Baseball's Ryan Mottl Struggling to Improve
Mottl led the USA National Team last
summer with a 3-0 record and a 3.45 ERA
Clemson pitcher Ryan Mottl can explain how he arrived at college without a curveball: patience.
Somehow, he survived Little League, Pony League and high school without learning the elbow-wrenching curveball.
“My dad had enough knowledge about the game to know that I shouldn’t be throwing a curveball at 12 or 13,” said Mottl. “He never pushed me.”
It helped that his dad didn’t want him devoted to baseball year round.
Just as helpful was the fact that Mottl could throw his fast ball past most batters and could come back with a mean off-speed pitch that had its own name– a fosch.
“It’s a strange off-speed pitch,” said Mottl’s dad, Steve Mottl. Strange, indeed.
“It changes planes,” said Clemson coach Jack Leggett. “When he’s got it going, it changes gears.”
Strange, but effective.
Batters have been chasing Mottl’s fosch since high school. At McCluer North High School in Florissant, Missouri, he struck out over two batters an inning during his senior season. Success followed him to Clemson. He was 19-7 in his first two years with a 4.76 ERA.
Batters flailed at the off-speed pitch during his first two years like someone trying to grab a rattlesnake in a phone booth (101 strikeouts in 100 innings). They talked on their way back to the dugout, but finally figured a way to beat the fosch: ignore it.
They watched Mottl’s fosch and waited for his fastball.
After a loss in the first game of a double header against Virginia on May 1, Mottl’s record was 2-5. His ERA had risen to 6.18.
Mottl, who led the USA National Team last summer with a 3-0 record and a 3.45 ERA, couldn’t face the same batters he had seen for two years with the same out-pitch.
“Hitters in this league have got a scouting report on Ryan and without a third pitch, guys break down his fastball,” said Clemson pitching coach Kevin O’Sullivan. Mottl’s fastball, which tops out at 92 miles per hour, wasn’t going to get him out of many jams. The fosch’s days were numbered.
The same patience that helped Mottl through his youth is helping him now as he tries to learn to throw a third pitch for a strike, a curveball – the same pitch he could ignore all those years.
“There comes a time when you can either fold and give up, or you can go out and bust your butt and work as hard as you can,” said Mottl, who started learning to throw a curveball last fall.
It hasn’t been easy. Mottl’s been through a change in pitching coaches and a change in delivery to accommodate the curveball.
Mottl was with the USA National Team in Italy when he found out that his pitching coach for his first two years at Clemson, John Pawlowski, was leaving to take the head job at Arizona State.
Mottl pitched a shutout against the Russian National Team the day after Pawlowski took the job, but his mind was elsewhere. Mottl was devoted to Pawlowski.
O’Sullivan had been a catcher at Virginia in 1990 and 1991 and was an assistant on the Minnesota Twins’ rookie league team in 1998. Mottl had never heard of him, not that it mattered if he had. He was happy with Pawlowski.
“They had an extra close relationship,” said Steve Mottl. It took a conversation with USA coach Ron Polk to turn Mottl around.
“You’ve got the best of both worlds,” Polk, the former coach at Mississippi State, told Mottl. “You’ve had coach Pawlowski for two years and you’ve learned everything you’re going to learn from him. Now you’re going to learn from a well known coach coming in from the pros.”
Polk’s talk put Mottl in the right frame of mind.
“I was apprehensive,” said Mottl. “I didn’t know anything about coach Sully, but coach Polk spoke very highly of him.”
O’Sullivan arrived and noticed what the others had – that Mottl needed another pitch to go along with the fosch.
“He was getting along fine, but it was just a matter of time before they were going to catch up with him,” said O’Sullivan. “You’ve got to be able to make adjustments.”
Mottl went along with the idea of throwing a curveball. He didn’t throw in fall practice, but spent the time adjusting his motion to accommodate the curveball.
Once the season started, it didn’t take long for problems to develop. In the season opener against Kansas State, he pitched 4 2/3 innings and gave up five runs. In his second start against Washington in the UNLV Dessert Classic, he lasted just 2 1/3 innings and gave up four earned runs.
Mottl was frustrated and confused. He averaged a walk every three innings the previous season. In his first two starts, he walked eight in seven innings.
Three days later in Las Vegas, he came in with two outs in the second inning against Creighton. He never came back out. He gave up just two earned runs, striking out eight and walking three for the win.
“The start against Washington didn’t go as well as I had wanted,” said Mottl. “I wasn’t as aggressive as I used to be. I was pretty upset about the start and then we lost three in a row. When I came in against Creighton in the second inning, I told myself that I wasn’t going to worry about what had happened. I started going back over my head with my delivery.”
The change in delivery made Mottl more comfortable, but didn’t completely solve things. He’s won just once since the Creighton game. He pitched eight innings and gave up one earned run against George Mason in his second start after the Creighton game.
Since the win against George Mason, he’s gone 0-4 with a 6.48 ERA. Mottl doesn’t have the voice of a frustrated pitcher, though.
“Right now I’m not worried about personal things,” said Mottl. “We’ve got a chance to put the season back together. We’re on a roll right now.”
Mottl points to the fact that he hasn’t walked a batter in the past two starts as a sign that things are coming around. He’s finding the plate with his curveball.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself,” said O’Sullivan. “It’s not the last time in his career that he’ll have a tough road to cross. He’ll always have to deal with adversity.”
Mottl, though, isn’t worried. He follows his father’s lead.
“We talk after very game,” said Mottl. “He calms me down. He’s really good about it. He lets me know that I just have to hang with it. He doesn’t put any pressure on me.”
Tommy Hood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org