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The hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League gave Buschmann all sorts of problems, but with the International League's cosier ballparks–and more importantly, his newfound changeup–Buschmann has achieved drastically different results. (Credit: Flickr user Dave Nelson)

An Interview With Breakout Durham Bulls Starter Matt Buschmann

When 28 year old right-hander Matt Buschmann joined the Rays in April of 2012, the most notable part about his acquisition was not what kind of pitcher he was but who his roommate had been at Vanderbilt: Rays ace David Price. It was nice that Price’s roommate was joining the organization, but no one expected anything from him on the mound. But the last two years, Buschmann has proved to be more than anyone could have thought. Buschmann followed up a good first season primarily at Double-A by wokring his way to Triple-A this year and pitching at the highest level of his career. Buschmann finished the minor league regular season at is 14-5 with a 2.86 ERA between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham, and he has struck out 167 batters, tied for third in affiliated baseball. Buschmann talked to Rays Colored Glasses about his experiences in the organization, his arsenal of pitches, and how his amazing season fell into place.

 

Robbie Knopf: OK, Matt, let’s start from the moment when you first joined the Rays organization. What was the first thing that flashed through your mind when the Rays acquired you from the Nationals in April of 2012?

Matt Buschmann: At the time, I was in extended spring training with the Nationals. They had a lot of pitchers and there wasn’t really a spot for me, so the first thing that popped into my head was that I was excited to go start competing somewhere. Just thought it was another opportunity to go be with another team and see if I could get to the big leagues.

RK: After a couple bad seasons at the end of the tenure with the Padres organization, you wound up having a pretty good year in your first year with the Rays organization. You managed an ERA under 4.00 and a well over 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio primarily with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits. How would you grade your inaugural season with the Rays?

MB: I think it was pretty good. Definitely was just trying to get comfortable in the system. You always want to show what you think can do and show what positives you have. I think it was solid, there were some adjustments I needed to make, I needed to refine some things, but what I kind of understood is how the Rays think with pitching, what’s important to them, and once they were comfortable with me, I was able to make some adjustments.

Buschmann was appreciative that the Rays gave him an invite to big league spring training. The way he’s pitching now, it certainly seems like he was deserving. (Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

RK: After taking that step in the right direction in 2012, what were your expectations for your second season with the Rays? Were you expecting additional progress?

MB: Yeah, absolutely. I was a free agent after last year and met with the Rays, I liked what they had to offer, I knew a lot of people here. I didn’t necessarily have a lot of options on the free agent market, but the Rays were able to give me a big league invite to spring training. I set a foundation in the first year with them and I just wanted to continue building and see if I could continue to get better.

RK: Then this year started and it’s unbelievable what you’ve done. Right now between Double-A and Triple-A, you’re 13-4 with a 2.77 ERA. In your wildest dreams, could you have imagined 2013 going this well?

MB: I think you always imagine yourself having a good season when you start. Coming into spring training I don’t know if I expected to go to Double-A for the second straight year so whatever happened there it happened, but sometimes when unexpected things like that they start a fire under you. But I think the biggest thing was that in the offseason I was able to get a third pitch, a changeup that I didn’t really have before. Having refined that throughout the season, I think now looking back I realize how big a third pitch is for a starter, and how different it’s made this season in how I attack hitters, and I have been able to have success from it.

RK: The difference between your solid 2012 and your amazing performance this season is quite simply your changeup?

MB: Yeah, I’d say I think that for a while it’s why I’ve been inconsistent where I’ve had good starts and bad starts, really been fighting with two pitches and not using that third pitch, but I’ve finally found something that works in the offseason. And it’s out of this world that this third pitch that especially at the Triple-A level I’ve felt like I’ve been able to throw in any count, and it really allows me to save my slider for when I really need it. My slider is my out-pitch and now I don’t have to overuse it as much.

RK: What are you trying to do with your changeup at this point? A big thing in the Rays organization is throwing your changeup to hitters from both sides of the plate. Is that something that you have started to do as well?

