Adding two pitches, Brock Guffey grown into stout bullpen pitcher for Alabama baseball

Brett Hudson
Tide Sports
Alabama Head Coach Brad Bohannon is enraged after being ejected by umpire Justin Beam after he protested a disputed third strike call as the Crimson Tide took the first loss of the season falling to Lipscomb 3-2 in the second game of the weekend series Saturday, March 7, 2020. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

In 2018, Alabama had a 27-29 baseball team, 8-22 in conference play, and lost 10 straight SEC games. That season, freshman Brock Guffey was 10th on the team with 29 2/3 innings pitched, allowing 28 hits and 10 walks for a 1.280 walks and hits allowed per inning pitched (WHIP).

Three years later, the Crimson Tide is a top 25 team in the preseason, according to Baseball America, and Guffey is one of UA’s most trusted late-game relievers. Their tandem rise is not a coincidence.

When UA begins its season Feb. 19 with a three-game series at home against McNeese State, it will have Guffey as one of just two players still active from its 2018 roster, alongside catcher Sam Praytor. Guffey helped change the culture of the program, then used that culture change to develop himself into one of UA’s most reliable relievers in the shortened 2020 season. In 8 2/3 innings, he allowed four hits and one walk, striking out 13 and only one earned run allowed for an earned run average (ERA) of 1.04.

“The nature when I came in was more of a, ‘Get mine,’ now it’s a we. It’s how can we be better, how can I make you better,” Guffey said. “It’s the competitive nature and the drive to be better. We’ve got a lot of young guys who are striving to be better, some of them turned down draft money, in some cases. It’s a lot more of getting to that next level, it’s a lot about winning.”

For UA, that process meant turning over nearly the entire roster in a two-year span. For Guffey, it meant adding two pitches.

Guffey said he came to UA with a good fastball and a good curveball; with the help of pitching coach Jason Jackson, he has now added a changeup and more recently a slider, both of them with command and both of them good enough to generate swings and misses.

“The changeup is something coach Jackson’s harped since I’ve been here. Every bullpen or every time we play catch, we always end with changeups,” Guffey said. “The slider, it’s always mirrored my curveball too much. It’s always been a little too slow and a little loopy. I finally got it to where it’s a low- to mid-80s pitch and it’s got a sharp cut.”

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The secret to the slider was a grip change and a mentality change. After figuring out the correct grip, Jackson coaxed a breaking ball approach out of him. Guffey said it’s easy to throw a breaking ball with less intensity, focusing on creating spin, whereas Jackson convinced Guffey to throw the slider as hard as he could and let the grip create the movement.

Since Jackson has been involved in the development of the pitches from the beginning, he quickly gained an understanding of how to deploy them.

“I’ve learned him and he’s learned me to where when coach Jackson calls a pitch, there’s no doubt in my mind that’s the right pitch,” Guffey said. “He’s got the scouting report in front of him, he knows exactly what the hitter’s weakness is. If I see a pitch called, I can commit to it 100%.”

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Most pitchers would want to parlay that arsenal into a spot in the starting rotation — including Guffey, earlier in his career. Over time, he has determined, “the back end of the game is where the L’s and W’s come from.”

His head coach has a similar line of thinking in waiting until the game’s most crucial moments to deploy Guffey.

“A lot of coaches and pitching guys like to work from back to front,” UA coach Brad Bohannon said. “Sometimes young hitters just have a heightened sense of focus late in the game when it’s close, they’ll give some at-bats away early. I know Brock’s a guy who could be a starter for us and do a great job, but I really value experience in the pen because it’s harder to come in the game with people on base when it really, really matters than it is to come in to start the game with a clean inning.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson