03/19/10 11:25 PM ET
Prospect Withrow resumes ascent
Dodgers righty back on radar after bout of yips in '08
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
A Taiwanese and a Texan, a lefty and a righty.
What they did have in common, though, was this horrid, career-threatening case of the yips -- a sudden and inexplicable loss of the skills to throw a catchable pitch, baseball's equivalent of the golfer who locks up trying to putt. Kuo was going through it then, Withrow had overcome it a year earlier.
"I told him I had been there," said Withrow. "I knew exactly what he was going through. He told me what was going on in his head, and I told him I went through the exact same thing. I told him, 'Kuo, I was you. I came back, and you can do it, too.' He told me this might be his last year. 'No it's not,' I told him. He pitched that night, and he was lights out. I told him, 'There's nothing wrong with you.'"
Kuo's rebound is now well known. Mostly what is known of Withrow is that he was the Dodgers' first-round pick in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, signed to a $1.35 million bonus and had been considered a potential bust (13 innings pitched in two seasons) until -- demons conquered -- he had a solid 2009 season, mostly at Inland Empire, then a six-game promotion to Double-A Chattanooga.
Withrow credits Inland Empire pitching coach Charlie Hough with getting his career back on track, and those that saw him last year have trouble believing he ever went through what he did the year before.
"I saw him when he was really good at Double-A -- throwing BBs at the knees," said catcher Lucas May. "When he stays down with that very heavy fastball and he finishes, very few people can do what he can do. He's developing a curve and a change and has a good feel, but he lives off his fastball. When he's down, he really doesn't need any other pitch.
2010 Spring Training - Los Angeles Dodgers
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"His fastball is heavy -- no real sink or cut to it -- so when he's up, he's hittable. At the knees, he's tough to hit. The electricity with the fastball is there like [Clayton] Kershaw. The competitive drive is there, too. Kershaw's curve and change are more developed, but no reason Withrow can't get there. The second start I caught him at Double-A, after five innings, I came off the field and went over to Dish [pitching coach Glenn Dishman] and said, 'Watch out for this guy, he could take off.'"
Withrow doesn't turn 21 for two more weeks, but some now wonder if he can be the right-handed Kershaw. Unfair expectations, to be sure, but he's considered the organization's top Minor League pitching prospect.
By striking out the side in a split-squad game last week while manager Joe Torre was in Taiwan, Withrow earned another inning Friday night and it went perfectly, with two strikeouts. That gave him five strikeouts in two innings.
"It's the first I've seen of him. Pretty impressive stuff," said Torre, who sidestepped the question about bringing Withrow to Major League camp, as was done the past two springs with Kershaw and Josh Lindblom.
Unlike Kershaw, who has been on a non-stop express to stardom, Withrow considers his 2008 season a blessing in disguise because he knows how to overcome adversity, which he knows awaits all future Major Leaguers in one form or another.
"I know I'll struggle at times, but I've already been through a lot," he said.
Withrow isn't sure what caused his wildness but suspects that a freak Spring Training accident in 2008 set things in motion. He and some buddies went snorkeling off the Vero Beach coast. His snorkel became clogged in the murky water and when he threw it ashore, a sharp protrusion sliced the index finger of his pitching hand.
After missing part of Spring Training, he returned, only to develop elbow soreness that sidelined him again. When the soreness went away and he returned to the mound, his control was gone (elbow soreness also preceded Kuo's yips). Withrow's control returned after months of throwing, but he can't explain why.
"One day it came, and I couldn't control it, and one day it was gone," he said. "Maybe it was the soreness that started it. I don't know. I know that year was a circus for me, but I don't dwell on it. It's in the past, and I look forward to putting all that behind me and working on things to get me better. I know I'm more mentally strong because of it, and that helps me today."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.