Funny thing about the sinking fastball: “When you try to do too much to a sinker,” said A’s right-hander Dan Otero, “it doesn’t sink.”
Otero figures that bit of irony might help explain his success in a breakout 2013 season, which he started at Triple A before joining the A’s in mid-June and becoming one of their most reliable relievers in the second half.
Previously, Otero’s big-league tenure had consisted of 12 appearances, all with the Giants in 2012, in which he allowed eight earned runs and 19 hits. Looking back, said Otero, a 29-year-old who relies heavily on a sinking two-seam fastball to get ground balls for outs, he was probably overthrowing his go-to pitch, thereby undermining its movement.
“I think I tried to make it harder than it was,” Otero said, “trying to make that devastating pitch when you don’t really have to. (Last year), I was able to learn from that, and the coaches here have given me the confidence that my stuff does play, so I can focus on that and stay within myself.”
Otero said the fact the A’s catchers kept calling for the two-seamer as well “gave me confidence to throw it and throw it with conviction.” The bottom line, he said, is he “was just trusting it more last year,” and that showed in his numbers.
After allowing three earned runs in his first four appearances with the A’s, Otero gave up just three in his final 29 games of the regular season, recording a 0.76 ERA after June 25. By the playoffs, manager Bob Melvin was no longer hesitant to use Otero late in a close game if necessary.
“I wouldn’t say he snuck up on us,” Melvin said. “He ran up on us.”
Last spring, Otero reported to camp with the Giants – the organization that drafted him in 2007 – but was waived in late March, starting a tumultuous few days for the Duke alum. The New York Yankees claimed Otero but designated him for assignment the next day, after which the A’s claimed him and sent him to the River Cats.
Compare that with a year later, as Otero prepares for this season with an all-but-certain hold on a spot in the A’s bullpen. While Ryan Cook and newly acquired Luke Gregerson will likely be the main right-handed setup men, Melvin said Otero has “thrust himself into a role where I look at him as an ahead-in-the-game pitcher.”
“If we need to shorten a game on a particular day, he’s at the forefront of that,” Melvin said. “And if a guy’s not available on a certain day, I wouldn’t hesitate to use him in the seventh or eighth inning of a game that we’re ahead.
“The role that he’s in, he created for himself.”
As Otero attributes much of last season to trusting his strengths, he said he isn’t making any drastic changes entering this one. He said he kept his offseason throwing program the same as in past years and just pushed it back slightly after pitching into October for the first time in his career.
One thing that did make this offseason different: It was Otero’s first as a father. He and his wife, Tiffany, had their daughter, Kinsley, in September of last year, in the middle of the A’s run to their second consecutive American League West title. So what time Otero missed with his newborn before the A’s were knocked out of the playoffs, he made up for over the winter.
“She recognizes me now,” Otero said. “It’s awesome. You learn a lot of patience. And the other stuff that happens on the field, you put it in perspective now that you’re a dad and you have this life form you’re taking care of. So it’s really crazy, but really cool.”
Not that Otero is any stranger to responsibility. As the least-tenured member of the A’s bullpen last season, he was tasked with stocking and carrying the relievers’ pink unicorn snack backpack. Otero genuinely embraced the job and said he’ll gladly shoulder it again this season if service time dictates – though he has yet to ask new closer Jim Johnson for his preferred candy (Grant Balfour’s was Swedish Fish).
On the mound, meanwhile, Otero said he’s working this spring to improve on his changeup, which he said catchers called often last season against left-handers. It sounds minor, but catcher Derek Norris echoed the idea there’s no need for an overhaul.
“I just think he got the opportunity and found something with that two-seamer,” Norris said. “He’d spin a couple breaking balls to keep a guy honest, but just worked both sides of the plate with that good fastball.
“It’s a cliché, but that is the best pitch in baseball. And when you can locate it with some action going down, it’s tough for a hitter to get underneath.”