SURPRISE, Ariz. | Royals reliever Roman Colón began experimenting with his grip for a slider last October as he recovered from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee while sitting around his house in the Dominican Republic.
That time on his hands, it now appears, couldn’t have been better spent.
“There wasn’t a lot I could do after surgery,” he said, “So I started messing around a little bit to try to get the feeling. When I came here, I kept working on it. And you can see the difference.”
Everyone can see the difference.
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That slider is a nasty, darting knee-buckler that has become the talk of camp while moving Colón to the head of the line in the Royals’ quest to locate reliable setup relievers for closer Joakim Soria.
“He’s always had good velocity since his arm came back for him last year,” manager Trey Hillman said. “But what’s really encouraging is the depth on his slider. I hadn’t seen that before.”
It isn’t just the slider. Colón’s fastball, always a strength, is turning heads, too.
Bullpen coach Steve Foster had trouble believing what he saw while watching Colón warm up for a recent appearance. Finally, Foster asked: “Have you ever thrown 100 (mph) before?”
Colón answered, “Yes, before my neck surgery (in 2006 for a herniated disk).”
Foster replied: “That was 100.”
“No, it can’t be 100,” he said. “It’s too early (in spring) to be throwing 100.”
Foster wasn’t convinced.
“It looked firm,” he said. “It looked like 100 to me.”
Colón, now 30, contends he isn’t interested any longer in the macho-intimidating ability to hit triple figures. Maturity tells him that trade a few mphs for better command is a far preferable.
“I’ll be fine if I just throw 93-94-95,” he said. “I can work with that with my slider and my changeup.”
His new slider changes everything.
“I’m confident out there,” Colón said. “I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t have to worry anymore about just having to challenge hitters with my fastball. That’s all I had last year. This year is going to be different.”
The lack of an effective off-speed pitch was a major reason in Colón’s inconsistent performance. He allowed multiple runs in eight of his 43 relief appearances and permitted 13 of 35 inherited runners to score while compiling a 4.83 ERA.
But those numbers come with a caveat beyond the lack of an effective slider. Colón encountered elbow problems in 2007 after returning from neck surgery and was limited to just 33 minor-league games in 2008.
A balky knee troubled him last season but now, finally, Colón’s is healthy — and his spring work couldn’t be more encouraging. He has retired 15 of 16 hitters in five innings over four appearances, allowing only one hit and no runs while striking out five and walking none.
“He’s been very impressive with his command and control,” Hillman said. “He’s locating his fastball well. He’s climbing the ladder when he wants to. He’s got enough velocity to do that.
“Then when he gets it going the other way with the depth of his slider, it’s been very good, very consistent.”
Colón’s slider only figures to get better. Even he admits it still only about 80 percent of what he hopes it can be.
“I want to be able to control it a little better,” he said. “I want to be able to throw it for a strike when I want, and I want to be able to bounce it when I want. That’s difficult. But if you work on it, things are going to get better.”
They already have.