SHANNON DRAYER

Drayer: There’s more to Mariners’ Andrés Muñoz than 102.5 mph heat

Jul 8, 2022, 12:02 AM | Updated: 10:12 am

Mariners Andrés Muñoz...

Andrés Muñoz reacts during a Mariners against the Oakland Athletics on May 25. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

It’s likely the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Andrés Muñoz is 102 mph, or perhaps as of Tuesday’s Mariners win, 102.5.

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If you follow the Mariners, you have heard the name and known the number for a couple of years now as he worked his way back from a 2020 Tommy John surgery that was performed six months before he was acquired by the Mariners as part of the Ty France deal with the Padres.

Perhaps you caught the one-inning glimpse of Muñoz at the end of last season. An outing to affirm that yes, he would be ready in 2022.

The Mariners have brought him along carefully this season. Coming off surgery and nearly two years between outings, paired with his age and experience level, this made sense. But it in no way tempered the excitement for his future. In the past month we have seen Muñoz inserted into higher-leverage situations with manager Scott Servais using him more often in the “pivot” role, bringing him in when the game is still in hand but in peril with runners on, then after he gets the big out (or outs) bringing him back for another shutdown inning.

It’s a role he’s growing into, and one he relishes.

“I like the pressure, the adrenaline,” Muñoz said this week in an interview for the pregame show on the Mariners Radio Network. “It is something that makes me try to do everything better. If I want to throw a slider, I always say, ‘I want to throw my best slider’ in that situation.”

The opportunity to pitch in some situations is more than just a reward for Muñoz, who grew up in the coastal city of Los Mochis, Mexico.

“Baseball was something that I dreamed to do, hopefully to be on a big league baseball field,” he said. “I thought that was something incredible.”

Muñoz grew up watching baseball not in person, but on YouTube. He watched videos of his favorite pitchers, which included Craig Kimbrel, Matt Cain and Matt Harvey. When he was 12 he took up baseball in earnest. Not long after that, he was set on a path to get him closer to his dream of playing in the bigs.

“I always was the kind of guy that threw hard,” he said. “When I was 14, I threw 90. When I was 15, I threw 94. That was in Monterrey where all the scouts saw me and I got the opportunity.”

Things moved quickly for Muñoz, who signed with the Diablos Rojos of Mexico when he was 15 and the Padres when he turned 16. At 17, he left home to play in rookie ball in Arizona. Leaving home was not easy.

“Los Mochis, it was a really good place to me. I grew up there, spent my entire life there. We have a beach. A really good beach,” he said, his eyes widening in indication of his love of the beach. “I like a lot there. It is a really good place. Always for everybody, your hometown is the best.”

It’s hard to imagine a 17-year-old Muñoz leaving home. Even today, he still has an air of youth about him that goes beyond the braces that make him look a couple of years younger than 23. In the clubhouse, he’s been Mariners reliever Diego Castillo’s shadow.

“He’s a really good guy, a young guy,” said the veteran Castillo of his younger bullpenmate. “I always want to help him be comfortable here so he can help us go to the playoffs.”

Muñoz made his way through the Padres minor leagues with stops in Fort Wayne, Ind., the Tri Cities here in Washington, and Peoria, Ariz., at 18. He spent the majority of his 19-year-old season at Double-A San Antonio before progressing to Triple-A El Paso at 20, and then made his big league debut July 12, 2019 at Petco Park.

“I remember all of my outing,” he said with a big smile. “The first time I was in the bullpen, I came out of the little room and I saw all of the crowd and everything was very loud. That is the first thing I remember. Getting out of the bullpen and seeing all of the people, I was nervous. Very, very nervous.”

The nerves may have gotten the better of him as he walked Atlanta’s Nick Markakis, the first batter he faced. He had more success with Austin Riley, who followed.

“First one was a walk but after I got the groundball to shortstop and the double play,” he said. “The last one I remember was the strikeout for Brian McCann. I remember that was a really good feeling, like ‘I love that.'”

