READING - It was only two starts of what was one of the most inconsistent seasons of Jesse Biddle's professional baseball career, but those two late-April starts featuring a combined 26 strikeouts made Phillies fans downright giddy.
Biddle at the time was the consensus top prospect in the Philadelphia minor league system. Maikel Franco hadn't yet blossomed into one of the premier hitters in minor league baseball. J.P. Crawford was still nearly two months from being drafted. There was no excitement around a player in the Phillies' minor leagues like there was around Biddle when he struck out 16 Harrisburg Senators, and then 10 more New Hampshire Fisher Cats in back-to-back starts.
But things were never the same for Biddle after those two starts in the first month of the season with the Reading Fightin Phils. In fact, he had as many starts where he failed to go more than three innings (four) as he did starts where he completed at least seven innings (four). Biddle, a former Williamsport Crosscutter, flashed that ability to strike out hitters over his final 20 starts sporadically. But his 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings over those final 20 starts was more than three fewer than his career minor league average.
Jesse Biddle plays catch during spring training earlier this season. Biddle, a former Williamsport Crosscuter pitcher, is starting the 2014 season in Reading.
Whether it was falling in love with strikeouts, or the effects of a season-long bout of pertussis, or even the plantar fasciitis which hampered the final month of his season, Biddle could have tossed out excuse after excuse for his disappointing season in Class AA. There were no excuses, though, earlier this week at media day in Reading.
"It's about being consistent in my mechanics. And it's not just my mechanics, either. It's maybe my frame of mind," Biddle said, surrounded by a dozen people with cameras and recorders hanging on every word the 23-year old had to say. "It's trying to be aggressive, pitching to the middle of the plate and being down in the zone. Once you get your mechanics down and get your mind right, it seems like everything clicks. I think I'm doing everything I can to get to that point."
He was at that point last year for those two April starts. First it was a seven-inning, 16-strikeout performance on the road against Harrisburg, besting his previous career high of 12 strikeouts which he reached twice in 2012. Six days later he followed it up with 10 strikeouts in just six innings, again allowing just one hit for the second consecutive start.
It was everything the Phillies thought they were going to get from the left-hander with the big league curveball who was selected in the first round of the 2010 MLB draft. It was command, it was poise, it was flashes of being unhittable when everything came together.
It was also the last time Biddle put together back-to-back starts of that caliber during the season. He had just two other scoreless outings the rest of the season, and in one of those he still managed to walk seven batters. He didn't reach double digits in strikeouts again - which wasn't too surprising considering he had done it just two other times in his career prior to those April starts.
"It was definitely frustrating in a certain way," Biddle said. "I think last year maybe I did pitch to strikeouts a little too much and was being too fine around the zone, and that's something I focused on in the offseason. It's about being consistent and pitching to contact. (Reading pitching coach Dave Lundquist) has a saying here: 'Let's see how far he can hit it', which basically just means throw it over the place and see what he can do with it. Chances are in my favor, even if I'm throwing fastballs down the middle, to get them out. The best hitters are hitting .300, so 70 percent of the time I'm winning. So I need to pitch to contact this year. I need to get my infielders and outfielders more into the game. I can't be running deep counts on everybody."
Biddle has turned his focus to locating his fastball. His lack of command last year was a big part of the reason some web sites and scouts moved Franco ahead of him in the Phillies' prospect rankings. His 5.4 walks per nine innings were a career high, but not much different from the 5.3 per nine he posted the year before in Clearwater.
He's finished eight innings in a start just once in his career, in a midseason game in 2012 for Clearwater. Biddle thinks better command of his fastball will allow him to throw more strikes, get deeper into games, and make his curveball even more deadly.
New minor league pitching coordinator Carlos Arroyo set up a drill during spring training where he drew a string across the bottom line of the strikezone, trying to get his pitchers to consistently hit that mark. Biddle said he didn't necessarily need the string to show him where he needed to command his fastball, but it was more the idea of what the string represented which hit home with him.
"My curveball is probably one of my favorite pitches to throw, and I think everyone knows that by now," Biddle said. "But at the same time, you can't pitch in the big leagues with just a curveball. You need a lot of other stuff and a lot of other weapons, and I have it in my arsenal, I just need to be more consistent with it."