The metal bat makes more than a wretched ping of a sound that triggers a craving for the music that is wood smacking cowhide. The metal bat also makes cowards out of pitchers. It keeps them from coming inside, thereby letting hitters crowd the plate.
It takes courage to try to own the inside part of the plate when knowing that to miss by a little, even against a hitter swinging a wood bat, means to play into the pull-hitter’s hands.
Kansas University fourth-year junior closer Brett Bochy shows no fear. Hitters don’t lean out over the plate against him because he knows how to come inside hard, setting up a sweeping slider hitters have trouble contacting with much authority. So far, mixing that breaking ball and a well-located fastball, Bochy has performed so well his coach, Ritch Price, called him “one of the best pitchers in America” after he tossed six innings of no-hit relief in a series-deciding victory in Waco, Texas, against Baylor.
Final decision: KU
Bochy chose Kansas over a junior college in Southern California because the Div. I schools there didn’t see enough talent in the right-hander from Poway High in San Diego to offer him a scholarship. He arrived in Lawrence as a lightly-regarded prospect and has blossomed into a dominant closer who is 2-0 with five saves and an earned-run average of 0.78. Bochy has allowed nine hits and has 34 strikeouts against seven walks.
It probably makes sense that Bochy isn’t afraid of hitters, doesn’t give them so much credit he shies from coming inside. After all, as a young boy, Bochy used to chat regularly with one of the greatest hitters and most down-to-earth superstars in baseball history. He saw up close that Tony Gwynn walked on ground, not water, just like everybody else.
Learning from the best
It stands to reason that Bochy has the even temperament required of ninth-inning work. He often chatted with Trevor Hoffman, all-time saves leader, at his place of work and saw how he wasn’t hangdog after the bad outings, didn’t strut after the good ones.
Brett’s father, former big-league catcher Bruce Bochy, is starting his fourth season as manager of the San Francisco Giants. He managed the San Diego Padres for 12 full seasons (1995-2006). Brett was a Padres clubhouse fixture for many of those years, making several road trips with his father.
“I can remember Brett going to All-Star Games with me, and he didn’t have any problems going in the outfield and shagging,” Bruce said by phone from San Francisco. “He has tremendous respect for them, but he’s not in awe of them. He’s comfortable being around them.”
The manager’s son also looks extremely comfortable on the mound and in his own skin. He doesn’t show any of the affectations preferred by so many big-league closers through the years. No mohawk. No sprint to the mound. No battle fatigues. Nothing about him screams, “Look at me.” His confidence is not unlike his fastball, sneaky and effective.
“He’s always had a lot of deception to his delivery,” KU pitching coach Ryan Graves said. “Compared to other closers in our league and throughout the country, there are guys throwing harder than him. The deception in his delivery gets him a lot of swings and misses. He hides the ball really well, turns his back a little bit. They don’t see the ball until real late.”
A closer’s makeup
Bochy arrived at Kansas with a fastball in the 84-87 mph range, Graves said, and now is clocked at 89-92. Hard work in the weight room and the Bochy family trait of growing late help to explain the improved velocity. Bruce Bochy, who stands 6-foot-3, still has a team picture from his own youth, when he was the smallest player on the baseball team as a sophomore in high school. Brett, 5-10 as a junior in high school, now stands 6-2.
But it’s more than his ability to come inside hard with a deceptive delivery that makes it seem even harder, which leads to hitter’s flailing away at sliders, and more than his ability to climb the ladder with fastballs to get strike three on a neck-high pitch that makes Bochy such a good fit for closing, according to Graves.
“Closers, yeah, they have to have great stuff, but mentally they have to be the toughest guy you have,” Graves said. “Brett doesn’t have really high highs or low lows. He stays real composed and does a great job of staying in the moment.”
Watching Hoffman behind the scenes laid the groundwork for that approach.
“He’s a great guy,” Brett said of Hoffman. “Win or lose, he wasn’t going to be rah-rah or get too down when they were down. He was that guy who would stay mentally strong for his team.”
Part of KU closer factory
Working as an understudy to Kansas closer Paul Smyth, now with the Oakland Athletics organization, reinforced the lessons Bochy learned from Hoffman.
“I followed Paul everywhere,” Bochy said. “Everywhere on the field we were together. Preparing, postgame, after we threw, doing running together. Great mentor. Great guy to be around. He’s real strong, knew you had to have a short memory as a reliever. Can’t be dwelling on things. I watched him after his rough outings and his good ones. Of course he got a little up after the good ones, but he’d come right back down and be ready for the next one that next day.”
Smyth used to shadow closer Don Czyz.
“The cool thing for me is we’ve always had the closer in line setting up for the closer,” Graves said. “Donnie brought Paul along and told him how to go about things on a daily basis, then Paul did an amazing job with Brett. They were basically inseparable.”
But it’s the second baseman, the magician in the middle of the Kansas infield, Bochy has known the longest. Brett’s brother Greg played for Price at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Brett and Robby Price, sons of baseball lifers, became friends watching the games together. They kept in touch, and when Robby asked Brett about his post-high school plans, Brett told him he thought he was headed to Palomar Community College. Robby passed along the information to his father, who played a hunch and offered the then-non-prospect a Div. I opportunity.
Price’s educated guess has worked out better than anybody could have imagined. Along the way, Bochy has impressed some old friends. In 2009, he pitched against San Diego State, coached by Gwynn.
“He recruited me a little, but not too much,” Bochy said. “After the game last year, he was like, ‘Geez, you’ve grown a lot and gotten a lot better.’ He’s always been the nicest guy.”
Those who work in and around baseball say the same about Brett’s father.
“I’m proud of him,” Bruce Bochy said of his son, who didn’t pitch until his senior year in high school. “It’s neat to see his growth. He’s come a long way, maturing, getting stronger. He’s had great coaching at KU, and he’s a different player now. He’s got great presence, great confidence.”
Brett’s goal is to get drafted by an organization for a shot to work his way up the minor leagues.
“I believe Brett will get that opportunity,” the San Francisco Giants manager said. “He’s come so far, I’d see that happening for him. More important for me was for him to enjoy the college experience, get his education and have fun playing some baseball. I certainly hope he does get an opportunity. That’s great icing on the cake. Ask anybody four or five years ago, even myself, you wouldn’t have seen that happening, but where he’s at now, he’ll get an opportunity.”
Bruce said when his son was coming out of high school, part of him wished he’d choose the junior-college route to “be a big fish in a small pond. He got a chance to compete in the Big 12, and he didn’t hesitate.”
Late to the mound and late growing, Brett Bochy always was armed with a belief in himself.
“I was a small kid when I got here,” he said. “I was confident in myself. I knew I had to work and get stronger. And the opportunity they give you here — with the coaches and the supporting staff — is unbelievable, first-class in every way. They give you the best shot to succeed.”
His father deserves some of the credit for giving him the genes and the environment conducive to baseball success. Some of the kudos belong to the Kansas coaching staff, adept at developing talent.
Yet, as always, the one most responsible for the impressive mound feats is the guy gripping the baseball, toeing the rubber and staring at the catcher flashing signs.