.
But on the very day manager Eric Wedge announced the Sowers-over-Laffey decision, the Tribe's game in Kansas City was rained out. The rotation had to be shuffled, and a second spot-starting opportunity opened up for Laffey, who went 3-1 with a 2.77 ERA in five starts at Buffalo.
Then Grady Sizemore sprained his ankle on the day Sowers made his start, and the Indians had to call up Brad Snyder as an extra outfielder. Sowers went down, and Laffey stayed up in Westbrook's place.
|"Going through middle school and high school and always being one of the better athletes on the team, you develop that confidence and trust in your ability to do the job and get it done."|
|-- Aaron Laffey|
Another dose of Laffey luck -- albeit at the expense of another injured teammate -- came when Carmona strained his hip last Friday, forcing him to go on the DL. With Westbrook set to return this week, Laffey had appeared Buffalo-bound, but the Carmona injury affords him a rotation job for at least another month.
Through all the craziness of rain and roster moves, Laffey has only gotten more effective -- and more confident -- against big league competition.
In his start against the White Sox on Tuesday night, it was clear Laffey didn't have his best command. In the third inning, he was clinging to a 5-2 lead with two on, none out and the hot-hitting Carlos Quentin and slugger Jermaine Dye due up.
Laffey had to have a little talk with himself.
"I just kept telling myself, 'You're going to get through it. One pitch is two outs, one pitch is two outs,'" he said. "It's a big self-help."
And it worked. Quentin popped out, and Dye grounded into an inning-ending double play. The Indians went on to an 8-2 win, and Laffey, getting a rare dose of run support, improved to 3-3.
"I talked to him after the game about really knowing who he is and the kind of pitcher he is," Willis said. "He really is aware of that when he's out there, which is why, when situations arise, he can make one pitch and get two outs. It's such a weapon and is so crucial to get you out of the big innings."
Laffey, who is 13 innings shy of qualifying for the league's ERA lead, worked to refine his pitching weapons through 4 1/2 Minor League seasons before he got that first call to the Majors last summer.
But the competitiveness and confidence have always been there.
"Going through middle school and high school and always being one of the better athletes on the team, you develop that confidence and trust in your ability to do the job and get it done," Laffey said.
And he is certainly getting the job done for the Indians.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.