GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Losing is a topic Jake Peavy hates to discuss.
A scowl comes over the White Sox pitcher’s face as he diagrams his internalization of a loss. His speech slows, the volume of his voice drops down low and Peavy hesitantly makes a checklist of ways he now accepts losses.
If he gets beat “the right way,” a loss is easier to handle. So too is the notion the outcome isn’t always in Peavy’s hands; as long as he’s satisfied with his effort and preparation, he has learned to better cope.
But this kinder, gentler Peavy doesn’t fool Adam Dunn.
This will be their third season as neighbors in the clubhouse. They have known each other for more than a decade. And the past two seasons have confirmed what Dunn always suspected -- Peavy abhors losing more than most.
Poor results have caused Peavy many sleepless nights. But the same competitive drive has fueled a reinvention that has allowed Peavy, 31, to rebound from a pitcher who wondered if he’d ever win again to an All-Star whom the White Sox signed to a two-year, $29-million extension in October.
“What probably separates him from everybody else is -- I don’t care if we’re out playing golf, if we’re fishing, hunting, it don’t matter -- he seems to think he’s going to win every single thing,” Dunn said. “We’ll try to pick the top five drivers in (an auto race) and he’s already got the winners. He’s a super-competitive guy.”
The will to win has always existed.
Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers remembers how Peavy stood out even as a teenager in the San Diego Padres’ farm system. It wasn’t the stuff, though it was advanced, but instead Peavy’s recognition of hitters’ approaches -- nuances older teammates failed to grasp -- that let Towers know he was special.
And then there was the confidence.
“Jake never thought there was a ballclub out there he couldn’t beat,” Towers, San Diego's GM from 1995-2009, said. “That’s the way he was in the minor leagues and that’s what made him great. He just really believed in his stuff and himself.”
Peavy’s style led to a 92-68 record and a 3.29 ERA in 212 starts for the Padres. He received all 32 first-place votes for the 2007 National League Cy Young Award.
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But few traces of that pitcher remained after Peavy returned in 2011, less than a year after his one-of-a-kind shoulder surgery.
The fire was there.
But Peavy’s pitches didn’t lend him the same confidence.
His fastball velocity was down nearly four miles per hour and the slider just didn’t bite like it had. His ability to recover in between games was off, too.
“I was never close to being the guy that I was,” Peavy said. “It made it hard just to be out there at certain points in time.”
Peavy’s average four-seam fastball had dropped from 95.16 MPH in 2007 to 91.3, according to brooksbaseball.net.
In 2007, hitters batted .133 and were put away on strikes 55 times against his slider. In 2011, opposing hitters batted .241 against the pitch and only struck out 21 times on it.
Dunn said his efforts to reassure Peavy made little impact.
“I knew that he’s going to get back to being Jake,” Dunn said. “But it’s hard when you’re in the moment to tell a guy that everything’s going to be fine when things aren’t fine. The dude had so much on his plate.”
In order to resuscitate his career Peavy had to pile on even more.
Of the 10,781 pitches Peavy threw between the 2007 and 2011 seasons, only 470 (4.4 percent) were curveballs. In 2007 he threw 40 among his 2,666 pitches (1.5 percent).
But similar to the adaptations of ex-teammates Trevor Hoffman and Greg Maddux late in their careers, Peavy discovered the curveball.
He threw it 404 times (12.2 percent) last season and it perhaps has become his best pitch. Batters hit .212 against his curve and .283 against the slider. Peavy admits he finds its funny how a pitch he rarely considered at the pinnacle of his career has revitalized him.
“Coming back you look for every advantage, every way you can get better,” Peavy said. “Very rarely 10 years into somebody’s big league career they start using a pitch they’ve never used before. It was one more thing to put in the batter’s head and I think we did a pretty good job of using it.”
Dunn sees a significant difference between Peavy circa 2007 and the guy who sits three feet to his right. He also has seen the frustration Peavy experienced a year earlier redirected positively.
“You definitely could see it wearing on him,” Dunn said. “But he went out and learned how to throw more curveballs, throw more changeups and he never did that before. He’s turned into a really good pitcher as opposed to a guy where he’s in trouble, ‘Let’s rear back and throw a 95-mph turbo sinker.’ ”
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Peavy believes he can improve in 2013.
He’s more comfortable with the new approach after a full season. He also appears to have regained some velocity.
The confidence is back in full force too.
Although Peavy may initially have been hesitant to abandon his trusted formula, he has no difficulty with it now.
After all, it’s helps keep him from the dark place he detests so much.
“Me and (Chris Sale) say it all the time: ‘I don’t know if I like winning, I just hate losing,’ ” Peavy said. “I don’t know which one is more of a determining factor in the way I go about things, but God I hate to lose. I just can’t even imagine. I have gotten better with age of being able to wipe my hands clean of the game, try to let it go and go home and go to sleep and not just let it eat at me night after night like it would back in the day after a tough outing. At the same time, the hating to lose, the desire to win, has never been any stronger than it is right now in my career.”
- Peavy threw 97 pitches over six innings in a minor league game Monday, and is scheduled to pitch next against the Dodgers on March 23.
- Nate Jones threw 35 pitches in two innings in the minor league game, and will pitch again in two days. “It was a good and productive day of work for Nate," pitching coach Don Cooper said. "All of his pitches looked very good."