Drayer: Mariners fireballer Andrés Muñoz brings more than just new pitch into ’23

Mar 24, 2023, 11:28 AM

Mariners Andrés Muñoz...

Mariners relief pitcher Andrés Muñoz high-fives his teammates during a Sept. 28, 2022 game vs. Texas. (AP Photo/Caean Couto)

(AP Photo/Caean Couto)

In the aftermath of the Mariners’ 18-inning playoff elimination loss to the Astros, Paul Sewald sought out Andrés Muñoz in the clubhouse.

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“I’m so proud of you,” Sewald said as he wrapped his arms around his fellow reliever.

The pitcher Sewald saw in the clubhouse that night had taken great strides from the pitcher he saw in the early months of the season.

“I saw a kid who wasn’t sure where he fit in a major league uniform,” said Sewald. “He hadn’t pitched that much, he had been injured for a majority of (his time in the big leagues). That’s difficult, you know, mentally to overcome. We’re trying to figure out exactly, like, ‘Where can I be at? Am I going to be healthy? And can I reach my potential?'”

Coming off Tommy John surgery when the Mariners acquired Muñoz from the San Diego Padres in 2020, Seattle had given Muñoz a lone Oct. 3 appearance in the final game of the 2021 season, hoping to give him confidence that all was sound heading into the offseason.

Despite the enticement of a 100 mph-plus fastball, the Mariners intended to take things slow with the 23 year old early in the 2022 season. After his first outing, he pitched mostly in the sixth or seventh innings, or in games where the M’s had a substantial lead. And there would be no back-to-back outings until the end of May.

As for that first outing? It left a mark.

“I just go back to his first game against the Twins,” said Sewald of the second game of the Mariners’ season. “(Twins All-Star Byron) Buxton hit that high, 100 mph fastball a long ways, and you kind of saw it on his face, like, ‘Well, I throw 100.’ And, like, ‘That doesn’t work.'”

Prior to facing Buxton, Muñoz had walked Nick Gordon on six straight fastballs, none with a velocity of less than 99 mph. The first pitch to Buxton came in at 100.5 mph and left the bat at 112.3 mph, landing 436 feet away in the third deck of Target Field.

It did rattle Muñoz, but those days are far behind him.

“The difference is the confidence I have right now,” Muñoz said. “I have a lot more confidence when I am pitching and I have been working hard from the things that I learned last year to hopefully have a better year.”

The help to get to that level of confidence has come from all directions, from teammates – with a special hat tip to Diego Castillo – who took him under his wing, to Sewald and the rest of his bullpen-mates who offered encouragement every step of the way.

“I just go back to this moment, he was watching (Mets All-Star closer) Edwin Díaz, he kind of was in awe of him,” said Sewald. “And everyone around him told him, ‘You have the exact same stuff or better than he does. There’s no reason you should be in awe of somebody like that.’ He’d been throwing his slider 85-86 mph, and they’re kind of telling him, ‘You could throw it harder like he does.’ He was like, ‘You really think that’d be better?'”

Well, yes. And soon after, Muñoz’s slider started ticking up to 88, 89, and 90-plus.

“It was literally overnight, 5, 6 mph faster,” said Sewald. “I felt like that was moment he really took off.”

Muñoz’s manager and coaches worked hard to impress upon him the importance of that slider, which he did begin to throw more. Despite the positive results, Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth still saw doubt. Andrés Muñoz still didn’t understand just how good he was. A new piece of hitting equipment was installed at T-Mobile Park during the the All-Star break gave Woodworth an idea.

“Having Muñoz standing in on himself and be, ‘Oh, I should give myself more credit. That’s really frickin’ fast’,” Woodworth said.

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“I don’t want to be a show-off guy or anything like that, but I don’t know how they hit that,” said Muñoz, who had no inclination to try to hit off himself. “I was just looking. I’m going to get hurt if I swing at that thing. It made me realize, ‘Oh, this is how hard I throw and this is how hard it looks for the hitters.'”

Muñoz says that his biggest learning in 2021 was the usage of his slider. It’s a pitch he enjoys because it “tricks” the batter.

“Throwing the slider more (than the fastball)? I didn’t expect it to happen but it worked,” he admitted.

The slider allowed just a .126 batting average against last year while also helping to get hitters off his four-seam fastball.

Now, he’s added a two-seamer this spring to give the hitters one more thing to think about. The reviews so far have been very good.

“100 mph moving two-seamer, good luck!” Eugenio Suarez shouted in the clubhouse after Muñoz’s first Cactus League outing.

“I wish I could add that to my (repertoire),” said Logan Gilbert, who had started that same game. “It’s crazy. He was unhittable last year. With that kind of movement now, it’s crazy.”

Muñoz himself is still not quite comfortable with the command of that pitch. He will take it into the season and it will be interesting to watch how he uses that pitch early as compared to where it is later in the season. As promising as it is, it is likely that at best it will be his second favorite pitch.

“That is still the fastball,” he answered, fully knowing the expected answer is the slider when asked what his favorite pitch is. “I just love to see three digits on the scoreboard. That is exciting. When I throw the first pitch and see three digits, it gets me excited and gets me to throw the hardest I can every time.”

Perhaps the best development for Muñoz is he will head into the season being able to throw triple digits pain-free after offseason ankle surgery. As strong as his 2022 season was, the potential for more remains. His goal entering the season is simple.

“Stay healthy. The results come later,” he said. “When you are healthy, I know everything is going to be good. Sometimes you make adjustments in the season, but as long as I am healthy, I feel that is a win for me.”

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