Dodgers’ Caleb Ferguson develops third pitch with an eye toward becoming a starter

(Stacy Revere / Getty Images)
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After throwing his fourth scoreless inning of the spring Thursday, Dodgers left-handeder Caleb Ferguson received high praise from his manager.

“He’s a man on a mission right now,” Dave Roberts said. “Which is good to see.”

Really, Ferguson is on several missions this spring.

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In the short term, the 23-year-old wants to make the Dodgers’ opening day roster in a deep bullpen with few unsettled spots. He is several months into the process of developing a third pitch to go along with his current fastball-curveball repertoire. And, someday, he hopes to become a big league starter.

“I know I’m better than what I was last year,” said Ferguson, who recorded a 4.84 ERA in 46 games (44 relief appearances) last year, his second major league season. “I’m trying to prove that to people, prove myself that.”

Ferguson’s 2019 campaign ended where his 2020 season is starting, at the Dodgers’ Camelback Ranch complex. Though he gave up only five earned runs and struck 20 batters over his final 16 appearances last season, Ferguson didn’t make the team’s National League Division Series roster. Instead, he went to Arizona and stayed warm just in case. It was from there he watched the Dodgers’ season end.

“That part was a little bit hard,” he said. “But it is what it is.”

Days after the Dodgers were eliminated, Ferguson was back on the mound doing dry work. Over the next three months, he split most of his time hunting or throwing, taking only one week off before reporting for camp. Through four innings this spring, in which he has yet to let a hitter reach base, he already looks close to regular-season form.

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“The ability to shorten the breaking ball, to get back into a count, that’s been really good,” Roberts said.

The breaking ball has been Ferguson’s primary focus of late. Not his curveball, a looping pitch he threw more than 20% of the time last season according to Fangraphs, but a new third pitch he hopes will elevate his game.

“It’s a slider, but I call it a cutter,” said Ferguson. “I just call it a cutter so I can keep the same intent to remember to throw it as hard as I can, not turn it into another breaking ball.”

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Ferguson thinks the impact of the pitch — which he said he’s thrown more often this spring than his trademark curveball — could be two-fold, potentially giving him the extra boost to make the Dodgers’ 26-man roster and be considered a potential starting pitcher in the future, a role the former 38th-round draft pick served during most of his minor league career.

“Obviously, I’ll do whatever is going to keep me in the big leagues, but my ultimate goal is that I want to be a starter,” said Ferguson, whose fastball velocity also reaches the mid-90s. “So for me, to develop a third pitch now while I have the time to do it right, it’s big.”

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Ferguson recalled a conversation he had with Clayton Kershaw last season. Like the 6-foot-3, 226-pound Ferguson, Kershaw was once a young burly lefty with a blistering fastball and hard-breaking curve searching for another pitch.

Kershaw told Ferguson of a moment early in his career, when Dodgers coaches approached the future Hall of Famer and encouraged him to add something else. Soon after, he developed a slider. The rest is history.

“That’s when it hit home to me,” Ferguson said. “OK, I need a third pitch.”

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So far, the results of Ferguson’s slider have been mostly positive. In a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks last month, he executed two in an at-bat against Nick Ahmed to near perfection, leading to a weak popup on the infield. Even when the A’s Matt Chapman squared up a hanging offering Thursday, it resulted in only a line out.

“Some guys in here have to put up results in the spring to have a spot on the roster,” Ferguson said, keenly aware of his own inclusion in that group. “There’s obviously locks in the bullpen. . . . But guys who are on the fringe, I think results and how you go about everything matters. The biggest thing for me this spring is to continue to work on the third pitch, continue to develop that.”

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