There are a lot of things Andy Sonnanstine, the Rays' newly anointed No. 3 starter, doesn't have.
He's not particularly big or strong (even at his listed 6 feet 3, 185 pounds seems a stretch), his velocity is nothing special (routinely 86-88 mph) and his repertoire somewhat standard (fastball, slider, changeup).
But it's what Sonnanstine brings to the mound in turning baseball into a mind game that sets him apart: a cerebral approach, a fierce competitiveness, an openness to improvisation, a deep conviction and confidence in all his pitches.
And what he and first baseman Carlos Pena call "an impeccable mind."
"Simply speaking, it's that your mind is on the same team," Pena explained Sunday.
"Basically, that it's an asset instead of a liability. When we say you have an impeccable mind, it's a mind that is only for the good, that it will only add to it instead of take away from it."
The idea is simple: turn any event or moment from a game into something positive, and reinforce it during those running conversations players have with themselves throughout a game. If the home plate umpire makes a bad call, for example, Pena urges Sonnanstine, 25, to instead focus on the fact that it was a good pitch and to try to do it again. When Sonnanstine gets a double-play grounder, Pena runs by the mound and reminds him of the benefits of that "impeccable mind."
"It's just seeing what you want and letting your body take over and do it," Sonnanstine said. "It takes a very high confidence level just to even grasp that fact."
Sonnanstine, an unheralded 13th-round pick from Kent State in 2004 (where he was redshirted as a freshman), worked his way through the minor leagues and to the majors in June, surprising even himself with each step up and furthering his reputation as a survivor, the kind of guy who is the last to make every team, but just keeps succeeding.
"I've had to fight and claw my way to the top every year, at every level, and it hasn't been easy," he said. "But that is part of my personality."
He first takes his emotions out of play, drawing teasing for his overly stoic nature. Next is to convince himself that he can do exactly what he wants with each pitch.
"Some guys that have these tremendous arms and throw for high velocities don't have nearly the conviction per pitch that he does," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think therein lies the difference with his success: Before the ball is thrown, he believes it's going to be successful for him. Some other guys just don't know. And that's why I think this guy's good."
"I don't want this to come out wrong," Sonnanstine said, "but it's like you have to know you are better than the best player out there, even if you aren't. So what I'm going to be throwing to one of the best hitters in the game, I have to know I'm going to get him out."
He does it by freely improvising on the mound, changing the arm angle, speed and action of his three pitches. He throws a lot of strikes (101 walks in 6252/3 professional innings; more than three in a game only once in 96 starts). And he wins — 40-18 in the minors, then 5-2 after a rough 1-8 start in the majors.
Pena compares him to 347-game winner Greg Maddux for how he does things, showing his intelligence on the mound by creating and improvising as he goes, and Sonnanstine is honored by the reference.
"I try to mix it up as much as possible because I have to," Sonnanstine said. "I wasn't blessed with a 95-mph fastball, so I have to do these type of things to survive, and I feel like I've adapted at a lot of the levels."
Impeccably well, you might say.