Padres ace Peavy still improving

Padres ace Peavy still improving

PHOENIX -- Imagine Jake Peavy getting even better.

It doesn't come easily, does it? Peavy, in 2007 for the San Diego Padres, was as good as anybody in the game. He was so good that he was historically good.

He won the National League Cy Young Award, unanimously at that. He also became just the second pitcher in 22 years to win the pitching equivalent of the Triple Crown, leading the NL in victories (19), strikeouts (240), and earned run average (2.54).

It was a dominant season, pitched on behalf of a club that led the Majors in team ERA, a highly competitive team that lost its postseason chance in a gut-wrenching Wild Card tiebreaker loss to the Colorado Rockies. The Padres' pitching should be a core strength again in 2008, and the strength starts at the top of the rotation.

The idea that Peavy might be entering an even better stage of his career is not a far-fetched hope. For Padres manager Bud Black, it looks more like the next logical step in the development of this brilliant career.

"He still has room to grow," Black said on Friday. "It's refining his game. He's 27 years old. I think he can learn to utilize his changeup more, change speeds, have a greater variance in velocity through his repertoire. Last year, it was a power arm; hard fastball, hard slider, hard breaking pitch. I think he's learning to throw slower at times."

Peavy was not at better-than-Cy-Young level on Friday in a start against the Milwaukee Brewers, but there was progress in one notable area.

He had wanted to get 100 pitches in, and he did that, throwing 104. The problem was, he hoped that would carry him through six or seven innings, but here he only went through 4 1/3. The Brewers peskier hitters, Craig Counsell and Jason Kendall in particular, staged a veritable foul-ball festival in their at-bats, driving up his pitch count.

"Could we please hit some more foul balls?" Peavy said with a smile after he came out. "How many foul balls did they hit today? Fifty?"

Peavy came out throwing his fastball at regular-season velocity. He was missing with it, narrowly, but still missing. In the first inning, he walked two batters in front of 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun. When a fastball that Peavy wanted away caught too much of the plate, Braun, to the surprise of no one who had ever seen him hit, belted a three-run homer.

After that, Peavy settled down and gave up only one more run. "I have mixed thoughts on my outing," Peavy said. "Obviously, you want better results than we got today, but that being said, I did get some stuff accomplished today."

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Among the stuff that was accomplished was Peavy using his changeup with consistent effectiveness. He was the losing pitcher in a 4-3 game, but it was a Spring Training game, and with the changeup, he had taken a step forward.

"I believe I got much better as the day went on and that's something that I was pleased with," Peavy said. "I was able to get it under control and make a lot better pitches.

"I felt good. I threw all my pitches. I threw some great changeups, got some strikes on some changeups. I threw about 10 of them today and probably seven of them were swings-and-misses, so that's a positive sign.

"Here, I forced myself to throw it. During the season, it's not going to be a pitch that I'm going to try to find during the game. You just can't afford to, because you're results-oriented in the season. I hope by throwing it a lot in Spring Training, by getting the feel and getting comfortable with it, it's going to be there a lot more than it has been in the past."

The idea of getting better is a relative term, even for someone at Jake Peavy's level. There was work to be done, just based on this start. But the idea of improving is a constant part of pitching for him.

"I'm not anywhere close to where I want to be," he said. "In this game it's hard to be consistent, to stay on top of your game. There's no doubt in my mind that I know that I've got to work, and keep working and continually get better. And I look to do that."

In addition to his top-shelf stuff, Peavy has the ideal intangibles for this line of work.

"He's very competitive, passionate," Black said. "Good all-around game, good fielder, offensively, in this league, he does a good job with the bat. He loves to be out there, likes competing, all the characteristics of guys who win.

"He's not afraid. There's a lot of guys who, when it gets hot, are afraid of contact or afraid of getting beat. All good pitchers are not afraid to get beat. There's a lot of pitchers who lose because they're afraid to get beat. You know, the bad walk, not doing the right thing from a fundamental pitching standpoint. They beat themselves. Good pitchers don't beat themselves; they make the other team beat you."

It may be that Peavy's 2007 work was so good on so many levels, that it cannot be improved upon. Maintaining that level would itself be a major accomplishment. But the important thing is that this is a top-flight competitor who is not standing still. He has reached extraordinary and he is still trying to improve on that.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.