Everything Is Clicking For Liz
SALEM, Va.--Orioles righthander Radhames Liz might be a little surprised by all the attention surrounding him these days, but that doesn't seem to faze the shy 22-year-old Dominican a bit.
Playing in just his second season in the U.S.--and his first full season in his brief pro career--Liz has quickly earned a reputation for racking up strikeouts at an impressive rate, ranking fourth in the New York-Penn League last year at short-season Aberdeen despite making just 10 starts.
He has built upon that reputation this season at high Class A Frederick, whiffing 13 in his first start and 89 overall in 76 innings.
Liz, who was selected to play in the California League-Carolina League all-star game as well as being named to the World team in this year's Futures Game, is humble and quiet when addressing all the accolades.
"I'm really excited to be a part of both teams," Liz says. "I wasn't thinking about any of that at all when my manager gave me the news. I am very glad to represent my organization if people feel like I deserve it."
Deserving it is hardly a question.
Liz has electric stuff that starts with a 94-96 mph fastball that has been known to touch 98. He backs that heat up with a curveball, slider and two different variations of a changeup--one that breaks away from righthanders and another that breaks away from lefties.
"He's a very intelligent person who picks up things so quickly," Frederick pitching coach Blaine Beatty says. "But I think the biggest thing that kind of separates him is that he trusts his stuff, no matter what it is, no matter what the situation. His confidence sets him apart."Late To The Game
Confidence and success have built dramtically in a short time for Liz, who grew up in the Dominican countryside town of El Seybo. The youngest boy among seven brothers and sisters, Liz didn't even pick up a baseball until he was 16.
His mother died two years earlier, and his father worked (and still works) in a clothing factory. Needless to say, life wasn't exactly easy in the Liz household while the children were growing up. And it hasn't gotten any easier since then.
"My family doesn't have a lot of money," he says. "We are really, really poor. El Seybo is a poor town and no one there has a lot of money. We just tried to help my parents doing things around the house. We tried to help them any way we could just to keep things going."
Liz moved to San Pedro de Macoris to live with one of his older brothers when he turned 18, and he started taking the game seriously once he got to the big city. He worked with a group of other players for a year and a half with a part-time scout who had connections with several organizations, including Orioles director of Latin American scouting Carlos Bernhardt.
"It's not like college or high school players here in the United States," he says. "I needed to learn more about the game because I didn't really know what baseball was until I was 16, and then later on Carlos heard about me and signed me."
After signing in 2003, Liz pitched two years in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League, going 10-6, 2.81 with 152 strikeouts in 127 innings. But he often simply tried to blow fastballs by hitters and did not focus on using any offspeed or breaking pitches.
"I didn't know too much then," Liz says. "When I got to the United States, I really learned about throwing breaking balls. I threw a breaking ball when I was in the Dominican, but I didn't use it lot. And I was throwing hard in the Dominican--like 94, 95, 96--but for hitters in the Dominican, they can hit that easy and you need another pitch. I was young and didn't know I needed another pitch. I just tried to throw the fastball.
"Now, I'm learning what it means to be a pitcher--a real pitcher, not just somebody who throws fastballs."
Even with a plus slider and two above-average changeups in his repertoire, Liz battled through some tough times this season after starting the year with five straight wins. His walk total has increased with each outing, though there's a simple explanation for that. Liz has so much natural movement on all his pitches, at times they're difficult to command. Even when he combined on a no-hitter against Salem in his first start of the season--when only two balls against him were put into play--everything was moving.
"Catch him on the wrong night when everything is working for him and you're done," high Class A Kinston pitching coach Steve Lyons says. "His raw stuff is unreal at times. Sometimes he can get a little caught up, but when he's on, he's on."Tinkering With His Mechanics
To control his raw stuff, Liz still needs to hone his mechanics and understand how to attack hitters in different situations. In May, Liz appeared to be throwing two different variations of a curveball. One was big and loopy, while the other was harder, with late break and sinking action. But it was the same pitch; he was just flying open in his delivery more with the 12-to-6 breaker. His true curveball is the harder, 76-78 mph pitch.
Since then, Liz shelved the pitch altogether and opted for an 84-85 mph slider that essentially does the same thing to hitters.
"He's just trying to solidify his slider more and make that a more prominent pitch," Beatty said. "Both those changeups have been great. He just needs to learn how to understand situations better--learning how to set up a certain pitch and learning how to effectively read hitters."
The Orioles have been cautious with Liz this season. He has rarely gone late into games, often exiting after the fifth or sixth inning, depending on his pitch count--which currently ranges between 90 and 100. He often maxes out that count early because he's still learning to understand what pitches to throw in certain situations, which Beatty feels has helped him despite the rise in the walk totals.
"He's bounced back well after every start," Beatty says. "And he's definitely picked it up a lot. He's controlling the running game better and making those in-game adjustments. That's what you look for."
What both opposing teams and Liz's teammates and coaching staff have also come to look for is something that can only be described as "the click." And it's become something of a novelty whenever Liz' name is dropped among scouts. At times when Liz is pitching, a popping sound can be heard--and if it's quiet enough, it can even be heard from the stands.
"It just sounds like somebody breaking a match stick," Beatty says. "It's just a tendon popping over something. And it's not on every pitch."
"Everybody talks about it, but I don't hear it at all because I'm focused on what I'm trying to do," Liz adds. "I don't really think about it too much. I heard it once and it wasn't really a big deal to me. I think people are just making a big deal out of it."
People are making a big deal about his stuff, too--and for good reason. But don't expect Liz to pay much attention to that kind of talk, either.