Withrow Back On Track In 2009

Lake Elsinore, Calif.—Inland Empire righthander Chris Withrow lost all but four innings of his 2008 season to an unusual snorkel-induced injury, followed by an unrelated, lingering bout of elbow discomfort. In 2009, he's making up for lost time.

During spring training last year, the 2007 first-round pick sliced open his right index finger throwing a snorkel onto shore while wading in the ocean.

"On the end of the snorkel, there's a really hard piece of plastic, and it had some slits in it, I guess, and it just sliced my finger. I have no idea how it happened."

Acknowledging the peculiarity of the injury, Withrow added: "If I had a dime for every time someone asked me about that, I'd be very rich."

The cut was bad enough that Withrow missed the remainder of spring training. He was three or four weeks behind schedule when the injury finally healed and proceeded to go through what has been described alternately as dead arm, elbow tenderness, and/or minor tendinitis.

Regardless of the cause of the discomfort, it prevented Withrow from taking the mound until August, when he made four relief appearances.

The result? An uninspiring line from a pitcher whose raw stuff—including a low-to-mid-90s fastball, a power curve, and a developing changeup—would suggest more: four innings, one strikeout, six walks and two runs allowed.

"It was a little frustrating, you know, battling through some injuries, just not being able to get out there on the mound," Withrow said.

The Difference A Year Makes

The scar from the snorkel debacle remains on the bottom-third of Withrow's index finger. That's about the only vestige of last year's disappointments, however, as the injuries and ineffectiveness that plagued Withrow's 2008 season have quickly become something of a distant memory.

Withrow, 20, was 6-6, 4.69 with 105 strikeouts and 45 walks in 86 innings with the 66ers. He earned a promotion to Double-A Chattanooga at the start of August.  The good times have been rolling straight from the beginning of the season, too, as Withrow marked his first start of the season with five no-hit innings—six strikeouts versus only two walks and a hit batsman—against Lake Elsinore.

The performance was surprising given the previous season's struggles—even to Withrow himself. Asked if he expected to pitch so effectively from the beginning, he answered frankly: "No, to be honest. My first goal was just to get out there, be healthy, try and get a quality start. The result happened to be in my favor . . . but my main goal this year is to get some innings, get some experience, learn how to pitch in a sense that'll help me move up."

Withrow's response is indicative of the approach pitching coach Charlie Hough is taking with him—one focused on process over results.

"I try not to make it a situation where he's got to get better next week," Hough said. "I try to say, 'Hey, this is what you're going to do for a living for a long time. So, don't get down, don't get crushed when things don't work. They're going to work in the long run.'

"He definitely has talent to strike out people. He's going through the process of learning how to pitch. There are innings where he gives up more runs than he should, but he's learning how to get out of them, and it's a process for him. He only pitched four innings last year."

What makes this year's performance so encouraging is that, owing to last season's layoff, Withrow is essentially pitching his first professional season—a fact that Hough understands well.

"If he were coming out of the draft right now as a JC sophomore, 20 years old, you'd be saying, 'Okay, we'll pitch him 30 innings or something.' . . . He has made wonderful progress."

Lofty Comparisons

The success is a testament to Withrow's talent and makeup, both of which Hough praises and which have garnered him comparisons to Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw.

Asked about the similarities between the two, Hough stated, "They both have a gift—and that's exactly what it is—to stand on the mound and (have) their arms go fast. There's only a few guys like that."

Also similar to Kershaw is the concern for Withrow's walk rate, which stood at 4.69 BB/9 at the time of his promotion. However it's not something that either he or Hough is particularly concerned about for the time being. Emphasis, instead, is on development.

"That's going to come with time," Withrow said. "I would like to find my command a little bit—of course, everybody would—but that's just going to come with more time on the mound. It's all just a big process right now."

Hough added: "It's a little mechanical, a little lack of repetition, a little confidence, a little pitch selection. I make him throw some more breaking balls and changeups than he might have to in order to compete here. But I'm not worried about him competing here. I'm concerned with him having the pitches to move up. And if we don't get it out of him here, we can't expect him to do it in higher ball.

"He's a 20-year-old kid, pitching in a pretty tough league here, with almost no experience, and more than holding his own. And at times, he just flat out excels."

Carson Cistulli is a freelance baseball writer