While his weight hasn't changed much, the reliever has more mobility than in years past — and he's ready to put his injuries behind him and contribute to a wide-open bullpen.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Dan Altavilla will never be the subject of one of those oft-written stories about showing up to spring training in the best shape of his life. No, that clichéd narrative wouldn’t apply to someone who has never been out of shape.
Chiseled, jacked, cut, shredded, buff and yoked are terms his teammates often throw his way, many often teasing — “can’t believe you aren’t in the gym” or “why aren’t you in the gym, Dan?”
But it’s that commitment to conditioning that helped him reach the big leagues in 2016 as a fifth-round pick and a senior signed out of Mercyhurst College in the 2014 draft.
Standing 5-feet-11, he weighs just over 200 pounds — and it appears to be mostly muscle on top of more muscle. Though, at first glance this spring, Altavilla seemed to be a little less bulky.
“It’s weird, I’ve had several people ask me if I’ve lost weight,” he said. “They said my face looks skinnier and I don’t look as big. But I actually weigh two pounds more.”
Perhaps the weight has been reapportioned on his frame. He admits he changed up his workout routine this offseason. He went to Driveline Baseball in Kent and worked on a few mechanical issues while seeking the company’s help for a workout plan that provides increased mobility.
“For every heavy lift I would do, I would follow it with a lighter lift for mobility,” he said. “It was kind of like super sets.”
While he wasn’t doing yoga like teammate Marco Gonzales, Altavilla does feel more flexible and mobile this spring.
“In past years, I’d come in here pretty tight,” he said. “I can feel it now. I feel like I’m moving better.”
Manager Scott Servais noticed it immediately.
“He does look different,” he said. “He’s still a thicker, tightly wound guy, but he does look more flexible. I know he’s worked on some things mechanically.”
The reasoning for the switch was in reaction to a lost 2018 season that saw him spend more time rehabbing injuries than on the mound. After a brilliant spring training where he looked dominant, Altavilla showed glimpses of it in the first month of the season.
But two stints on the disabled list, which has been renamed the injured list, torpedoed his season and his consistency. The first came May 1 when inflammation in his acromioclavicular (AC) joint in his shoulder shut him down for 12 days.
He came back and made five scoreless appearances and looked like he might help a bullpen that was struggling to find consistency in the sixth and seventh innings. But after experiencing some discomfort and tightness in his right forearm just below his elbow while throwing before a game June 7 in Tampa, he was headed for the injured list again. Like with all issues near the ulnar collateral ligament, Altavilla was immediately shut down. He was diagnosed with a strain of the UCL and flexor bundle.
“It was right where all the muscles attach,” he said. “It was flexor and UCL. It wasn’t serious, but it was enough to put me down.”
Altavilla had never dealt with a serious arm issue, and the thought of Tommy John surgery crept into his mind before the results of a MRI returned showing no tears.
“Whenever it happened, I was a little concerned just because that feeling of whenever you are throwing,” he said. “And it just wasn’t happening. After I talked to some guys and (Servias) and the training staff, they said to wait until I got the MRI and see what it said. It wasn’t as severe, but the pain was definitely severe. It gave me some relief. It could have been a lot worse. It could have put me out for a long time.”
With the Mariners in the midst of a push for the postseason, Altavilla pushed to make it back so he could help a bullpen that was still struggling to find a consistent middle reliever. But he never felt quite the same with the arm and mechanics. He struggled in his six rehab stints with Class AAA Tacoma starting in mid-August. The Mariners opted not to bring him up as a September call-up, and his season was over Sept. 1.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “I’d never been hurt like that before. You want to come back and help and contribute, but it wasn’t there.”
It took an extended break from throwing before the elbow and forearm felt normal and he started his workouts for his arm.
“After I took a month off in the offseason, that’s when everything went away, and that’s when I got into my workouts,” he said. “After that month, I was ready to get back to full speed and not worry about my arm and get back to being me.”
Altavilla went full speed into the offseason workouts. He purchased his own Rapsodo tracking device to measure his spin rate, release point and axis point. He focused on the changes Driveline wanted him to make. He even built gym in his garage that included weights, a throwing net and a plyometric wall for his weighted ball routine.
“I can’t really fit a car in there so I built a gym I could use,” he said. “I still went to a facility for most of my workouts. It’s got a 300-yard indoor field, so I could long toss and throw off the mound, but I liked having that gym at home if I couldn’t get there.”
Altavilla had thrown off the mound at least 10 times before arriving to spring training, then threw a bullpen a few days ago because he arrived a week early. His first official bullpen on Tuesday didn’t look like other pitchers. It was intense, and he was firing his fastball at high speeds.
“I didn’t think about my arm at all,” he said.
But beyond the health aspect, Servais has noticed a quiet confidence in Altavilla.
“The biggest difference I’ve noticed with Danny is just how he’s carrying himself in this camp,” he said. “He looks comfortable. Sometimes when you start talking to young players they can’t wait to get away from you as far ‘OK, I’ve talked to the manager and lets move on.’ Danny is not that way. He’s looking forward and he’s just carrying himself different, which is a good sign. We need him to get back on top of his game.”
This is Altavilla’s third big league camp. He’s got 78 big league appearances on his résumé with a 3.24 ERA. But Servais believes there’s more in him. Altavilla has a high 90s fastball and a slider that has shown the ability to be a put-away pitch. But there have been periods of struggles when the team felt Altavilla lacked confidence in that stuff in important situations. It’s not uncommon.
“There’s not doubt (his) stuff is good enough,” Servais said. “At times with all young players, the game gets going fast. When you are out there standing on the bump and the ball is in your hand and you aren’t locating and you are falling behind in the count, you start to get a little gun shy.
“I just can’t lay this one in there or the guys are going to be put a good swing on it. You are not at your best. You have to stay on the attack mode and maintaining that mindset is important. Slowing the game down is the biggest thing for young time and I think Danny is ready to take the next step forward with that.”
If he does, Altavilla can find a permanent role in a bullpen that is without its five most-used pitchers — Edwin Diaz, Alex Colome, Nick Vincent, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos — from last season. That’s a total of 288 appearances, 268 innings pitched and a combined 3.29 earned-run average gone from that group.
“It is different,” Altavilla said. “A lot of new faces, a lot of hungry guys in here. It’s going to be a fun camp. You can’t really look around and say, this guy has this role and this guy has that role. But everyone is going to come in fighting for every spot that’s available and we’ll see what happens. Coming into camp the past couple of years, you could look around and see where you fit. But this year, everything is open.”
Servais believes Altavilla should fill one of those open spots.
“It’s the life of a bullpen guy,” he said. “It comes at different times. But he is maturing. I’m expecting him to take on a big role at the back end of our bullpen. He’s certainly got the stuff to do it. The time is now. The time is right. The game is all about timing and now is his time.”