CLEARWATER, Fla. - Philadelphia's own Jesse Biddle is scheduled to take the mound at Bright House Field against the Rays this afternoon for his second Grapefruit League appearances.
It could be his last of 2015.
Biddle, 23, isn't bidding for a spot in the Phillies' rotation. The former first-round pick's development has suffered in the last two seasons, where inconsistency on the mound has had him stuck at Double A.
Biddle probably will be in the Reading rotation again when the regular season begins, and he'll need to continue to build up his arm as a starting pitcher in minor league camp. Since major league pitchers will be doing the same with each passing start in Grapefruit League games, there are only so many innings to go around.
Biddle, a 2010 Germantown Friends graduate, will join the likes of Aaron Nola, Zach Eflin, Tom Windle and Ben Lively, in the great race of Phillies prospects pitching their way to the big leagues.
"I don't need anything to motivate me," said Biddle, the team's former top prospect who has fallen behind those aforementioned arms in nearly every prospect publication's rankings.
"I don't need anything to get me going, get me to be the first guy at the ballpark every morning, to do extra running, extra work," he continued. "That comes from who I am, it comes from inside. No one has ever told me that I don't work hard enough, except me. But when it comes to having guys like Aaron Nola in the organization, it's a lot of fun for me. The competition, that's what I live for. That's what we all live for . . . That competition in the clubhouse, as well as the competition from the other guys on the other team, that keeps you going. You're paying attention to what he's doing and what he's doing to have success."
Biddle still talks with the confidence of the teenager selected with the 27th overall pick in the 2010 draft. But after going 10-6 with a 3.22 ERA at Class A Clearwater in 2012, he has struggled to move forward.
Biddle has gone 10-24 with a 4.03 ERA in 46 games in the last two seasons. He reached a low point last June in Binghamton, N.Y., when he gave up 10 runs in three innings, capping a month with a ghastly 12.64 ERA in four starts.
Biddle said he had tried to come back too soon from a concussion (sustained in a hail storm). Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. announced the pitcher was being placed on the temporary inactive list for a "mental break."
Biddle appears to have put that episode in the past as he has gone about his work this spring. He is rooming with big-league pitchers David Buchanan and Mario Hollands this spring, he is continuing to read "The Mental ABC's of Pitching," the unofficial Roy Halladay pitching bible, and he is attempting to get back on the track of a can't-miss prospect.
During last spring and again during the summer, Biddle spoke with Halladay, who famously struggled with his own career in his early 20s.
"His biggest thing is learning how to just control everything on the mound," Biddle said. "Just control everything you can, let everything else go. He told me once, there was one time he was throwing and he kept hearing his hand go past his ear. So that's all he would think about. He said he went 2 months without giving up more than one run in a game, and that's all he thought about - hearing the sound of his hand going past his ear. That blew my mind. That that could translate into him doing so well and competing against the best guys in the world, and all he's thinking about it making that sound."
Perhaps it's the kind of mental trick that will send Biddle on his own run.
But the Phillies' major league pitching coach, Bob McClure, has another thing Biddle should be hearing in his head each time he takes the mound: throw strikes.
In the last 2 years, Biddle has walked 133 of the 1,002 batters he's faced (13.27 percent). For a frame of reference, Cole Hamels walked 6.28 percent of the hitters he faced in the last two seasons and Cliff Lee has walked 3.58 percent of the hitters he's faced.
Unfair to compare the minor league lefty to two big-leaguers? Not really.
"He's got three major league pitches," said McClure, referring to Biddle's fastball-changeup-curveball arsenal. "I want to see him fill the zone up. He's got too good of stuff to be picking or fooling around . . . Too many balls, too many high pitches."
So what's the solution?
"[Be] a strike-throwing machine, period," McClure said. "[If] I'm Jesse Biddle, I'm not throwing a ball. Now, that's not going to happen, but I'd like to see that mindset. Just playing the game and competing and going right after you. It's not about picking here and there, setting guys up. Screw that. I'm coming. I have three pitches to get you out. See what you can do."
It may be difficult to believe, given his recent run as perhaps the game's most consistent strike thrower, but Lee had his own issues with throwing strikes as a young Cleveland Indian. In 2004, Lee went 14-8 with a 5.43 ERA in 33 starts, issuing 81 walks (seventh most in the American League) in 179 innings. Lee, whom McClure saw across the field in the AL Central while with the Kansas City Royals, said Lee simply began to believe in his stuff and trust his defense.
"It can be [easy] if your mindset is that way," McClure said. "I've always said two things; you either can't, because there's something physical going on with your delivery or whatever, or, you don't want to . . . It's either hard because of your delivery, or you just don't want to. Cliff made up his mind, he was going to throw strikes. Period. Once he made up his mind, his delivery allowed him to do it, and he just did it."
Biddle may or may not be making his final spring appearance with the Phillies this afternoon. But if he wants to graduate from a Grapefruit League game this spring to a major league game this summer, and walk the walk while talking the talk, he should probably follow the lead of Lee and heed the advice of McClure.
"I think it's a growth thing that he will grow into," McClure said. "It could happen in a week. It could happen in 6 months. I don't know. He knows what he wants to do. Now you've just got to convince yourself to play the game. Because no matter what, it's not life or death. If you do it like that, you're either in the clubhouse real quick drinking a few beers or you're in the eighth inning and drinking beers after the game."