For the second year in a row, Vance Worley enters Spring Training trying to compete for one of the final spots in the rotation. This time around, his situation is much different.
Last year, Worley was with the Minnesota Twins, coming off a horrible season. He worked as a starter in Spring Training, but kept getting lit up, including being tagged for five runs in 1.1 innings against the Pirates. The Twins eventually put him on waivers, and when he cleared waivers, they outrighted him to Triple-A, with the goal of turning him into a set-up man — a role he had never pitched in before.
That transition was short-lived, as the Pirates acquired him for cash later in the week, converted him back to a starter, and immediately started working on his mechanics, trying to get him back to his pre-injury form from before the 2012 season. The plan worked, as Worley posted a 2.85 ERA and a 3.54 xFIP in 110.2 innings last year in his call to the majors.
The entire process was unexpected for Worley, who didn’t expect to be picked up by any team after being outrighted. He thought he would be stuck in the bullpen, performing a role that he had never done before. Worley credited his turnaround and success to the Pirates making him comfortable and keeping him positive.
“That’s something that this whole organization has done with me, as soon as I came over, given me positive feedback,” Worley said. “‘We’ve seen you here, and we know what you’re capable of. Let’s just get you right, and you’ll work your way back. We believe in you.’ For me, that meant a lot, considering where I was at before I got over here.”
This year is also different in another big way for Worley. Over the off-season he and his wife had a baby. The newborn boy definitely changed his routines and sleep patterns.
“Just trying to get sleep when I can, and when I am functioning, make sure my wife is awake so I can get to the gym and get my throwing in,” Worley said about how the off-season went.
He started throwing off the mound before mini-camp, and so far in the early part of Spring Training, Worley has said his bullpens are going well.
“I’ve been able to get down in the zone early, which is key for me, because I’m not an over-powering guy,” Worley said. “I’m more of the spot it up type guy, so if I’m down in the zone I can get away with mistakes if there are mistakes.”
As to whether he’s got the feel for his pitches and the ability to locate spots, Worley said that will be determined on Tuesday when he pitches live BP for the first time.
“The last couple of years I’ve been up in the zone because I’ve just been mechanically wrong,” Worley said. “Now that I know I’m right, it should be easier to get it down in the zone early in Spring.”
Along with his pitching, Worley has been focusing on the hitting, which is something the Pirates are stressing with their pitchers this Spring, after seeing disastrous results last year.
“I think they’ve harped on enough stuff for all of us starters and middle relief guys to get our work in, in the cages,” Worley said. “And once we actually start to see some live stuff, I think that will show us where we’re at, more than just hitting off the tee and talking.”
Worley is going up against Jeff Locke for the final spot in the rotation, and would seem to have the inside track due to his salary and his performance. He won his arbitration case against the Pirates this off-season, receiving $2.45 M instead of $2 M. As for the numbers, what he did last year from an ERA standpoint probably isn’t sustainable. But his advanced numbers point to a guy who can be a very good pitcher to have in the rotation.
To put his 3.54 xFIP in perspective, the league average xFIP for starters last year was 3.78. If this performance continues, Worley would be a number two starter in an average rotation, or a number three starter in a stronger rotation. That possibly makes Worley the most under-rated pitcher in the Pirates’ rotation.
A few years ago, such a statement wouldn’t sound so crazy, since Worley looked great in the early part of his career. Then the injuries came, putting his career in doubt. Now he’s back to his pre-injury self, and it’s reasonable to think that his numbers last year were legit. The question is whether he can continue with this performance going forward.
“It’s just picking up where I left off,” Worley said. “Physically feel good. Mechanically feel good. Now it’s just about going out and keeping the ball down. Seeing how things go against these hitters tomorrow, and keep grinding from there.”