Reliever Ernesto Frieri seeks revival under Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey

Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said it's too early to say Ernesto Frieri is "back"  yet, but he is encouraged by what he has seen  on and off the mound. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said it's too early to say Ernesto Frieri is "back" yet, but he is encouraged by what he has seen on and off the mound. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published March 4, 2015

PORT CHARLOTTE — His delivery in need of repair, his reputation as a dominant late-inning reliever tattered after a brutal 2014 season, Ernesto Frieri had a pretty good idea of how to get right.

Citing turnarounds made by Fernando Rodney, Joaquin Benoit and others before him, Frieri seized on the opportunity to sign with the Rays and become the next project for Jim Hickey's Career Revival Program.

"When you need to improve some things like I do, you always look to get the right information, you always look for the right person, the right pitching coach in my case, to get better," Frieri said. "And I feel like I made a really good decision coming over here because Hickey has done a really good job in the past.

"A couple pitchers came in here like they were lost. I don't think right now that I'm that bad. So I'm pretty sure that he can help me out and can give me the information and he can make me the pitcher that I used to be."

That Frieri (free-AIR-ee) was pretty good, especially after taking over as the Angels' closer following a May 2012 trade from the Padres. He saved 60 games in 67 chances over two seasons, posted a 3.15 ERA, logged 178 strikeouts (vs. 56 walks) in 123 innings and allowed 81 hits (18 home runs).

But the Frieri of last season was pretty bad. He blew two of his first three save opportunities, lost his confidence and his closer's job for the Angels then got traded in late June to the Pirates, sent to the minors in August and released in September. The ugly totals: a 7.34 ERA, 11 saves in only 14 chances and 47 hits (including 11 homers) in 412/3 innings, with 48 Ks and 14 walks.

"Everything went wrong," he said.

Eventually tracing his downfall to a well-intentioned spring adjustment by Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher to quicken delivery times to home, Frieri set to work this offseason to rebuild his form from the base up.

When going well, earning nicknames in various versions of "Nasty," Frieri thrived on deception in his delivery and movement on his fastball. He hid the ball by wrapping his right arm behind his back then created the appearance of throwing across his body by stepping not directly toward home plate.

But in trying to be quicker, he wasn't reaching quite as far behind his back, wasn't stepping as askew and wasn't getting people out.

"People that didn't have a chance hitting the fastball were putting good contact on it," Frieri said. "They were doing it, and I was like, 'Something's wrong.' I feel good. My fastball had the same velocity. But it wasn't moving."

Frieri, 29, said he didn't figure out what was wrong until he got to Pittsburgh and wasn't able to properly address it while also trying to get hitters out.

Declining suggestions to pitch in winter ball, he got back to basics. He worked with coaches who saw him growing up in Colombia, sent videos for coaches in the States to review and visited an L.A.-area high school coach who'd helped him.

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By the time he reported to Rays camp, Frieri, who took a sizable pay cut (from $3.8 million to $800,000, though with $2.35 million in incentives), felt like he had the foundation in place for success.

Hickey said it's too early to say Frieri is "back," but he is encouraged by what he has seen on and off the mound.

"I can't tell you yet where he is in terms of regaining his form simply because we've been throwing bullpens and batting practices," Hickey said. "The stuff looks good, and he looks good. He looks like he's in a good place, which really is a big thing."

Hickey made one recent suggestion, about the angle of Frieri's right foot, and is sure to come up with more. Frieri will be an eager listener.

"Hickey, I think that he's the man," Frieri said. "Whatever he tells me to do, I'm going to try."

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.