Sunday, June 29, 2014

'Vanimal' act scores with Pirates

June 28, 2014

Vance Worley - New York Mets v Pittsburgh Pirates
Vance Worley #46 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches in the first inning against the New York Mets during the game at PNC Park on June 26, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
(Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America)

After a year in hibernation, “The Vanimal” is back. This time on the other side of Pennsylvania.

Three years ago, Vance Worley crashed an icon-laden Philadelphia Phillies rotation and made the baseball world take notice. Nobody had seen a pitcher like this — unless that pitcher was Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn from “Major League.”

Mild-mannered away from the diamond, Worley morphed into Vanimal Lecter on the mound. It wasn't that he had overpowering stuff. It was his fearless attitude and offbeat appearance.

The bespectacled Worley wrote messages to himself on his hat, shook his raised glove like a fistful of dice before each pitch and attacked hitters with a barrage of strikes. He was baseball's best animal act since Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

Worley also won a lot, going 11-3 in 2011 and finishing third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. But the ride ended abruptly. Injuries and ineffectiveness derailed his career. The Minnesota Twins made him their Opening Day starter last year, but Worley's ERA soon ballooned into the 7s. His control made Ricky Vaughn look precise.

And that is how Pirates general manager Neal Huntington landed Worley, 26, for “cash considerations” in March. Three months later, the man looks like a Comeback Player of the Year candidate.

I caught up with Worley by his locker (yes, the Vanimal shelter) late Thursday, after a home debut at PNC Park (yes, Vanimal House) in which he'd stepped into his Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam” cleats, strapped on his Wild Thing glasses and beaten the Mets, 5-2. He has allowed four earned runs in three starts.

Worley has quite a story to tell. Several, actually. And since it looks like he might stick around for a bit, we should probably get to know him better.

So pull up a chair, Vanimal friends, and learn about …

• The glove shake. “In college (at Long Beach State), in an intersquad game, our assistant pitching coach was calling out my pitches from the dugout 'cause in Southern California everybody's trying to be smarter than everyone else. They were picking my pitches. I'm thinking, these guys are cheatin'. So I started moving the glove, and when I started beating them, I looked in the dugout and said, ‘Yeah, I got your tricks.' I've been doing it ever since.”

• His Asian heritage (Worley is one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Taiwanese and 50 percent European descent; his mother is from Hong Kong). “It's a fun game when you're half-and-half. You start looking at other people, wondering what they are. Eventually you meet enough of them that you start playing the game with them and guessing what everybody is.”

• Avoiding alcohol in high school and college (and largely thereafter, he says) because his once-wild father warned him of the dangers: “I always obeyed everything he said. I never really went out. All my friends, they liked to go out and have a good time, and I knew what I wanted, and that was to play professional baseball.”

• How the “Vanimal” nickname, given to him because of his weight-room work ethic in college, became known in the majors: “I don't go around telling people that's my nickname or anything, but when I got to the big leagues (in 2010), I was in the lunch room one day, and guys started passing my glove around the clubhouse. I'd written (“Vanimal”) inside it. So all the guys started calling me that, and they're like, ‘It's on your glove, really? How professional is that?' I'm like, ‘Come on guys, it's not that big a deal, is it?' The fans started seeing it on TV, and that's just how it went.”

The glasses, meanwhile, came about years ago because Worley's eyes dried up whenever he tried contacts.

What else?

Well, Worley goes by the Twitter handle @VANIMAL_46 and has more than 50,000 followers. He may have been destined to pitch for the Pirates because he attended McClatchy High School in Sacramento (named for the great-grandfather of former Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy). And he can still pitch. Just a bit differently. His strikeout rate isn't what it was in Philly, but he changes speeds, works the corners and walks almost no one.

Pitching coach Ray Searage loves what Worley brings. Namely, strikes.

“He does everything the organization tries to teach the young guys,” Searage said. “Work quickly, throw strikes, get ahead, stay ahead, put 'em away. He attacks.”

The Pirates have become something of a home for stray pitchers — The Vanimal Rescue League, if you will (although you certainly don't have to). Jim Benedict, a special assistant to the GM and noted pitching guru, has a lot to do with that. Worley says he wouldn't be here without Benedict's help in rebuilding his confidence and reworking his mechanics.

Will it last? Worley is focused only on his next start as the Pirates' rotation returns to health.

Searage isn't looking ahead, either.

“Right now, he's got the feeling for it,” Searage said. “We're just going to ride it out.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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