MB: Being a sinker-slider guy, I’m just trying to get it in the strike zone, keep good arm speed at this point being the first year that I’ve really started throwing it and I’ve seen some success from that, I think as I keep throwing it building into next year, that’s something where I can say let’s see if I could get this pitch to both sides of the plate. I feel comfortable throwing my slider to both sides of the plate, and that changeup for me just needs to be somewhere on the plate and in the strike zone. I definitely have started throwing the changeup to both righties and lefties. The changeup to righties has become a great pitch because it gives them something to think about besides the sinker and slider. Plus, talking to right-handed hitters, they will tell you that the right-on-right changeup is a really tough pitch for them because they don’t see it very often. And it’s also a pitch that doesn’t necessarily have to be perfectly located since you are banking on the hitter seeing fastball out of the hand.

RK: The craziest part about this year for you is that you’re striking out so many batters. You struck out a batter per 9 innings at Double-A and now you’re up to 10.2 per 9 innings since coming up to Durham. That’s almost the type of thing you would expect from a top prospect. You see J.D. Martin next to you who’s another talented pitcher, but you’re striking out more than 1.5 times as many batters as him. What is going on with all the strikeouts?

MB: I got a lot more groundballs last year–I haven’t gotten as many groundballs this year. I’m striking out more guys now that I finally have a third pitch and something that’s slower. I think that for the most part, I’m getting a lot of early contact, throwing a lot of fastballs, but I’m getting deeper in counts when guys aren’t putting the ball in play necessarily, they’re fouling the ball off. But with that comes walks. The one thing that is kind of glaring in my numbers is a good amount of walks, more that I would like. It’s just one of those things were I’m been able to go with my slider and get away at that and my fastball command has been better than years past.

RK: It sounds like a situation where your changeup isn’t just a good pitch in and of itself but also gives a hitter at third to think about every time there’s two strikes. There’s a give-and-take: it’s a good pitch, but then it also makes your slider better. Do you think that’s what is happening?

MB: I don’t have to show my slider until later in the count. So a hitter if I show that changeup, I can put a guy away with a slider instead of throwing it two or three times and being trying to get a swing-and-miss throwing it the fourth time.

RK: What’s your fastball velocity like these days? What are you trying to do with it?

MB: Dude, in August? (laughs) It’s 88 to 90, I’ll hit 92. For me, being a sinker guy, I’ve liked throwing to the inside part of the plate to righties. I feel very comfortable against right-handed hitters. The tough thing for me has always been lefties, which is true for most righties. This year, it’s been a little bit better because of that changeup. I’ve been working on pitching inside to both lefties and righties with Neil Allen at Durham, pushing guys off the plate more than I used to. Pitching inside against lefties has really opened a lot of stuff for me against them.

RK: Looking back at it now, does it seem like all your struggles at Triple-A these past two years has been because of the lack of the changeup and relying too heavily on your top two pitches?

MB: Oh, absolutely. If I had to point to one or two things that caused my trouble in the PCL, it was probably fastball command, but also not having a changeup. Everything was just fastball-slider. Hitters at that level, all they’re trying to do is try to eliminate pitches from you, and I think me trying to go after hitters with only two pitches is like trying to run uphill. You basically have to be really good with those two pitches every night, and over the course of the season, you’re never going to have those pitches all the time. This season has been that eureka moment, having that third pitch to throw, and when the slider isn’t there, now I can come back with a good changeup.

RK: Looking at your career numbers, a strange thing has been how your ERA has changed by level. You had a 3.12 ERA at Short Season ball, a 2.94 ERA at High-A, and a 3.46 ERA at Double-A, but your ERA jumps to 5.78 at the Triple-A level. What was the difference between Double-A and Triple-A that not having that third pitch made such an enormous difference?

MB: I think in Double-A, hitters are a lot more aggressive, they don’t necessarily force you to be in the zone as much. When I was a Padre going up to Triple-A, they made you prove that you could throw two to three pitches for a strike, and if you couldn’t, they weren’t going to offer at it. If you compare numbers between the PCL and the IL, it’s a little bit of a different game over there. Some interesting ballparks you’re pitching in. Sometimes that gets in your head. For me, it went up there and struggled and I started to question my ability and whatnot. I think that was the biggest difference. I went up there with two pitches and I couldn’t command them both all the time. And if you can’t do that, they’re going to sit on that one pitch you can’t command. And at that time, my fastball command wasn’t good enough either.

