Lefferts' Belt-Tightening Plan : Padre Reliever Wants to Recover Old Form, Success

Times Staff Writer

For every baseball player who insists he isn't superstitious, you'll find a guy who never steps on a foul line, or always eats chicken before the game.

Craig Lefferts isn't superstitious, either. But it certainly didn't take him long to get rid of that unlucky belt he wore at the start of last season.

His waistline had grown a bit because of all the banquets and speeches he made following the Padres' appearance in the 1984 World Series.

When he got to spring training last February, Lefferts needed a slightly larger belt. The equipment man procured a belt formerly worn by pinch-hitter Champ Summers.

There had to be something wrong with that belt, because Lefferts developed a tender elbow, lost some of the velocity on his fastball and couldn't throw his screwball for strikes when he was behind in the count the way he had a season earlier.

In June he decided to adopt a radical measure by asking for his old belt. He poked an extra hole in it, and darned if he didn't pitch 10 consecutive shutout innings

Alas, the belt lost its magic, and Lefferts struggled the rest of the season to regain the form that made him so effective as the set-up man for Goose Gossage in 1984, when he had a 3-4 record and 10 saves and pitched 10 shutout innings in the playoffs and World Series. Last season he was 7-6, but had just two saves.

"It all fell in place for me two seasons ago, but I found out it wasn't so easy last year," Lefferts said after pitching batting practice one day this week.

"The World Series year was my best since I broke into the minor leagues in 1980 in Class A. But last year, the batters weren't swinging at my screwball as much, and I was getting behind too much and having to rely on my fastball. Since I'm not an overpowering pitcher, I can't afford to do that. And I found out I can't use the screwball like Bruce Sutter uses his split-fingered fastball because I don't have the command or the movement."

The statistics reflected Lefferts' decline. His earned-run average rose from 2.13 in 1984 to 3.35. His ratio of strikeouts to walks also suffered. In 1984 he struck out 56 and walked 24, compared to 48 strikeouts and 30 walks last season.

Those numbers may not seem overly dramatic, but Lefferts attaches importance to them. There are games when he is called upon to retire just one batter, and if his command of his three pitches (fastball, slider, screwball) is off even a fraction, he may not be able to execute his job.

"If I were a starter, I'd shoot for 20 wins. If I were a short-relief man, I'd have a goal of 30 saves," Lefferts said. "But in this role, where I may pitch to one man to stop a rally, or maybe work three innings, the only goal I can set is to do the job 90% of the time."

Lefferts is attempting to adjust his mix of pitches. Instead of relying on the screwball, he must use it more judiciously, according to pitching coach Galen Cisco.

"The hitters have seen it for a couple of years, so they might be looking for the screwball," Cisco said. "Lefty was getting hurt with it last year because he was up in the strike zone.

"He's got to keep the screwball down and be able to throw it when he's behind in the count."

Catcher Terry Kennedy said he couldn't decipher what caused Lefferts' problems.

"His fastball just didn't have that little extra zip and his screwball didn't have the bite it had the year before," Kennedy said. "But I don't see any reason at all he can't get it back this season."

It may not be obvious from the stands, but a pitcher's margin for error is very slight.

For example, when Lefferts is working to a right-handed hitter, he wants to get his screwball low and outside.

"I have to be able to hit the corner of the plate if the hitter is ahead in the count," Lefferts said.

"My margin of error is a little greater if the batter is behind. Then I can miss by a few inches because the hitter has to protect the plate."

In order to use the screwball to the best advantage, Lefferts must try to gain the edge with his fastball and slider.

"Hey, I got to the big leagues with those two pitches," he said. "I didn't really master the screwball until two years ago.

"I got very frustrated last season because I wasn't throwing with the command I had in '84. I pitched OK, but I walked too many guys and my strikeouts were down. The whole art of pitching is to stay ahead of that hitter."

He threw only about 50% strikes in his first turn pitching batting practice this spring. In a few weeks, that figure should rise to 95%.

"It's all a matter of feel," Lefferts said. "You find the right feel through repetition. The feel is in the release, where the ball gets its spin.

"I start by getting the feel of my fastball, and then my slider comes off the fastball. For the screwball, I shorten my stride and the release is different."

Couldn't a hitter get a notion that the screwball was on the way by watching the pitcher's stride?

"No way," Lefferts said, laughing. "If he's watching my legs, there's no way he can pick up the ball. That would be to my advantage if he did try to watch how I was striding."

Lefferts said he is willing to accept his share of the blame for the Padres' decline last season. "We didn't play up to our capabilities in the second half of the year," he said. "We didn't compensate for the loss of speed by hitting with more power. And the middle relief work hurt us, I'll admit it.

"I think it's a little premature to say how the change in managers is going to affect our chemistry over the long run, but I think we're pretty comfortable right now. And I'm very confident personally. I've always been successful, and I'm not about to throw in the towel."

Or reach for a new belt.

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