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2003 Rookie Of The Year: Brandon Webb
By Jack Magruder
PHOENIX—How is this for a scrapbook moment from your rookie year?
After Brandon Webb threw seven shutout innings, striking out 10, in his first major league start in the opening game of a doubleheader against the Mets on April 27, the Diamondbacks’ Game Two starter corralled Webb in the clubhouse.
“That’s a tough act to follow,” Randy Johnson said.
When a guy with five Cy Young Awards talks, you listen.
“That was cool,” Webb says.
Webb proved to be a difficult act to follow all season. He developed into the Diamondbacks’ No. 1 starter after injuries to Johnson and Curt Schilling, made the jump from Double-A to the major leagues seem effortless and earned BA’s Rookie of the Year award in the process.
Webb finished with 10-9, 2.84 numbers, finishing fourth in the National League in ERA behind Jason Schmidt, Kevin Brown and Mark Prior. He could have won half again as many games with a little more timely run support.
In his six starts immediately after the All-Star Game, Webb gave up 2, 3, 2, 2, 3 and 3 runs. His record was 0-4, as the Diamondbacks got him 0, 2, 1, 1, 1 and 2 runs. Of his 28 starts, 21 were quality starts, including his first 13. He gave up four earned runs once in his first 24 starts.
“Everyone talks about the 14 wins Dontrelle Willis has. If we average three runs a game for this guy, he wins 14, 15 games,” says Diamondbacks scouting director Mike Rizzo, who made Webb an eighth-round pick in the 2000 draft out of Kentucky. “His other numbers were mind-boggling.”
The long season—a month longer than any he had ever pitched—may have finally taken its toll in the final week of the season, when Webb gave up nine runs in eight innings over his final two starts.
Webb still ended the season giving up fewer hits than innings—140 hits in 181 innings—while striking out 172 and walking 68. Opponents hit .212 against him, behind only Schmidt and Kerry Wood.
Webb’s primary pitch is a two-seam fastball that seems to get most of its action as it enters the hitting zone. He also features a curveball and a changeup that he became much more comfortable with as the season went along.
The biggest accolades came from Arizona opponents. Rockies manager Clint Hurdle says Webb had stuff as good as he had seen this year, and Marlins skipper Jack McKeon also praised him.
“I had an advance scout tell me it almost looked like a split-finger pitch,” Rizzo says. “It not only has great sink, it has life at the plate. It is so late and so violent on its drop. And he can throw that thing for strikes.”
Webb is among the top students from the Class of 2000. When he signed, he held the Kentucky single-season strikeout record that since has been surpassed by 2002 Athletics’ first-rounder Joe Blanton.
Webb’s signing was a group effort by the Diamondbacks’ scouting department in Rizzo’s first year on the job. Area scout Scott Jaster saw Webb as a sophomore and made a point to see him early in his junior year. Special-assignment scout Phil Rizzo, Mike’s father, saw Webb later that year and caught him on a day in which he had great movement on his two-seamer.
The elder Rizzo filed a strong report, as did Central regional supervisor Kris Kline. Webb missed a few starts with shoulder tendinitis during the middle of the season, perhaps turning some teams off. But Mike Rizzo and East Coast supervisor Ed Durkin made certain to attend Webb’s first start in the Southeastern Conference tournament, where he handed top-ranked South Carolina one of its 10 defeats that season.
Makeup was also part of their evaluation.
“He competes really well,” Rizzo says, “and that’s a big part of the process. You like guys who are under control—very, very competitive, but under control. It’s so easy to lose your cool on the mound when things go wrong, but you have to pitch through that. It doesn’t help when you are screaming at the shortstop or screaming at the umpire. That stuff doesn’t play in the big leagues.”
As far as developing as a pitcher, Webb has learned to utilize his stuff. “He can throw 92, 93 (mph) and we saw him at 94 in the minors,” Rizzo says. “But his sinker works best at the velocity he throws it now, 90 or 91, 92 at the most. He learned that harder is not better. He’s learned how to pitch. He’s learned to command that late-breaking sinker.”
Webb’s coach at Kentucky, Keith Madison, now in the school’s development office, has seen a change in Webb’s approach as he has moved from college through the minors.
“In the games I’ve seen him pitch with the Diamondbacks, he predominantly uses his sinker ball,” Madison says. “In college, maybe because of the aluminum bats, he used his breaking ball more. The pitch he has really developed is his changeup.
“He always had good stuff. Of the pitchers we’ve had who make the big leagues, I always says he had the best two-seam fastball of any.”
Blanton, Scott Downs, Jeff Parrett and William Van Landingham are among the former Wildcats who have preceded Webb to the major leagues.
“It looks like his two-seam fastball is moving even more than it did back at Kentucky,” Madison says. “I asked Brandon about that. ‘Are you gripping it any differently?’ He says it just happened. He is bigger and stronger than he was.”
Webb was a gangly 6-foot-2, 175-pounder when he arrived at UK from Ashland, in the coal-mining region of northern Kentucky near the West Virginia and Ohio borders.
“He was just a skinny, quiet kid who loved to play baseball,” Madison says. “He had some mechanical flaws that we helped him straighten out. He was like a sponge. He soaked up everything we taught him.
“To me, the one thing he has learned since he got into pro ball . . . he could throw hard, so he felt every fastball should be at maximum velocity. Now he’s learned to take something off and get more movement. Our pitching coach used to say ‘lower and slower.’ It’s not like he’s throwing it slow, but when it gets near home the bottom drops out of it. I’ve seen guys either swing or check-swing and get hit by the pitch. That shows you you have some movement.”
Rizzo does not claim to know how quickly Webb, 24, would arrive, although he did say the tools were evident.
“We thought he’d be maybe a top three starter on a contending club, and he’s doing that right now,” Rizzo says. “We did like his stuff, and we did like the total package. We knew he had a good arm. He has turned out to be a top-of-the-rotation starter.
“For several months, this guy was the No. 1 starter for a contender in the NL West. When the two horses came out, he was the main man. He showed as much as anybody in baseball.”
Not a bad moment to remember.