RK: This time with the Rays organization this year, do you have a little more confidence knowing that you’re going to a little more of a pitcher-friendly league in the IL as opposed to the PCL with the crazy climates and everything?

MB: That definitely plays into it. Definitely excited. If you talk to any free agent pitcher that came up and pitched in the PCL, their sole purpose is to get to the International League or at least the east side of the PCL. But yeah, you just realize that whether those factors in the PCL play into doing well or doing poorly, you just don’t worry about that stuff in the IL, it’s just some mental stuff that doesn’t get in your head. It’s just about going out there knowing that the contact you allow is going to move right. You’re not in Colorado Springs with your balls moving all over the air and all those different things. And the travel is definitely a lot better. In the PCL, you’re flying everywhere and the travel can be a little rough on you. Coming to the IL, you definitely appreciate certain things as a pitcher a little more.

RK: In 2012, you came up to Durham for a couple of games and you had one good start and one bad start before getting sent back down to Double-A. Overall that experience, getting a cup of coffee back at Triple-A, was that a moment where you realized that the team liked you enough to give you opportunity to get that job or did you feel like you came to Triple-A and once again it didn’t work out?

MB: I thought it was a positive experience. They liked me enough to bring me up. Just ended up that there were some moves that happened that brought a lot people down from the big leagues and I went down back to Double-A. I definitely viewed it as a positive thing I went there and didn’t much too poorly and showed Charlie (Montoyo, the Bulls’ manager) and Neil (Allen, the Bulls’ pitching coach) that I could pitch at that level. I thought I went out there and did what I could. Gladly, I’m back at Triple-A this year.

RK: A lot of pitchers your age would be considered a Quad-A type of pitcher. But you’re doing well, you’ve added a changeup, you’re striking batters out. Is it starting to sink it that a big league opportunity might come along not that far down the road?

MB: Yeah, definitely a lot. You play this game, the whole purpose is to get to the big leagues. I continue to work to better myself to get into a position where a team could feel comfortable calling me up to the big league level. I think this is the first year where I felt like I have enough weapons to go up there and succeed. Now it’s just a matter of I’ve had this one good season and with baseball sometimes, it takes more than one good season, you have to continue knocking on the door. That’s my goal at this point: to continue making adjustments when I can, continue getting better, and being ready for if there’s an opportunity where a team thinks I can go up and pitch in the big leagues.

RK: Way back in 2006, current Rays pitcher David Price had a little bit of a slump and you took over as Vanderbilt’s Friday starter. Are you hoping to kind of have a rehash of that at the big league level? (No, not with Price.)

MB: Yeah, it would just be great to finally get to the big leagues in this organization and be teammates with David Price again. Obviously there’s a comfort level. If anything could happen for me to the big leagues, it would be great, but baseball is the way it is and there are things out of my control and I just have to be ready and be pitching well enough so that if an opportunity rises, I have an opportunity to go. But this organization, it’s just unreal with pitching. You look around, there are so many good pitchers, whether they’re homegrown or free agents. It’s tough to stand out. Jake Odorizzi, J.D. Martin, and Merrill Kelly are all pitching really well in Triple-A. It’s great because we feed into each other, we all pitch well because the other one is pitching well, but at the same time, who do you pick? It’s tough to get that open spot to make it to the big leagues.

RK: We’ve been talking about you personally all this time. Now let’s talk a little bit about the Bulls. You guys are really having an unbelievable season. You have one the best records in all of professional baseball. You’re 86-56. What’s it like being on a team like this?

MB: It’s been awesome. Everyone wants to get that team together where you all like each other, the locker room has a great atmosphere, everybody’s is invested in winning–which isn’t always the case in minor league baseball. It can be rough, not everyone’s invested in the team, winning is the number one priority, but this is an unreal team, everyone works hard every day, everyone wants to support their team and win. What you see is a talented group of guys invested in each other and we’re happy to win a lot of games. It’s a real cool deal.

RK: The most amazing part about the Bulls this year is that you started with several of the best prospects in baseball: Wil Myers, Chris Archer, and Hak-Ju Lee and then Myers and Archer gets called up and Lee gets hurt and you guys keep going without missing a beat. You’ve been a part of that coming up.

