Dan Altavilla attributes his recent success to a routine.
Yes, a routine — here, now, in a year that has incinerated all feeble feelings of familiarity, that has stripped us of our comfortable sports cocoons. In a time when opening day is July 24 and masks are mandatory and four-inning intrasquad scrimmages in empty ballparks between the Pilots and Steelheads are streamed on YouTube for the sports-starved masses.
On Monday, the 27-year-old reliever with the robust goatee and the live right arm credited his impressive summer camp with the ability to maintain some semblance of consistency amid the chaos.
“[Simplifying my approach] is something that I’ve been working on the past couple years, and most of it just starts with my setup on the mound,” Altavilla said. “That’s something we’ve been working really hard on and just making it a part of my routine every day. Whenever I’m consistently staying in my routine, that’s when I’m at my best.
“Last year, September on, that’s when I started commanding the ball really well and the ball had some really good life to it. Just being able to carry that over has been really good for me.”
Last September, Altavilla did not allow an earned run in nine of 10 appearances — recording a 3.00 ERA with 13 strikeouts and just four hits allowed in nine innings. In other words, he looked like a dependable late-inning stopper with potentially dominant stuff.
And then, everything stopped — except Altavilla. While the baseball world waited for a 2020 season, Altavilla continued to train from his home in Pittsburgh. He completed workouts at the gym in his house and participated in bullpen sessions, live at-bats and simulated innings with a host of local major leaguers — including Neil Walker, Andrew McCutcheon, Josh Bell, Derek Law, David Phelps.
While his sport sputtered, the routine rolled on.
“We were just worried about staying in shape and getting our work in,” Altavilla said. “And whenever the bell rang, we’d show up.”
Now the bell has finally rung, and Altavilla is hoping the routine yields results. But thus far in his career, consistency has been elusive. The McKeesport, Pa., product posted an impressive 0.73 ERA in 15 appearances as a 23-year-old rookie in 2016, only to turn in a 4.24 ERA the following season. There have been less-than-ideal doses of injury issues and inconsistent outings
Still, Altavilla’s triple-digit velocity — coupled with a harder slider and more consistent returns — could create a long-awaited bullpen breakthrough.
“I really love the way Altavilla’s throwing the ball,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said of a pitcher who could steal saves for a club without a defined closer. “He’s one of the guys that’s stood out, out of all of our bullpen group. In summer camp, he’s been lights out. His slider’s been very good. He’s got fastball command. He’s throwing strikes. He’s really trying to simplify things and understand that some guys are pitch-makers and some guys just have stuff. I think that’s the bucket that Dan falls in.
“‘Just trust your stuff. Let’s just get it over the plate. Let’s not be so concerned if it’s the upper half of the strike zone, lower half of the strike zone, outside, inside corners. Let’s just get it over the plate and trust it.’ When he does that and takes that mindset out into the ballgame, he gets really good results.”
In an inexperienced and unproven Mariners bullpen, those results will be even more essential. Add the fact that Altavilla is out of minor-league options, and the 2020 season — if that’s what you want to call it — can be considered critical in more ways than one.
“Any time I step on the mound, I’m looking to get strike one and get the guy out,” Altavilla said. “So from that perspective it doesn’t really change. In the clubhouse here, everybody has a bunch of opportunity and room to work. I think we’re all excited to get going.”
Mariners to add reliever Shaw
Speaking of the Mariners bullpen, general manager Jerry Dipoto is expected to add another arm in the next couple of days.
The Mariners will sign veteran righty Bryan Shaw, who was waived by the Colorado Rockies last week, according to a tweet by MLB Network insider Jon Heyman.
The 32-year-old Shaw accumulated a 5.38 ERA in 70 games and 72 innings last season. He posted an ERA of 3.52 or better in each of the first seven seasons of his career, split between the Arizona Diamondbacks (2011-12) and Cleveland Indians (2013-17).
A Livermore, Calif., native, Shaw allowed career-worsts in earned runs (43), home runs (12), walks (29) and hit batters (5) in 2019. At the very least, he’ll be a veteran presence in a Seattle bullpen noticeably lacking proven arms.
After throwing three scoreless innings to kick off his final start of summer camp Monday, second-year Mariners starter Yusei Kikuchi ran into trouble in the fourth. He surrendered two singles and a walk, before infielder Noelvi Marte sent a dribbler back to the mound. Kikuchi bobbled it, picked it up and then delivered an errant throw to first, allowing two runs to score. It was his only blemish in an abbreviated four-inning game that ended in a 2-0 Pilots victory.