For Bonderman, a change for the better
With future secured, young right-hander introduces new pitch
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Jeremy Bonderman knows the expectations, and he's not running from them. Probably nobody expects more out of him than himself. But that's not the overwhelming pressure for him.
For Bonderman, pressure was a wife and a baby daughter, and what would happen if he couldn't take care of them. Now that that pressure is gone, his new contract signed, he's barreling toward those expectations.
If he meets his own expectations, he might well be a bargain.
"The pressure [on the field] doesn't bother me," he said. "It's not the pressure. For me, it was always the security. I have a daughter and a family. You work so hard to get here, and if you get hurt, what are you going to do after [baseball]? Now that I know I'm going to be OK and my family will be OK, it just takes that out of the back of your mind. Now, you can just go out and play like you did when you were young, have fun, and every day is just a new day.
"But the fact is, I'm probably working harder now than I ever have. I want to get better. I want to be a guy like Roy Halladay, or a right-handed [Johan] Santana, something like that. I want that when I come into a ballpark, they'll be 'Oh, [shoot], Jeremy's going to be pitching in one of those games.' And I'm not there yet, but I'm hoping to get there."
That work is Bonderman's idea of fun. If he can hone his latest pitch, he's going to have a brand new toy.
Manager Jim Leyland effectively laid down the challenge near the end of the World Series, when he was reflecting on Bonderman's decent Game 4 performance in defeat in St. Louis. At that point, Leyland said that Bonderman was "about one Spring Training and two months into the season" from having a good changeup. Give him that, and Leyland summed up the result in one word: "Dynamite."
The changeup is in its trial stages. If it works, Bonderman can thank a teammate.
Bonderman has been working on an offspeed pitch for the last few years without finding something he could rely on. It was the symbol of how many projections for greatness have been placed on his shoulders before his time. He's tried to throw several variations over the years, but he never felt comfortable with the grip. At no point has it ever been more than a secondary pitch.
"It just hasn't come to me as easy as it comes to some people," Bonderman said.
Bonderman was tossing the ball with Justin Verlander when the youngster gave his 24-year-old elder a tip. Bonderman tried it out, and the grip seemed to work. The command, he felt, was there.
He has yet to try it out in a game, but the results in live batting practice earlier this week were encouraging. He'd ask teammates who stepped into the box against him what they thought about it. Sean Casey told reporters it looked like about 92 mph, but that was in comparison to a fastball that "looked like it's 110."
"If he can throw that changeup and he has a third pitch," Casey said, "there's no telling how good he could be."
Potentially as good as Bonderman wants to be.
Logically, one would reasonably think that Bonderman can experiment more with a pitch now thanks to the security of his contract. For his part, Bonderman says that he would've tried a new pitch anyway rather than play it safe. He wants a changeup that's more than a throwaway pitch. He wants to be able to throw it in any count, in any jam.
"To me, it's nice to have security," he said, "but I want to get better. I don't want to just be an average guy. I want to get better every year, and hopefully within the next couple years, I can be one of the top-tier pitchers in the game."
The difference, whether it's his changeup or his game, is consistency. Now entering his fifth Major League season, Bonderman wants consistency, not comfort. Mention his postseason performances, which seemed to renew the potential after a second half of occasional struggles, and he'll shrug it off as just a few good outings.
He's had plenty of stellar outings before. He wants the stellar season.
"I had a couple good games in the postseason," he said, "but I also had a couple good months in the regular season. I'm not looking for a month. I'm looking for a season of consistency, to be able to dominate games and give my team that opportunity to win every time I go out there."
Bonderman expects so much of himself that he seems to run head-first into pressure. If he loses a 2-1 game, he'll put the blame on himself for that first run, let alone the second.
Ironically, his best stretch last season coincided with his real pressure. A day after daughter Mailee was born, Bonderman beat the Red Sox. That started him on a 10-game unbeaten stretch in which he posted a 2.54 ERA and nearly pitched his way onto the All-Star team. He was outpitching the aforementioned Santana at the Metrodome on July 30 when an eighth-inning Twins rally started a personal nine-game winless streak.
Bonderman has always been able to get away from baseball in the offseason by going home to Pasco, Wash. -- even this past winter after the World Series. Now, his family is his main concern, and his contract takes care of that. His first purchases after the new deal were new trucks for his dad and his father-in-law. Bonderman pretty much had all he needed out of the deal with his peace of mind.
Now he's back to work.
"You know, I think me having the contract, I'm not saying that's going to change me, but I feel a lot more relaxed," he said. "I'm not really worried about the rest of the stuff that goes on. I just want to go out and have fun.
"Right now, I've been having a lot of fun trying to get better. I think this year's going to be a good year for me, just because I can go out there, relax and play the game, feel no pressure of trying to provide for my family. I'll be able to go out and just have fun and let everything hang out. I think that'll give me that opportunity to be that guy that dominates for a full year."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.