PEORIA, Ariz.–Matt Bush is back with the Padres’ Rookie-level Arizona League team . . . where his professional career started three years ago.
This was not exactly the Padres’ plan for Bush when they selected the high school shortstop with the first overall pick in the 2004 draft.
After a well-documented, tumultuous start to his professional career, Bush struggled to hit at four minor league levels, compiling career batting numbers of .221/.291/.276 in his first three seasons. A series of injuries diminished his shortstop range, leaving him with only one plus tool–a powerful right arm.
The organization finally pulled the plug on Bush’s career as a shortstop on May 30 with a long anticipated move to the mound. As surreal as his three-plus years with the Padres had been, it’s fitting that Bush’s last game as a position player came when the Padres’ California League affiliate, high Class A Lake Elsinore, had “Dr. Seuss Night” at their home park. The Storm players, including Bush, donned red & white horizontally-striped socks for the night. The players had to dodge “Thing One” and “Thing Two” as they made their way from the dugout to take the field.
Right after the “Dr. Seuss” game, Bush was sent by the Padres to Arizona to begin his conversion to pitching. The results in the Arizona League were encouraging. Bush yielded no runs in his first four appearances, striking out 11 batters in just 5 1/3 innings. The composure and poise that he’s shown on the mound belie the fact that he hasn’t pitched competitively in more than three years.
“Very impressive. I was pleasantly surprised,” said Dave Rajsich, Bush’s AZL pitching coach. “He throws a lot better than I anticipated . . . His command is much better and his velocity is a little more than I expected. (He’s) much more polished than I was expecting.”
Bush, whose fastball has been clocked as high as 98, also did not expect to make such a rapid adjustment to the mound.
“I was kind of surprised the way my arm reacted,” he said. “It felt really good. I was throwing the ball really well, right around the strike zone. I was surprised at how hard I was throwing. I didn’t think I would be throwing that hard so soon.”
Bush knows that he can’t live by his fastball alone. The righthander has been using an effective curveball and a slider in games, while working on a changeup on the sidelines.
“My slider and curve ball are really good,” Bush said “At times, I tend to overthrow (the curve). It’s still very effective. The break on it is very good.”
Bush’s use of the slider caught Rajsich by surprise.
“The first time I saw him throw one,” said Rajsich, “he threw it in the game for a called strikeout. He hadn’t even thrown one of those in sidelines sessions. I asked him what it was. He told me it was a slider and that he had occasionally thrown one in high school. Every day, it’s a little more of an adventure to find out just how much he does know about pitching. I’m really pleased with his poise and his command down in the zone.”
Bush is already learning that he can’t just rear back and try to throw everything past the hitters.
“What I started doing here was I found out that I threw 98 so well,” Bush said. “I wanted to do it again, and I wanted to do it again. My arm hurt a little bit, so now I understand I’m going to be a guy that’s going to sit in the mid 90s. Every now and then, when I feel good, I’ll hump it up. But I can’t be trying to hump it up all the time; it’s not going to work.”
Perhaps trying to throw hard is why Bush’s arm was a little sore; he’s not going to pitch for about a week, but an MRI turned up negative. Bush has noticeably added extra bulk to his body, looking heavier than his listed weight of 170.
“He’s getting stronger in the core, which is what you want,” Rajsich said. “The torso, the hips and the legs . . . that’s all about driving (his pitch). Now he’s got to elongate everything, especially the upper body, and get the muscles stretched so that the pitching works fine and easy, utilizing the core strength that he has and incorporating that into his delivery and making everything smooth.”
Bush isn’t convinced that he couldn’t have made the big leagues as a shortstop. It’s doubtful that he’d find many concurring opinions around the game. But he’s still motivated to show the baseball world that he’ll get there and repay the Padres for the significant investment they’ve made in him.
“They (the Padres) knew what they got when they drafted me,” he said. “If shortstop didn’t work out, they could move me to the mound. Either way, pitching or shortstop, I’m going to do what’s best for me. I’m trying to help out my career as much as I can. Making it to the big leagues has always been my goal. If it’s pitching, then that’s great.”
Rajsich has no doubt that this change is the right move for Bush.
“When you watch him, you see how much more relaxed he is on the mound,” Rajsich said.
“Actually, the more I see him, I know he really was a pitcher. That’s what he is.”