MB: It’s a testament to the Rays organization and the way they develop their prospects. When you lose as big prospects as those guys are and as good players as they are and you can just without blinking reload those spots and continue playing on the high level that you have, that’s what every organization strives to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of that. I think going up there and winning a lot, that helps. I think for me and Merrill going up there from Double-A and getting thrown into a team that’s used to winning, the team is great and the locker room is great, you can just step into a role and just help the team win.

RK: It’s incredible how you, Merrill, and also on the hitting side, Kevin Kiermaier, who came up more recently and is doing very well, all of you made the transition and have been able to do a really good job. How has it been not doing the transition all alone and having a couple of guys who have been your teammates almost the entire season around?

MB: Sometimes you see that if you have a couple guys that call up that don’t have a lot of experience at that level, not only do you talk to the veterans that have been there but you also stick together and that helps. I was there, Merrill comes up and he has someone to talk to that he feels comfortable talking to and Kevin Kiermaier comes up and he sees some faces that he’s used to that he’s played with, so I think it’s just an instant comfort level where you can just focus on getting better at this level instead of trying to learn what to do and what not to do. You can just get right down to playing.

RK: One weird quirk, especially of the Durham pitching staff, is that there are so many players that are so young and yet talented enough to get called up to the major leagues at one point or another. At the end of the day, even though you’re 29 and plenty of teams have pitchers in their 30′s at Triple-A, you’ve ended up as one of the elder statesmen of the staff. Has it become I think where it feels like you can give something to the young pitchers around?

MB: Yes, I’ve had three years in Triple-A, and being in professional baseball for eight years you’re going to learn some things whether you want to or not, but I think for the most part on this team, even the young guys are having success and they’re very confident in themselves. I think for the most part I don’t have to give them any advise, but I do every once a while like having the conversation, and if I can give any knowledge that I have that they haven’t experience yet, absolutely I love to give that. J.D. is the same way. He’s an older guy, he has big league time, which is even better, and it’s good to pick his brain, even from my perspective. I think that’s the best part. We all just try to pick each other’s brains and see what one person does better than the other and it all works out.

RK: Your entire career, you’ve had your struggles, but basically the entire way through, you’ve stayed healthy. You had a little bit of an ankle issue in 2011, but you have never had an arm injury, with is an extreme rarity for pitchers today. How have you managed to stay so healthy all these years?

MB: Knock on wood, I’ve never really had any problems with my arm. I think a lot of it comes from Vanderbilt where Tim Corbin, the head coach, instills a really good work ethic in all of his players who come out of there, a great pitching coach in Derek Johnson, who’s now the pitching coordinator of the Chicago Cubs, really created a really good arm care program and instilled a process of taking care of your arm and how important it was. Since then, I’ve worked hard to take care of my body, especially my arm. My health is the one thing I have that keeps me in the game and I think I understood that early. Being a 15th round senior sign, my opportunity lies in the fact that I can stay healthy. So many times you find guys like me that have been around for so long can make it to the big leagues just because they can stay healthy for so long. Every season, my most important goal is to stay healthy. You can’t make it anywhere if you can’t stay healthy. Especially coming to the Rays, now is the time, I’m older I have a lot of innings, you think that my arm would breaking down, but the Rays have a really good arm care program that all their pitchers go through.

RK: You mentioned before how you’ve always been a pitcher who’s been better against righties than lefties. Has it ever crossed your mind about possibly making it to the big leagues as a sinker-slider type of reliever if a starting opportunity doesn’t open up?

MB: Absolutely. I would go to the big leagues in any role. It definitely comes to mind, and honestly, being realistic, if I made to the big leagues, that is probably the type of role I would have. If I made it as a starter, that would be great, but I understand that I would probably be more of a right-hander middle or long reliever, and I would want to start for as long as I can in the minor leagues, but I’ve been a reliever, I’ve been a closer in Winter Ball. I have experience and I just want to be ready for whatever role I would have at the next level when the opportunity comes.

 

Everyone here at Rays Colored Glasses would like to thank Matt for his time and insights, and we hope you all enjoyed reading.

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