The homer-iffic confines of Minute Maid Park is a place where few pitchers enjoy working. With the roof closed, the ball carries more than usual and the Crawford Boxes in left field can turn a pop fly that’s routine in perhaps 28 of the 30 major league parks into a home run.
But to Bryan Shaw, any place, even Minute Maid, is a pitching paradise compared to where he had to play home games the past two seasons — Coors Field in Denver.
With its mile-high elevation and dry air, breaking balls suffer their own form of altitude sickness. And for Shaw, a right-hander, who relies on the movement of his cutter/slider combination, it made for a miserable experience.
After being released by the Rockies on July 17 with one year left on his contract, Shaw quickly decided to sign with the Mariners — a team he almost signed with before the 2018 season. He drove from Denver to Seattle, avoiding commercial flights, so he could take his physical and pass intake clearance and join the team opening day in Houston. It all worked out and he made his first appearance Saturday, tossing a scoreless inning in the Mariners’ 7-2 loss to the Astros.
“He was really good,” M’s manager Scott Servais said. “That’s what Bryan Shaw does. He’s very aggressive on the mound with a really good cutter and not afraid to go after guys. He’s certainly got a pretty good track record in this league. The last couple years have been a little bit of a struggle for him. But he’s excited to pitch at sea level and pitch with some humidity where his ball moves a lot better. I really liked what I saw there. He’s going to be a great fit for us.”
Shaw is trying to forget the past two seasons with the Rockies where he posted a plus-5.00 ERA and looked nothing like the reliever he was in Cleveland where he’d posted a 3.11 ERA and 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 387 appearances over five seasons.
“I got there and the sliders didn’t work,” he said. “It didn’t matter what we did. We tried to tinker with it. We tried to change it. We tried to do different stuff and it just basically fell by the wayside. So, basically, I became a cutter-primary (pitcher) with kind of a little cement-mixer slider that didn’t really do anything. I think that attributed a lot to the adverse results that I had. Stemming from that, we tried to do some different things to create that movement on the slider and create different stuff in the mechanical side which then kind of just messed with everything a little bit. It just kind of snowballed there.”
In the offseason before 2018, he and lefty Jake McGee were two of the top setup men on the market. Looking to emulate the Royals’ bullpen success in their World Series run, the Rockies signed Shaw and McGee to matching three-year, $27 million contracts. Colorado will pay for the prorated portion of Shaw’s $9 million salary ($3.3 million) along with a $2 million buyout for the 2021 season. The Mariners only have to pay him the prorated league minimum to put him on the roster.
During that offseason, the Mariners went hard after Shaw, considering him a priority. When the Rockies outbid them with money and the vesting option year for 2021, they settled for signing Juan Nicasio to a two-year, $17 million contract — a regrettable decision.
How close were the Mariners to getting Shaw?
“We told the Mariners they were our first choice when we were talking with them, but unfortunately the financial side and that option-year that the Rockies gave me put them over the edge,” Shaw said. “The Mariners, at that time, didn’t have as much money to spend like we got (from Colorado) or that extra year. Obviously, they ended up trading couple guys to free up some space for themselves now, but at that time they had a bunch of money on the books and stuff like that.”
That first free-agent contract for a player is critical from a financial standpoint. And for relievers, whose careers can be tenuous, getting paid when offered matters.
“For my wife and I, going into free agency, obviously for anybody, that financial side of it — to be able to be set for the rest of your life and we have a baby on the way, it plays a big factor whether people say it does or doesn’t,” Shaw said. “Obviously, it really does. Having that extra year, that vesting option which was very attainable until obviously the pandemic, put them over the edge for me going over there.
Given the direction of the Rockies and the money owed, Shaw could see his release coming despite throwing well in summer camp.
“I threw in a couple (simulated) games at the Rockies before we were let go,” he said. “They knew I was throwing well. I don’t think the decision to let me and McGee go from there had anything to do with (summer camp) performance, or what they thought we were going to do this year. Both of us were throwing the ball really well before they let us go. I think it was purely financial and trying to get some of the younger guys a chance over there.”
The Mariners showed immediate interest in Shaw and offered him a spot on the 40-man roster. With Austin Adams and Yoshihisa Hirano starting the season on the injured list, they needed some experience in the bullpen.
“On Sunday night, my wife and I, going from the teams that were interested, we decided on here,” he said. “We had to wait until Monday to get offers officially, but we had already decided for ourselves where we wanted to go. The Mariners had the best offer and it was always where we really wanted to go in the first place, so it made it easy.”
Editor’s note: The Times declined to send reporter Ryan Divish to Houston for this game because of COVID-19 safety concerns.