Healthy Gabbard seeks consistency
Lefty bouncing back from injuries, rising through Sox's system
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Sitting in front of his locker in the City of Palms Park clubhouse before a recent game, Kason Gabbard studiously worked a Sudoko puzzle. Not a big deal in itself, but the left-handed pitcher worked the puzzle with his right hand.
"Yeah, I write right-handed," Gabbard said. "I golf lefty, I bat lefty. I eat right-handed and left-handed."
Has he ever tried to pitch right-handed?
"Yeah," Gabbard said with a laugh. "It's not pretty."
After injuries early in his career -- including left elbow surgery in 2003 -- made the future for the Sox's 29th-round draft pick in 2000 anything but pretty, Gabbard, who turns 25 next month, is happy he doesn't have to attempt pitching with his right arm.
After starting the 2006 season with Double-A Portland, Gabbard jumped to Triple-A Pawtucket on June 27 and then to Boston on July 22. He was one of a club-record seven Red Sox pitchers -- with Devern Hansack, Manny Delcarmen, Lenny DiNardo, Craig Hansen, Jon Lester and Jermaine Van Buren -- to earn their first Major League win last year, his rapid ascent as much an indication of the injuries that beset the big league team as it is his own progress.
The left-hander would eventually get three callups by the big-league team last season, compiling a 1-3 record with a 3.51 ERA in seven games, including four starts, spanning 25 2/3 innings. This spring, he is with the big-league team. In three Grapefruit League starts he has gone 1-1 (3.86 ERA), allowing four hits and four walks while striking out five in seven innings.
"I think, for the most part, just pitching at [the big-league] level, it's a lot different than the Minor Leagues," said Gabbard, of what he's learned pitching with the parent club. "The guys up here are a lot more consistent and obviously that's why most of them have been up here for a while. I think I kind of grew up as a person, too, just from hanging around with a lot of older guys. But other than that, I'm just having fun.
"I'm right where I should be now. I've been healthy. I've been doing a program and some stuff that I have to do, and it's helped me out. I've had little minor injuries, but overall, I feel great.
Sox manager Terry Francona was pleased with what he saw from Gabbard in his last start, Wednesday against the Pirates -- three scoreless innings with a hit and three strikeouts.
"I thought it's the best arm speed he's displayed yet," Francona said. "He even pitched up a little bit at times but that's the best changeup I've seen him throw. Gabby needs repetitions. Early in his career, he ran into some health problems. If he can stay on the mound and keep repeating his delivery, the kid's ball's moving, he's got a good changeup, he shows a good breaking ball, he can get Major League hitters out. He just needs repetition. He's getting better. I was really impressed."
In addition to the changeup, which Pawtucket pitching coach Mike Griffin calls "his bread-and-butter pitch," Gabbard also throws a two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball and a knuckle curve.
"The command of his three pitches [Wednesday] was improved over his previous outing," said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. "The one thing that we discussed in between starts was the effect his changeup has on not only his release point but his fastball command. It has a tendency to relax him some and allow his hand to get out on a consistent spot to release the ball, and he was able to execute that."
Griffin has noticed improvement in Gabbard's pitching this spring, compared to last season.
"[He has] better command of the fastball, No. 1 for me," Griffin said. "I've seen a little bit better depth with his curveball than I'd seen. We all know about his changeup. That's still the same. Everything's good there. But I've seen him command a little bit better on both sides of the plate with his fastball. For me, that's what he and I were trying to work on last year when he came up to Pawtucket. So, for that part, I'm real pleased to see him make a lot of progress in that area right there."
Likewise, Griffin said, there has been a maturation in Gabbard's confidence level.
"No question," Griffin said. "When a pitcher comes up or a player comes up from Double-A to Triple-A, the game's a little bit faster in some respects. He was trying to get adjusted to that last year, to slow it down to his pace a little bit. I thought maybe, maybe at times, he was giving the hitters a little too much credit. He was just learning and feeling his way around the first time. But he started to get the comfort factor, and when he went to Boston, I heard he did pretty well with that up there. Right now, you can just see him the way he's acting, the way he's just walking around here right now he's full of confidence."
With that confidence, Farrell said, Gabbard must continue to display consistency, a prerequisite to sticking with a big league team.
"Consistency with his strike-throwing, because he has above-average life and sink to his fastball," Farrell said. "He has three pitches that he can throw for strikes, and has shown on occasion that it's just the consistency of that strike throwing that, I think, will make him not only a Major League pitcher but one that in a starting rotation with his style surrounded by other guys he's got a chance to win 10, 12 games for a Major League club. And I think it all comes down to fastball command is where it really all lies."
With the Sox's rotation locked up and several pitchers with Major League experience vying for bullpen slots, Gabbard knows it won't be easy to make the Red Sox's staff.
"They told me from before Spring Training started that I was going to start as a starter here," he said. "And, obviously, I got to go out there and pitch well. I think if I made the club it would be out of the bullpen in a long relief role. All I can do is when they tell me to go out and pitch is to go out and pitch the best I can, and go from there."
Maureen Mullen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.