While baseball is typically a game of inches, Mark Mulder has discovered it’s more like two feet, or the distance between his mid-section and his face.
The 36-year-old Thornwood alum and former Oakland Athletics left-handed pitcher appeared to be retired after the 2008 season when he couldn’t get his old stuff back following a second shoulder surgery.
When he noticed Paco Rodriguez of the Dodgers separating his hands together by his face as he began his delivery in last October’s playoffs, a light bulb flicked on in Mulder’s head.
He mimicked Rodriguez, began throwing, found new life on his old pitches and now has a minor-league contract to come to spring training in Tempe, Ariz., with the Los Angeles Angels. Mulder, who otherwise has the job security of a two-year contract as an ESPN baseball analyst, thus is attempting an nearly-unprecedented comeback to pitch after a five-season absence, and seven since he was in a regular starting rotation.
Mulder, a South Holland native, can hardly pin down why his dead arm has revived, but he made an attempt in a wide-ranging phone interview from his Scottsdale, Ariz., home last week.
“People ask what happened,” he said. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t care what happened. All I know is I am throwing the ball better than at any point when I was with the St. Louis Cardinals (starting in 2005).
“I go to spring training, I go to Anaheim, they say, thanks but no thanks at the end of camp. So what? I always said to people I’d never come back unless I knew I had the stuff to get big-league hitters out. I truly believe what I have right now I can get big-league hitters out.”
Mulder claims his arm was not DOA after surgeries in 2006 and 2007. He apparently developed mechanical problems in the post-surgical period that robbed him of his good stuff.
“My shoulder never hurt me, I never had discomfort,” he said. “It just didn’t work right. Somehow, separating my hands way up higher as opposed to belly-button high, where I separated my hands my whole career, it’s done something for me.
“I just think I threw for the first couple of years before my surgery with my shoulder bothering me. I created a ton of bad habits. When I had the surgery, I didn’t have pain, but my arm didn’t work right. I completely believe it was I was so mechanically messed up. I couldn’t throw the right way.”
With his reputation as a member of the Oakland Big Three with Tim Hudson and Barry Zito a decade ago, Mulder arranged throwing sessions near his home with selected teams that train in the Phoenix area. Angels special assignment scout Tim Huff watched Mulder several times.
“His takeaway out of his glove is not as deep as it had been previously,” said Munster native Hal Morris, the Angels’ scouting director and former Reds star first baseman.
With the re-jiggering of the start of his motion, Mulder said his fastball has touched 90 mph. That’s good enough for Morris and the Angels.
“From 2002-2004, Mark’s fastball averaged around 89.5 mph, so we would be very pleased to see him throwing in the 90 mph range,” said Morris. “The ability to command the fastball along with the life (potential movement) of the fastball play as big a part, if not more, in the effectiveness of the pitch as does raw velocity. Concerning left-handed pitchers (coming back), they definitely have an advantage over their right-handed counterparts.”
Money is hardly the motivating factor for Mulder.
“I’m actually enjoying it,” he said. “I know I’m getting better each and every day. I’m out to prove people wrong. I’m out to have my kids see what they’ve never gotten to see. Those are the motivating factors that are most important.”