Opposing batters aren’t the only ones who have had trouble getting a handle on Angels closer Brian Fuentes, who has a 3.23 earned-run average and a major league-leading 26 saves entering tonight’s All-Star game.
Fuentes has a quirky, short-arm delivery from the side that resembles a forehand Frisbee flip, and he gets such movement on his pitches that the 33-year-old left-hander can be a challenge for teammates simply playing catch with him before games.
“Put it this way,” said reliever Jason Bulger, Fuentes’ regular catch partner. “I get a nice extra stretch when I’m playing catch with him, little agility workouts from time to time. He has such movement with the delivery he has. . . . I’m just happy I have all of my teeth.”
Pitching coach Mike Butcher noticed something different about Fuentes the first week of spring training, after the former Colorado Rockies reliever signed a two-year, $17.5-million deal to replace record-setting closer Francisco Rodriguez.
“He’d throw fastball, fastball, then a changeup, and you’d see guys getting hit in the toe, the shin,” Butcher said. “There’s not too many guys who want to play catch with him. It got to a point where we just wanted to isolate him with one guy.”
That deception and movement, combined with superb command, are why Fuentes has been one of baseball’s top relievers since 2005 despite having a fastball that rarely tops 90 mph, and why he’s in St. Louis tonight for his fourth All-Star game in five seasons.
It’s also one reason Fuentes has made the often difficult transition from the National League to the American League so smoothly.
“Guys who have more of an everyday delivery without a lot of deception have a tougher time over here,” Butcher said. “Tito’s delivery is very unique. The ball gets on you in different ways. I don’t know anyone else who throws like him.”
Fuentes’ Colorado teammates nicknamed him “T-Rex” after the dinosaur with the short, flipper-like arms, because his funky motion creates an illusion that the ball is coming out of his jersey instead of his hand.
Fuentes can give his fastball several looks, and his curve and changeup help keep hitters guessing. Opponents are batting .237 with two home runs in 30 2/3 innings against Fuentes, who has held left-handers to a .211 average and right-handers to .250.
“I’ve stood in the box against him, and his ball sneaks up on you,” Butcher said. “You wouldn’t think 90 mph is that sneaky, but when the ball gets on you from a different angle, it looks different.
“Most guys throw downhill. With Tito, it’s almost like he’s throwing uphill, with late life. He gets a little ride on his fastball with sink. When he goes inside, it explodes inside, it jumps on you. Plus, he has the breaking ball and changeup.”
Fuentes, who overhauled his delivery as a minor leaguer in the Seattle organization in 2000, kept a log of every at-bat during his NL days and used it as a reference tool.
Facing so many new hitters this season, he has leaned on catchers Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli for guidance.
“I was a little concerned coming here that both catchers were young and without much big league service time, but they’ve been a surprise,” Fuentes said.
“I knew Mike [Scioscia] worked with them a lot, and they’re probably the hardest-working catchers I’ve ever seen. Having an ex-catcher as a manager helps, but they study the charts of every hitter, they put in the work.”
One measure of Fuentes’ success is there has been little fan backlash over the Angels’ decision to let Rodriguez, who set a season record of 62 saves in 2008, go as a free agent.
There were some rumblings in April, though. Slowed by a back injury and a trip to his Merced, Calif., home to attend to a family matter, Fuentes threw only 7 2/3 innings in spring training and struggled to find his rhythm in that first month of the season.
On May 1, he had a 7.88 ERA and had blown two of seven save opportunities.
Since then, Fuentes, who throws a 15-pitch bullpen session nearly every day to stay sharp, has given up four earned runs and 14 hits in 22 2/3 innings over 25 games for a 1.59 ERA. He has converted 21 of 22 save opportunities in that span.
“I’ve heard people say they’re happy to have me instead of Frankie,” Fuentes said. “I’m like, ‘Why? He had 62 saves last year, over 200 saves over the last few years; it’s amazing what he did for this organization.
“But at the same time, it’s nice to feel appreciated and to do well, not so much to fill the void of Frankie but to fill the void of the quality closer the team needs.”