J.J. Putz on leaving the field and moving into the front office
SI.com has asked several athletes to share their thoughts on life after baseball and the game as they see it now. J.J. Putz recently retired after pitching parts of 12 seasons in the major leagues. He made the American League All-Star team in 2007 and pitched for four teams, reaching the postseason with the 2011 NL West champion Diamondbacks. He now works in Arizona's front office.
When the Diamondbacks released me this past June, I felt great physically. I could probably have signed somewhere else. My velocity was down (I used to sit at 96 mph, and this season it was more like 90) but there was something mechanically that just wasn’t hitting right, and I could have fixed it. At the end of the day, though, I’m 37 years old and I have four kids – twin girls in third grade, a son in kindergarten and a little one in preschool – and to uproot them from Arizona for a few years didn’t make sense. The reason I know I made the right decision to retire is that I can look in the mirror and have no regrets. Of course, I’m not sure how I’ll feel once spring training rolls around.
I guess you could call me a late bloomer. I didn’t stick in the big leagues until 2004, when I was 27. Maybe that makes me even more grateful for the 11 full years I had, because at one point it seemed like I might not have any. There are a few reasons it took me a while to make it. One was that I was a college signing, out of the University of Michigan, so I got a late start as a pro.
Another was that I was a starter pretty much my entire career until the big leagues. I threw pretty hard as a starter, 92 to 94, but when I went to the 'pen during spring training in 2003, my velocity instantly went up, touching 98. I went into a game and I wasn’t worried about getting through six, seven innings. My velo was up, and I let it eat. The Mariners said, "Dang, we’re going to keep you in the bullpen." It was a blessing, because that season none of our starters missed a single start – that never happens – so I would never have made my debut. But I did, and I was on my way to finding my role.
Ultimately, what really changed everything for me was adding a split fingered fastball. If you look at my numbers, I was never a big strikeout guy until 2006, which was the year that Eddie Guardado – who was Seattle’s closer when I was the setup man in '05 – taught me the splitter. All of a sudden I was striking out well over a batter an inning, and I kept up that rate for pretty much the rest of my career, in which I became an All-Star and saved 189 games. I’ll always be thankful to Eddie for that.
Back when I was a setup guy, there weren’t too many others like me, throwing in the mid- to high-90s in the eighth inning. Now there are a lot of them. Just look at what the Kansas City Royals did this year, how they were able to shorten their games. Those guys are about as lights out as you can get. The thinking used to be that you can throw anybody in the back of the 'pen and get three outs, but now teams are really starting to see the value there. If they want to try to piece some guys together at the back end and navigate through it, they’re not going to be successful.
It helps that there are just so many pitchers who can throw that hard now. I think it’s a training thing. Back when I grew up, if you weren’t playing three different sports, you were getting in trouble. I played football, basketball and baseball, and all the guys I came up with played multiple sports. Now kids are training from 11 and 12 to be nothing but a pitcher, building arm strength from then. That’s why you’re getting all these guys throwing fuel. Unfortunately, I would say it’s also a reason why we’re seeing more Tommy John surgeries than in the past.
Another reason why there are more dominant relievers is that there’s no longer as much of a stigma about moving from the rotation into the bullpen. I never viewed it as a demotion – I didn’t have four above-average pitches, I had two, and it was a ticket to the big leagues – but sometimes guys did, and they would resist. Now look at a lot of the game’s best middle relievers, and those getting huge contracts this off-season: Wade Davis, Andrew Miller, Zach Duke. All of those guys used to be starters. I’m happy for them.
As a reliever, you have to have a different mindset, and not just on the mound. There’s a lot of downtime every night, when you’re just sitting in the bullpen but have to be sure to be ready. Everybody’s got his routine; we’re kind of like robots out there. For one of my good friends with the Mariners, Matt Thornton, his routine was that in the third inning, it was time to go to the bathroom, which was down this little ramp from the bullpen in Safeco Field. One night in 2005, Jeff Nelson, a fellow reliever, put about 100 firecrackers behind a steel garbage can in there. Sure enough, in the third inning Thornton heads in, and another of my teammates, Julio Mateo, lights a fuse that was sticking under the door. It was loud as hell. All of the outfielders turned around to look, nobody knew what was going on. Thirty seconds later, Thornton comes out in a cloud of smoke, with a huge grin on his face. I’m not sure how that game ended up, but we didn’t win many in '05, so I can probably guess.
Another reason why I felt comfortable making the decision to retire is that I’ve been thinking about my future for a while. I finished my degree from Michigan back in 2010, when I was with the White Sox – it’s in sports management and communications – and ever since I came to the Diamondbacks in 2011 I’ve been talking with Derrick Hall, the team president, about what I wanted to do after my playing days. I said I’d love to be in the front office at some point, and he made his mind up that I was going to work for him.
Since November I’ve been a special assistant to him, which is the same job that Luis Gonzalez has had for some time. It involves a wide variety of things. He bounces player acquisitions off of us a little bit, we give him our perspectives on the guys we have in the clubhouse now; in fact, I just got back from my first winter meetings. We’ll also do a lot of work with the season ticketholders and the sponsors.
This summer, we’re going to go around together to each of our minor league affiliates and take a look at the young kids. I’m going to be working with the pitchers. I’ll sit in the bullpen with the guys during the games, probably be listening more than anything, learning about their routines, their mental approaches, their pitch sequences. I want to know their mental makeup; I want them to have a bad inning so I can see how they act after the game, or the next day.
I’ll probably be on the lookout for two things in particular. One would be struggling starters who I think could make great relievers. I definitely would like to find some of those. Another is pitchers who look like they might be able to throw a good splitter. I was recently talking with Dave Duncan, the legendary Cardinals pitching coach who is now a consultant for us – and he’s already got a couple of guys he wants me to start tinkering with.