Aaron Laffey's new focus leads to successful spring
Working with former Kansas City Royal Buddy Biancalana, the 25-year-old left-hander says he is having the best spring training of his young career.
Seattle Times staff reporter
MARYVALE, Ariz. — Aaron Laffey was just a newborn when the ballplayer with the biggest impact on his spring so far was capping off his lone career highlight.
A quarter century later, former Kansas City Royals infielder Buddy Biancalana just may spark a rebirth of Laffey's career with the Mariners. Back in 1985, the year Laffey was born, fringe infielder Biancalana played an error-free dozen playoff games as the starting shortstop for the Royals, hitting .278 with a .435 on-base-percentage in the World Series and nearly getting named its Most Valuable Player.
Biancalana tried unsuccessfully to recapture that glory in seasons that followed and was soon out of baseball. But he's spent years since researching what goes into athletes finding "the zone" and is now a co-founder of PMPM Sports, a company that teaches struggling athletes like Laffey how to mentally achieve and maintain on-field success.
"He called me at the end of last year and wanted me to take part in their program," said Laffey, who looks to have secured a bullpen spot with the Mariners as a multiple-inning left-hander. "My agent had talked to him and he said he was interested in working with me and I'm glad I did because the results are showing in spring training."
Laffey had to sign a waiver from Biancalana, agreeing not to divulge the mental techniques in detail. But they boil down to freeing up the mind and letting the body do its work.
"Instead of focusing on 'Throw a strike, throw a strike,' it's more about staying within yourself, don't get ahead of yourself, be more relaxed, more self-aware" Laffey said. "It's basically taking all the stress out of the game and letting your mind work from a deeper level."
Laffey got together with Biancalana in Arizona right before spring training and threw just three bullpen sessions. But Laffey said that was enough to help him have what he calls "the best spring training of my career."
In five outings since his early March trade to the Mariners from Cleveland, Laffey has held opponents to a 2.00 earned-run average. His best outing came Friday, when he tossed four scoreless innings with four strikeouts against the Chicago Cubs.
The Mariners want Laffey stretched out because of an uncertainty-laced starting rotation that includes a struggling Doug Fister, Erik Bedard coming off a two-year absence and rookie Michael Pineda. Pineda threw six innings of two-hit, shutout ball in a 2-1, 10-inning loss here Saturday to the Milwaukee Brewers, striking out seven and walking two.
Other athletes who have credited Biancalana for his work with them include Royals pitcher Kyle Davies and golfer Lee Janzen.
Biancalana is in Mexico this weekend, working with athletes in the city of Queretaro, but said in an email that he contacted Laffey after seeing his strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
Laffey had a decent 2-to-1 ratio his rookie season in 2007. But the past two years combined, he's struck out 87 hitters while walking 85.
"We teach an athlete in any sport how to access deeper levels of mind-body coordination so they are able to repeat their most fluid, effortless, effective motion," Biancalana said via email. "Any athlete who is not performing consistently well is a candidate for our training."
Biancalana knows about athletic inconsistency. He became somewhat of a celebrity in 1985 during the countdown for Pete Rose to pass Ty Cobb as the all-time hits leader.
Late-night television comedian David Letterman began instituting a Buddy Biancalana Countdown Calendar, mocking a player more than 4,000 hits away from Cobb. Biancalana later appeared on the show and quipped to Letterman on-air: "I'm closer to Cobb than you are to Carson."
Despite appearing in only 35 regular season games, Biancalana was named starting shortstop in the 1985 playoffs and achieved his greatest baseball fame. But the frustrating years that followed, in which Biancalana failed to replicate those on-field exploits, led him to study the issue of how athletes keep themselves in a "zone" of excellence.
He eventually hooked up with business partner Steve Yellin to form his company. Biancalana described Laffey as a bright, committed client.
"He just needs to continue using the methods and concepts he has learned and he should have no problem staying in the strike zone," Biancalana said.
Laffey figures that bouncing between the rotation and bullpen with the Indians might have impacted his strike-throwing ability.
"I'm not looking to strike more guys out because that's not what I do," Laffey said. "But I sure as hell want to walk less guys. Everybody wants to. I've always been a strike thrower and the last two years ... I don't know if it had to do with all the back and forth, but now, it wouldn't even matter."
And the Mariners, dealing with enough mental stress of their own trying to figure out their roster, are glad Laffey has given them one less thing to worry about.
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