Updated Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 10:31 PM
PEORIA, Ariz. — Mariners pitcher Blake Beavan isn't beyond working an angle when it comes to keeping his job at the back of the starting rotation.
In this case, the angle is downward. Beavan, 24, spent a month this winter training under renowned University of Texas pitching coach Skip Johnson in hopes of developing a downward plane to his pitches.
For pitchers with height, like the 6-foot-7, 253-pound Beavan, getting more downward action on pitches can compensate for several miles-per-hour worth of missing velocity. It helped vault Doug Fister from a fifth starter to a prominent role with the Detroit Tigers and Beavan figures he could do a lot worse than borrowing a page from his former Seattle teammate's playbook.
"In high school, I had more angle, but in pro ball I kind of lost it," Beavan said. "That's probably why I've gotten whacked more."
Beavan said his pitches began "flattening out" when he switched from a three-quarter arm slot to a more overhead delivery because his former Texas Rangers team was worried his previous style could result in an injury. The price he's paid, though, is that hitters have since squared up on some of his pitches more easily when he makes a mistake.
His agent suggested working with Johnson, a pitching guru of sorts in Texas baseball. Johnson has worked with Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and spent the 2011 offseason with Homer Bailey, who had a breakout season for Cincinnati last year with a 13-10 record and 3.68 earned-run average while throwing 208 innings.
"He calls me up and he says 'I want to get to the next level'," Johnson said of Beavan. "I remember thinking, what does he mean by that? He's in the majors, what higher level is there? But then he tells me what he wants to do with his angles and repeating his delivery. So, I told him 'Come on down and let's take a look.' "
Beavan made the three-hour drive from Fort Worth to Austin to throw bullpen sessions for Johnson. They devised a plan in which Beavan would visit and train three days per week, staying overnight with buddy Chance Ruffin, a Class AAA reliever in Seattle's system.
Johnson had Beavan separate his throwing hand from his glove more quickly as he stretched back into his delivery. With the arm cocked and ready to deliver the ball sooner, he has more time to generate the downward plane needed and gets less rotation on the ball that can "flatten out" a pitch.
A downward plane makes the ball tougher to square up on, and causes hitters to pound it into the ground.
A big key, Johnson added, was getting Beavan to consistently repeat his mechanics from one pitch to the next — regardless of whether it was a fastball or breaking pitch. Keeping his delivery the same would enable him to better deceive hitters by not tipping off what pitch is coming.
"We just broke it down one piece at a time," Johnson said. "He works extremely hard at what he does. The aptitude of some of these guys at that level is unreal in that they know exactly what their bodies can do and how to achieve it."
Johnson and Beavan spent the first part of their workouts doing drills, then headed into the bullpen for throwing sessions. They discussed the mental side of pitching and how it will be easier for Beavan to perfect and repeat his revamped, downward delivery if he throws at a speed he's comfortable at.
"I think my fastball's hard enough," said Beavan, who tops out about 93 mph. "If it gets harder, that's nice. But if it doesn't, I think the angle is more of a factor than velocity."
Beavan made his spring debut on Saturday against San Diego, tossing two scoreless innings and generating numerous ground balls. One of the first people he phoned after the game was Johnson.
Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis feels Beavan's new throwing angle and ability to repeat his mechanics helped him "hide" the ball from hitters longer in Saturday's game.
"It looked like the ball was getting on the hitter a little quicker," Willis said. "They were having a tougher time getting started than in the past."
Willis cautioned that it's still early spring and pitchers are mostly ahead of hitters. But he says Beavan is now repeating his delivery not only on fastballs, but also on breaking balls as well.
"It's so huge that he's staying in his (arm) slot," Willis said. "Because last year, with breaking pitches, he was a little inconsistent and I think it sometimes tipped off the hitters. Now, everything looks like a fastball until the ball leaves his hands."
The Mariners saw what the 6-foot-8, 210-pound Fister was able to do with more downward plane.
"I'm sure his ball looks like it's dropping from the sky," Beavan said.
The Mariners have two open rotation spots for the likes of Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, Hector Noesi and nonroster pitchers Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman, as well as several young minor-league prospects.
Beavan might have an edge in that he threw 152-1/3 innings last year while going 11-11 with a 4.43 ERA. With the departure of veterans Jason Vargas and Kevin Millwood, the Mariners might need some additional innings delivered throughout the rotation.
"People always ask me what kind of pitcher I think I am," Beavan said. "I tell them I consider myself a guy who throws strikes and can go out there and try to eat up innings."
And if Beavan succeeds even partly like Fister in the changes he's attempting, those innings could pile up in a hurry.
• Raul Ibanez hit a three-run homer off former teammate Freddy Garcia in the first inning of Seattle's 8-3 win over San Diego on Sunday at Peoria Stadium. The Mariners took a 5-0 lead that inning off Garcia, with the first five batters reaching on hits.
Ibanez said he's working on a few things with hitting coach Dave Hansen, his Mariners teammate in 2004 and 2005.
"I definitely feel better this spring than I have the last couple of springs," said Ibanez, who also added a single in the game and finished 2 for 3.
The Mariners hit seven doubles, and Ibanez, Jesus Montero, Kyle Seager, Stefen Romero and Robert Andino each had two hits.
• Erasmo Ramirez allowed one hit in a scoreless first inning, while James Paxton surrendered a leadoff single in the second before retiring three in a row.
• The team tentatively plans to have Felix Hernandez throw two innings in his first Cactus League game a week from Thursday as they break him in slowly. He'll throw more bullpen sessions and alive batting practice session before that.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @gbakermariners.
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Blake Beavan said his pitches "flattened out" as a pro.