The moment marked the dream come true, and it also brought to mind his path to the bigs.

“I remember all the sacrifices that you have to do to be a baseball player,” he said. “You lose some time with your family, you lose a lot of parties, a lot of friends, but when you are here and all the sacrifices that you do, it makes you feel stronger.”

Muñoz credits the sacrifices and setbacks as pieces of what has made him what he is on the hill today.

“For all the things that happened to me, the surgery and all those things, my family, we say this: ‘What don’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Every time we feel like we lose, we feel we can do something. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

The family saying perhaps has played into what Muñoz has done on the hill this season. He grew excited when it was pointed out that after his few stumbles on the hill for the Mariners this year he seemed to come back with more attitude and conviction.

“That happened a couple of times here,” he acknowledged. “Bad outings, my first outing here I got a home run, but after I came in stronger. I came with a better plan for me, it was really good. I started to mix my pitches better. I started to work on it, fix it and now I feel better.”

Coaches and teammates have seen this growth.

“He’s been working on having a more aggressive mentality,” Mariners bullpen coach and director of pitching strategy Trent Blank noted. “He’s young, he was still a little unsure of himself, but as of late, seeing the hitters he’s getting out and the type of swings he’s getting, it’s going to be fun to watch. There’s more coming. We have a ton of confidence in him and I think he’s starting to feel it too.”

And why shouldn’t he with the tools he has.

“It’s unique,” said Blank. “He’s got two really intriguing weapons in a 100 mph fastball and a wipeout slider that he can locate as good if not better than anyone in the league. What we have found is that balance, where both those pitches are playing up because of how he is using them together.”

And that is key. The fastball, which has averaged 99.8 mph putting him in the 100th percentile for velocity, has been hit to the tune of .372 against. The slider? Just .143 and improving, as the velocity on that pitch has jumped from 86 mph in April to 89.6 in July.

“Because he throws so hard, that’s why his slider is so good,” Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth explained. “His fastball, it isn’t the big weapon. Although it’s the sexy 102, Pitching Ninja highlight, but because it’s so hard, it’s why his slider is so good and so dominant. It is frustrating at times to see guys barrel up the 100 mph fastball, but at the same time, not many people have even touched the slider. Keeping him confident and attacking with his best pitch, which is his slider, and using his fastball appropriately, accordingly, locating it and continuing to throw 102 is the key for him.”

Muñoz has received the message but still cannot resist when asked what he believes his best pitch is.

“My fastball,” he said with a sheepish laugh. “I love to see 100 on the scoreboard. I don’t know why. But I know it is important to mix with it. A lot of people told me that if you mix your slider and your fastball, the hitters are guessing all the time. That is the hardest thing I have been working on, trying to get them to guess what pitch is going to come.”

Who wouldn’t want to see 100 on the scoreboard? Or a 102.5 mph “perfect pitch,” an elevated fastball on the outside corner to strike out Manny Machado in San Diego on Tuesday?

To his credit, Muñoz has been mixing his pitches, throwing the slider 61.4% of the time.

“I tried to keep learning from the mistakes I’ve made in the past,” Muñoz said. “I’m enjoying it right now, but I’m not going out there and thinking I’ve had three, four good outings in a row. I’m trying to have the same attitude every outing.”

By appearances, that attitude is getting a bit more ferocious, his mound presence night and day from what we saw in April. His hope – to take it in to October. When asked the question I ask every Mariner at the end of a “get-to-know” interview – “What would a perfect day in the life of (your name here) look like?” – Muñoz came back with a first.

“Probably pitching in a World Series,” he answered, before affirming with an emphatic, “Yes!”

“Have a save in the World Series. That is one of my dreams. Hopefully I will get to do that one day. That would be my perfect day.”

Listen to the full interview with Muñoz from the Mariners pregame show at this link or in the player below.

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