As strange as it sounds, a magazine article led to the resurrection of Tim Alderson's career.
The 23-year-old pitcher's bizarre story of seeing his 93 mph fastball inexplicably drop to 85 has been well-documented the past two years. Alderson spent all that time trying to figure out what happened, working on anything and everything he could to correct the problem and prevent himself from becoming a sad baseball footnote.
Luckily for Alderson, ESPN The Magazine helped him find the answer.
Mirror file photo by J.D. Cavrich
The Curve’s Tim Alderson has his fastball hitting 93 mph, back to where it was a few years ago before it mysteriously dropped into the mid-80s.
Now the right-handed pitcher is getting ready to start Tuesday's game at Bowie, and in some ways, it will be like starting over in his career.
"Things are going really well," Alderson, who's back to throwing 93 mph, is now finally able to say after a very trying couple of years.
The first turning point for the pitcher occurred in February of 2011, when ESPN The Magazine profiled him in a lengthy story titled, "Terminal Velocity." The story detailed Alderson's past, which includes:
* Being a first-round draft pick (No. 22 overall) of the San Francisco Giants in 2007 and going 13-4 with a 2.79 ERA during his first full season;
* Getting traded straight up for former National League batting champ Freddy Sanchez in 2009; and
* Mysteriously seeing his fastball drop with the Curve in 2010, which led to him getting crushed in Altoona (5.62 ERA) and after getting demoted to Single-A Bradenton (6.98 ERA)
The heart wrenching part of the magazine story detailed how Alderson went back to throw in front of his high school coach, Eric Kibler, to see if he could figure out what was wrong.
"You were a better pitcher when you were a freshman in high school," Kibler said in the story.
That article also featured general comments about velocity from Alan Jaeger, who runs a pitching academy in Los Angeles. Jaeger specializes in building up arm strength through various exercises and then letting the pitcher take part in an individualized long-toss program.
Traditional theory says that pitchers shouldn't do a lot of long toss - about 300 feet, give or take, depending on the pitcher - for fear of hurting their arm. Instead, most pitching coaches prefer them throwing about 120 feet.
Neither Alderson nor Kibler had ever met Jaeger before that story appeared in ESPN The Magazine. But Jaeger's comments caught Kibler's attention because the high school pitching coach also is a proponent of the long-toss theory.
"We did a long-toss program similar to what [Jaeger] did, and Tim had a lot of success in high school and his arm was healthy," Kibler told the Mirror by phone from his home in Arizona.
The magazine story ran too late for Alderson to make major changes for the 2011 season, and the career starter did show some improvement with his fastball as he moved to the Curve bullpen and was in the 89 mph range.
When the 2011 season ended, Kibler helped arrange a phone conversation between Alderson and Jaeger, and Alderson decided to attend a four-day clinic at Jaeger's complex in Los Angeles in January.
Alderson, who had searched for answers for two years, finally found what he was looking for in those four days.
Jaeger introduced the pitcher to his long-toss program, and it just clicked.
"That's pretty much everything," Alderson said. "As far as the physical part of it, I feel like that's all it took."
The program designed by Jaeger, who did not return a phone message from the Mirror, is unorthodox by industry standards but also very simple. It begins with the pitcher doing a series of stretch band exercises.
"Throwing a baseball overhand is one of the most strenuous motions in sports," Kibler said. "[The stretching exercises] gradually warm up the muscles in your arm and warm up your body to throw a baseball."
It's onto the field from there, and the pitcher starts throwing from about 50 feet, then gradually moves back about 10 feet at a time. After a few minutes, the pitcher can wind up about 300 or more feet away, and the goal is to throw the ball that distance with a high arc to strengthen the entire arm.
Alderson, who does the long-toss program just about every day, said he makes about 10 throws at the maximum distance.
After that, he starts coming in a little at a time, throwing harder as the distance gets shorter. Ultimately, the pitcher gets back to 60 feet and is throwing just about as hard as he can.
"It just kind of freed me up and helped out mentally to not worry about mechanics or body parts doing what at what part in the delivery," Alderson said of the long-toss routine. "If you watch me throw out there, I'm not thinking about anything. I'm just trying to throw it as far as I can."
Somehow, some way, that routine has led to Alderson's velocity increase back up to as high as 93 mph this season.
Curve manager P.J. Forbes said the difference in Alderson as a pitcher from when he first saw him at Bradenton in 2010 is "night and day."
"For me the biggest thing is the attitude," Forbes said. "He was pretty defeated in '10. ... I'm happy for him because he seems to be in a good place mentally, and that's half the battle in this game."
The Pirates also deserve a lot of credit for Alderson's turnaround, not so much because of what they've done, but for what they've allowed the pitcher to do himself.
Most organizations have their pitchers on a structured throwing routine, so all of them do roughly the same thing. But that clearly wasn't working for Alderson.
"To be a pitching coach, you can't clone them," said Kibler, who has been a coach for more than 30 years and stresses individual attention based on each player's strengths.
Alderson bought into the long-toss program in January, but the Pirates could have shut him down and prevented him from doing it once spring training and the regular season started. Instead, the organization let the pitcher continue his individual throwing program rather than forcing him to stick to theirs.
"He did it all himself," Curve pitching coach Jeff Johnson said. "His long-toss program, he kind of managed that himself, told me what he wanted to do, and I said, 'Go do it.' We did it as an organization, let him do what he thought he needed to do from that standpoint, and it's worked."
Why does it work?
"There's a whole method behind it," Alderson said. "It's really stress free on your arm, and it's not taxing it too much.
"That just kind of freed me up," he added, "and I can just be athletic and not worry about mechanics because it takes everything I have to throw the ball as far as I can. So I'm just trying to take that final throw onto the mound and just air it out."
Kibler credits the Pirates for breaking from the status quo and understanding Alderson needed to be given the freedom to try something different like the long toss.
"I think that's great of them to do that, I really do," Kibler said. "I think somebody said, 'OK, this is not working, let's try something else.' That's awesome they did that because look at what's happened."
The results speak for themselves.
Alderson, with the increased velocity, started the season with seven scoreless innings out of the Curve bullpen to earn a promotion to Triple-A. He only lasted two appearances there - three shutout innings in one, two runs in one inning in the other - and the Pirates decided to send him back to Altoona because he wasn't getting much work with Indianapolis.
"I had a great time up there," said Alderson, who added he wasn't disappointed about coming back to Double-A. "I learned a lot, even though I wasn't there very long. I had a good first outing, and the second outing I got hit around a little bit and I just learned what it takes to get guys out up there."
Alderson continued his success upon rejoining the Curve and ran his Double-A scoreless innings streak to 14 over seven appearances. The streak ended in his last appearance Wednesday against Bowie when he allowed three runs in three innings.
That extended outing was used to help get Alderson ready to go back into the Curve's starting rotation for the first time since midway through the 2010 season. He now has his fastball back and is working on a changeup to go along with his sharp curveball, so the Pirates want to see if he once again can become the prospect they'd envisioned as a starting pitcher when they traded for him in 2009.
"When you've got confidence in your fastball that you can get outs with your fastball and not try and trick guys all the time, that's a big confidence boost," Forbes said.
Given all he's been through, Alderson could have shut it down mentally and never regained his prospect status. But he hung tough, tried enough different things until he found something that worked and now hopes to reap the benefits.
"I've put in a lot of hard work the past couple years," he said, "and it's finally paying off."
Back on track
Tim Alderson first made it to Double-A with Connecticut in 2009, before getting traded to the Curve late in that season. A look at his down-and-up numbers since then:
Tim Alderson, RHP