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Foppert Tries To Regain Prospect Status
By Andrew Baggarly
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.--They still talk about that five-start run at short-season Salem-Keizer in 2001.
It was fastball, fastball, split. Hitters had no chance. Jesse Foppert was unmerciful.
Over those five starts, the long and lanky righthander pitched 28 scoreless innings, allowed just nine hits, and struck out 53. He recorded 63 percent of his outs by missing bats. In his final start against Boise in the Northwest League playoffs, he struck out 12 in six shutout innings.
"We never saw him again," recalls lefthander Noah Lowry, one of several Giants pitchers who graduated to the major leagues from that Salem-Keizer team. "We stopped calling it the fast track. It became the 'Foppert Track' after that."
In 2002, Foppert dominated competition at Double-A Shreveport, and after striking out 109 in 79 innings at Triple-A Fresno, it was hard for the Giants to contain their excitement. In many scouting circles, and in the pages of Baseball America, Foppert was regarded as the best pitching prospect in baseball.
He was 6-foot-6 and athletic. He threw in the mid-90s with wicked movement. He had command of his slider and split. And given that he hadn't pitched until his final year at the University of San Francisco, his rapid progression was nothing short of staggering.
Everything about him screamed future No.1 starter. But then the Foppert Track hit a detour.
Forced into the big league rotation when Ryan Jensen injured his back in April 2003, Foppert went just 8-9, 5.03 with the Giants but showed flashes of dominance in 23 games. Then his right hand felt numb in an Aug. 20 start against the Braves. He came out in the fourth inning.
Tests showed a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Foppert had Tommy John surgery three weeks later.
"I don't know if I can pinpoint when it happened," says Foppert, now 24 and expected to open the season as the long man in the Giants bullpen. "I felt discomfort as early as spring training but I didn't think it was anything out of the normal soreness from pitching."
It's no surprise that Foppert couldn't tell the difference between normal soreness and abnormal pain. The San Rafael, Calif., native was a walk-on first baseman at USF who resisted his coaches' efforts to get him on the mound. He finally relented the summer before his junior year when he stepped off a plane in Virginia.
"I was in the Shenandoah Valley League and a lot of guys were still playing in the College World Series," Foppert says. "The coach picked me up at the airport and said, 'Good thing you're a pitcher. We don't have many.' I started the second game and ended up pitching the whole summer."
Foppert hadn't pitched regularly since Little League. He never even took the mound in high school. He pitched just three innings over his first two seasons at USF. "I thought pitching was boring," he says. "I never gave it a fair shot."
His limited experience made his rapid rise through the minor leagues all the more impressive--and made the Giants all the more cautious. They weren't afraid to challenge him, but Foppert believes the organization did a good job monitoring his innings.
"I don't think I was overused," Foppert says. "They protected me. One time in Double-A I had a chance to go to the all-star game but I had thrown two days earlier. Little things like that, they don't want to overuse me."
If there was any season Foppert can question his workload, it was 2001 when he threw 120 innings for USF, then 70 more at Salem-Keizer.
"I'd never thrown more than two or three innings in a whole season, so that could have contributed to it," he says. "Maybe it started to tear that year. It's impossible to tell. Maybe my ligament wasn't as mature as some other guys, and my mechanics probably contributed to it. I was throwing a foot across my body."
Actually, it was 17 inches.
"We measured," Giants trainer Stan Conte says. "If you want to make a case that (the elbow injury) happened because he hadn't pitched for a long time, it would go back to his mechanics. The fact he was more inconsistent with his delivery would definitely put more stress on his elbow."
Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, bullpen coach Mark Gardner and vice president Dick Tidrow worked with Foppert to develop a tighter delivery, but with the Giants contending in 2003 they couldn't send him back down to Fresno to work on incorporating the changes.
"I knew what I was doing wasn't good but I couldn't change in the heat, in the middle of the year," Foppert says. "I just couldn't do it."
Foppert also admits he pitched through pain during his rookie season. He now says that on days between starts, his arm was sore. On the fifth day, he figures adrenaline carried him through.
Giants officials said they were somewhat surprised when they heard Foppert's admission this spring. Foppert had never complained, leading them to believe the injury happened suddenly. "Jesse is a very stoic individual," Conte says. "We asked him all the time and he never said he had a problem."
So the Giants were suspicious when Foppert hit absolutely no setbacks in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. They brought him along slowly and allowed him to pitch only once for the big league club last year--in the final game of the season. He tossed a scoreless inning.
Over the winter, Foppert made six starts in Puerto Rico, where he continued to adjust back to game speed while also cementing changes to his delivery.
"He's been sharp for awhile," Righetti says. "He's not worried about mechanics and all that. He's thinking about hitting spots. He's past that hump and the next one is the competition. He'll handle that too."
Foppert was impressive in his debut this spring, throwing two shutout innings while striking out two March 4 against the Cubs at Mesa.
"That made the day," Giants manager Felipe Alou says. "When I see a man throwing the ball like that, all business, high intensity with really good stuff . . . I see now how we are going to treat him. The kid is here and he's very noticeable."
Says Foppert: "I think I'll be better than before the surgery. I know I feel better."
Foppert said he doesn't mind pitching out of the bullpen, and because he can get loose quickly he thinks he can adapt easily to the role. The Giants are expected to build up his pitch count so he will be prepared to make spot starts when the need arises. There's a good chance Foppert will fold back into the rotation before long.
"You don't put a cap on good talent like that," Righetti says. "You know Jesse. (The bullpen) won't bother him one bit."
Foppert believes he has gotten back all the velocity on his fastball, which averages 92-93 mph but can reach the upper 90s. He said he has better fastball command now because his ball doesn't cut quite as much. He also has worked to incorporate a changeup to complement his fastball/slider combination.
While Foppert still throws the splitter, he uses it as more of a show-me pitch than a strikeout pitch. In fact, he's given up trying for strikeouts at all. "I'm trying to get ground balls and quick outs," he says. "That seems to be a pretty good way to go about things."
The kid who dazzled at Salem isn't trying to miss bats anymore.