Terminal velocity

Why do many top prospects lose their heat? Tim Alderson would really like to know.

Updated: February 9, 2011, 3:18 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine
Tim AldersonAmy GuipTim Alderson was once a sure thing. Now he's not sure how to throw a baseball.

Out of answers, Tim Alderson chose questions. Where do you go when there's nowhere to go? What do you try when you've tried everything? Alderson decided to go back to the beginning, where everything made sense, where everyone knew who he once was and what he could still be.

He needed, mostly, to escape the cacophony of advice that overlapped and contradicted until it became just an unintelligible hum in his head. He needed to rid himself of the frustration and helplessness that swarmed around him when his body refused to act as it once did. The rigors of professional baseball seemed to have drained all his natural athleticism, and he needed to ask one question of a man -- maybe the only man -- who could provide an answer.

Like much of this story, the path to this question was painful, even heartbreaking. As he stood on the mound last fall at Horizon High in Scottsdale, Ariz., a former first-round draft pick who was once handed a bonus check for more than $1 million as down payment on the future of his right arm, he asked his high school coach a simple question: "Will you be honest with me?"

Eric Kibler said that he would, and Alderson began to throw. The righthander is a sculptor's idea of a pitcher: 6'6" and 217 pounds, with long limbs and big hands. As a high school pitcher, he was "an absolute beast," according to Kevin Rhoderick, a Horizon teammate and Cubs ­farmhand. He threw as hard as 93 mph, with a big hammer curve and the command of a vet. The combination caused one scouting report to ask, "Big league closer?" The Giants selected him 22nd overall in the 2007 draft. He went 13-4 in his first full year of pro ball and was traded to the Pirates in 2009 straight up for All-Star second baseman Freddy Sanchez.

Kibler was now faced with the task of exhuming that guy. As Alderson threw, Kibler looked for a reason to believe the solution to ­Alderson's poor 2010 season, which included a 6.03 ERA and a demotion from Double-A Altoona to Class-A Bradenton, could be found by mining the success of his past.

Alderson was back because he could no longer fool himself. His 2010 season was not a fluke; it was part of the gradual erosion of his effectiveness and velocity. His motion, once quirky but fluid, now resembled the movement of an awkward kid learning a complicated dance step. Runners would be on base, and he'd find himself fretting about the placement of his feet or the height of his leg kick. "I couldn't even play catch without feeling uncomfortable," he says. And on those ­occasions when he threw a pitch that felt pretty good, he'd steal a glance at the radar-gun reading and see "84" cackling down at him.

Sadly, Alderson's situation is not unique. The path that brought us to him started with a question: Why do so many of baseball's highly prized young pitchers, free of health problems, lose significant velocity during their first few years in professional baseball? Madison Bumgarner, Andrew Miller, Brad Lincoln, Rick Porcello -- even Tim Lincecum -- all lost zip as young pros. Some have adapted and recovered, some have not.

As a prep star, Alderson cruised at 92-93 mph. He struggled to reach 87 last year. "At 86-87, there's no fear in the mind of the hitter," Alderson says. "At 93, guys have to respect your fastball, so your breaking stuff works better. It's a whole different mentality." And so he came home to throw for the man who always had answers, and Kibler's heart broke a little more with each pitch. Gone was the explosiveness that had scouts and general managers buzzing four years ago at this very same field. His fastball had almost no life, and his curveball was flat.

Frustrated, sad, angry, Kibler didn't say much. Inside, he thought, I know they'll say I'm just a high school coach, but I'll never understand it: Why do they take the athlete out of the athlete?

Alderson finished his bullpen session. The look he gave Kibler suggested he knew what was coming.

"The truth?" Kibler asked.

"The truth."

"You were a better pitcher when you were a freshman in high school."

That may seem like rough treatment for a 22-year-old, but Alderson knew he could no longer live in denial. "It was so hard to go back and throw for Coach Kibler," Alderson says. "Everything we'd worked for, everything he ­developed is gone. It's hard to look at myself and think, I was a better pitcher when I was 15."

Tim Keown | email

ESPN Senior Writer