LAKELAND, Fla.–Jair Jurrjens can pitch in four languages. A 21-year-old righthander from Curacao, in the Netherlands Antilles, can also spot a fastball that tops out at 97 mph.
Featuring the best control in the Tigers system, the multilingual Jurrjens has emerged as Detroit’™s top pitching prospect aside from 2006 first-round pick Andrew Miller. Originally signed in 2003, Jurrjens took a big step forward last year when he went 5-0, 2.18 with high Class A Lakeland while holding hitters to a .198 average. He more than held his own after a midseason promotion to Double-A Erie, going 4-3, 3.36. On the season, the well-spoken “JJ,” as he’™s known to his teammates, logged 112 strikeouts in 141 innings.
Baseball America: How would you describe yourself as a pitcher?
Jair Jurrjens: I hear that I’™m not a power pitcher, probably because I don’™t strike out 10 guys every game. But I can blow out hitters with my fastball, especially when I’™m spotting it well. I’™m not a finesse guy, though. Maybe I’™m a little of both?
BA: What’™s in your repertoire?
JJ: I have a four-seamer, a two-seamer, a slurve, and a change. My slurve is still developing, but my change is pretty good. I probably threw it a little too much for awhile, but my coaches didn’™t want me to fall in love with my second-best pitch. I’™d say it’™s about major league average right now.
BA: You have very good control. Is there such a thing as throwing too many strikes?
JJ: I’™ve read that my weakness is throwing too many, but that’™s the first thing they teach you — to throw strikes. How could it be a problem? Of course, you can’™t let guys get too comfortable. You want to move their eye level, and you have to come up-and-in to get them to move their feet, but mostly you want to attack the strike zone.
BA: Out of 100 pitches, how many strikes do you want to throw?
JJ: Personally, at least 70. If you fall behind hitters, they have the advantage. I like to challenge and make guys swing. I’™m not trying to trick anyone.
BA: Out of 100 pitches, how many are typically fastballs?
JJ: It depends on how I feel, and what’™s working. I don’™t really prepare the game before it starts — I go more pitch-by-pitch. But if I had to estimate, I’™d say I throw 70 fastballs, 20 changes, and 10 slurves. I’™m maybe throwing a few more slurves now, because I’™m working on developing it, but I don’™t want to go overboard, either.
BA: What are the mechanical adjustments you’™re making with your slurve?
JJ: I’™ve been trying to throw a 12-to-6 (curveball), but my arm-slot is maybe more three-quarters, so sometimes I’™ve been making the ball spin more than break. I’™m working with the grip, trying to get it right.
BA: Scouting reports say you have an ability to add and subtract from your fastball.
JJ: I hear that a lot, but it’™s mostly just kicking into another gear when I need it. Who’™s hitting is part of it. If I don’™t need 100 percent to get someone out, I’™ll go more for the corners or throw a two-seamer to try to get a ground ball. If I need a strikeout, I usually throw my four-seamer.
BA: How would you describe your delivery? I assume you don’™t turn your back on hitters like Luis Tiant used to do?
JJ: No, but my delivery is pretty old-fashioned. I’m a little like John Smoltz in that I put my hands up over my head when I wind up. Keeping your balance is a big part of pitching, and I used to lean forward too much. That helps me slow down.
BA: When you were in short-season Oneonta, your pitching coach was Bill Monbouquette, who is very old-school. What did you learn from him?
JJ: What I want to say about him is that he really boosted my career. I was struggling, and he called me over one day and told me he thought I had really good stuff. He really liked me and believed in me, and that meant a lot. He gave me confidence.
BA: The Tigers once had a pitcher named Mark Fidrych, who used to talk to the ball. Do you do anything strange on the mound?
JJ: You mean “The Bird?” I’™ve heard of him. What I do on the mound is smile a lot. Last year I played with a shortstop named Brent Dlugach, and he would get too intense and frustrate himself, so we started to help each other relax by smiling at each other before every inning. I like to be relaxed and confident.
BA: You can speak four languages: English, Spanish, Dutch, and Papiamentu. Which of them is the best baseball language?
JJ: Well, definitely not Dutch! Papiamentu is pretty good if I’™m back home, but no one here speaks it. I guess Spanish is maybe a little better than English.
BA: There was once a backup catcher named Moe Berg, of whom it was said: “Moe Berg can speak seven languages, but he can’™t hit in any of them.” Can you pitch in four languages?
JJ: Yeah, yeah, I can! I’™ve never heard of him, but that’™s funny.
BA: Do people in Curacao mostly follow Major League Baseball, or also baseball in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and around the world?
JJ: Back home it’™s mostly the pro guys, but players from Curacao playing in other places, like semi-pro ball in Holland and Taiwan, are followed, too. So are the winter leagues, but the big leagues is the main thing.
BA: Andruw Jones is the most famous, but Randall Simon is also from Curacao. What is your opinion of “sausage-gate”?
JJ: That was funny, too! Things like that have always happened, and he didn’™t hit her too hard. I think it was mostly her costume. The sausage was heavy, so she fell down.