After his penultimate start of last season, his first in America, Yunesky Maya said through Livan Hernandez, "I'm going to be much [better] next year." This winter, he pitched in winter ball, got into shape and, after one appearance yesterday, Maya was much better.
The most significant difference for Maya this year, even more so than an increased comfort with the culture outside of baseball, is the most basic. Maya will have a better understanding of the strike zone as drawn by MLB umpires, the concept that governs every pitch of every game.
When Maya arrived last year, he thought of himself as aggressive pitcher. What he knew as aggression in Cuba was lost in translation. Umpires allowed a larger strike zone there, and hitters were much more free-swinging, more willing to swing at a close breaking ball early in the count. Maya brought his style to America, throwing offspeed pitchers on or just off the corners. Hitters had always swung at those pitches, or else umpires had called them strikes. Now, they were balls.
This winter, the Nationals told Maya to trust his sinking fastball, to throw it inside and over the plate. It was only one day, but yesterday, Maya complied, and it made an enormous difference. He threw 18 strikes in 28 pitches, making the Marlins swing and miss a half-dozen times. Last year, he threw 17 pitches per inning. Of 92 qualifying starters last year, only four threw more.
"I feel 100 percent better," Maya said yesterday. "I feel more confident now that I see these guys regularly."
He was talking about the hitters at the plate. But it might have been more apt if he meant the umpire standing behind it.
In his first appearance of the spring, Yunesky Maya looked more like the pitcher the Nationals signed last summer.
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