Came in like a breaking ball

Magovney makes transition from power to off-speed pitcher

By TOM DINKI
On May 8, 2014

  • Anthony Magovney has had to adjust his pitching style since arriving at UB, and he has successfully made the transition from a power hurler in high school to an off-speed pitcher in college. Chad Cooper, The Spectrum

Think of the prototypical pitcher.

What comes to mind is probably a strong-armed thrower who launches 95-mph fastballs that leave batters swinging at air, not realizing the ball has already smacked into the catcher's mitt, the kind of pitcher that 'wows' fans and scouts with incredible velocity and racks up K's.

The power pitcher is what every baseball team looks for in an ace. Major League Baseball has seen an influx of young power pitchers in recent years, like Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez, who rely on their power to get outs. The emphasis on velocity goes beyond the major leagues; its roots are at the high school and college levels.

Anthony Magovney is not going to blow fastballs past batters. He'll tell you so himself. He describes himself as a finesse pitcher, and he has the lowest strikeouts-per-game average of any Buffalo pitcher who has started a game this season (5.1).

A lack of arm strength hasn't stopped the junior right-hander from dominating on the mound for the baseball team this season. Magovney is 6-1 with an ERA of 3.09 - which ranks second among UB pitchers who have pitched at least 26 innings this season. What he lacks in power he makes up for in off-speed pitches and baseball knowledge.

Though fastball pitchers can rely on pure velocity, pitchers like Magovney have to find ways to offset the batter's timing or deceive him into swinging at a pitch outside the strike zone.

When Magovney is on the mound, his strategy to beat his opponents is more mental than physical. He is always thinking about which pitch the batter will be least expecting.

"I try to play more mind games with [the batter] than try and just say, 'I'm better than you,' and overpower you," Magovney said. "I attack their weaknesses and go with my strengths. I like to confuse the other person because I know what I'm going to do, and I usually feel confident in myself that whatever I throw is going to get them out."

He has his changeup: fooling the batter into swinging early. He has his curveball: hanging the ball out in front of the strike zone before it drops down suddenly to below the batter's knees. Then there is his favorite pitch, the slider: the ball comes in tight before violently sliding out of the batter's range. He might also throw a fastball: a pitch the batter likely won't be expecting after he has spent the entire game throwing off-speed pitches.

"A lot of guys are confused up there because they really don't think a guy can throw that many off-speed pitches in a row and that he has to throw a fastball, but Anthony just doesn't do it," said senior pitcher Dan Ginader. "What throws them off is that he's so far from the norm because he just doesn't use his fastball. He's very good at it and that's why he's been so good."

Magovney wasn't always the breaking ball master he is today. He's had to acquire the skill of the off-speed pitch over time, which he began to do with the realization he no longer had the ability to get outs on power alone - a realization that can be humbling for pitchers.

Magovney has taken the pitching style change in stride, though, and he, his teammates and family believe he is a better pitcher for it.

"I think he's grown as a pitcher," said his brother, Brian Magovney Jr. "He's become more of a pitcher instead of a kid who just throws hard."

The Curveball

April 26, 2014 - the baseball team looks to clinch a pivotal series against conference rival Akron at Amherst Audubon Field on a rainy afternoon. After winning the first game of the series the day before, the Bulls turn to their Saturday pitcher: Magovney.

After cruising through the first inning, Magovney faces a Zips right-handed hitter with one out remaining in the second. With a 3-2 count, Magovney turns to the pitch he often uses late in the count to confuse the hitter: his curveball.

He places his middle finger on the horseshoe seam of the ball, with his thumb wrapped all the way around. During his windup, he raises the ball higher above his head than his other pitches to "get the downward action to it," Magovney said.

The ball travels from Magovney's hand to home plate at a waist-high level, right in the strike zone for the hitter. The Akron batter swings right as the ball suddenly drops below his knees.

Strike three.

"I love seeing [the curveball] because it kind of makes you smile out there," Magovney said. "It just shows that I beat you with my pitch and you had no idea what was coming."

Magovney has been developing his curveball since he was pitching in his backyard in Watertown, N.Y., at age 12. He learned his curveball grip from his oldest brother, Stephen Magovney, although he has had to adjust it slightly because he has "never really had big hands."

Magovney has gained baseball knowledge from his family - his father and three older brothers all played college baseball and his younger brother currently plays in high school.

Magovney said baseball was instilled in him when he was a baby. His cousins lived down the street, and together with his brothers and other neighborhood kids they often played baseball "from the time we woke up until we were called in for dinner time," Magovney said.

His father, Brian Magovney Sr., had all of his sons try every position on the field so they would always have a spot on a team. When Magovney started high school, however, it became clear the mound was his place.

"In high school he would play in the outfield and pitch for us but you could tell there was something about him when he was pitching ... he was like a whole new player than he was when he was playing another position," said Brian Magovney Jr., who is currently an outfielder for Division III St. Lawrence University.

Magovney played with Brian Jr. and his second-oldest brother, Daniel Magovney, on the Immaculate Heart High School baseball team.

"I've always been trying to prove myself saying I'm the best one out of all my brothers," Magovney said. "I always got overshadowed because all my brothers had great high school careers and I went [to high school] and they're like, 'Oh, who's this Magovney?' I've always had that little chip on my shoulder."

Magovney eventually stepped out of his older brothers' shadows, but not with his off-speed pitches. Instead, he used his velocity. He was not the pitcher he is today when he pitched at Immaculate Heart.

Magovney got away with relying on his power alone. His high school baseball and basketball coach, Mike Delaney, said Magovney once recorded 16 strikeouts in a game. Daniel described his brother's pitching as "wild" in high school. Magovney did not have to focus on his mechanics or location; he could simply overpower batters because they weren't on the same level as him.

"My [high school] league wasn't necessarily the greatest league. Everyone struggled," Magovney said. "I threw hard and I was able to get away with throwing fastballs all the time and no one would really hit it."

Being a power pitcher worked well for Magovney. He threw a no-hitter in his junior season and was named one of the top 10 pitchers in New York State by ESPN RISE Magazine.

But Magovney was open to criticism- even from family.

A catcher's job is to advise the pitcher based on what he sees from behind the plate and tell him how to adapt to a particular batter - which is what Brian Jr. did for his younger brother when he caught for him.

"He was always listening," Brian Jr. said. "He was really good at taking criticisms during the game [if I] saw something. He grew up a lot from his freshman to his junior year particularly."

The Changeup

With an 0-2 count in the third inning, Magovney grips the ball and stares down the Zips' batter through his white Oakley glasses. He places his middle and index fingers on the seams and begins his windup. As he begins to release the ball, he turns his wrist out to the left and lets the ball roll off his middle finger, creating a slower release.

The changeup deceptively gives the appearance of a fastball, but it is actually traveling much slower, offsetting the hitter's timing. The Zips batter makes contact with Magovney's pitch, but the ball simply grounds out to Bulls senior shortstop Mike Scarcello for an easy out to end the inning.

"I try and get [the hitter] to think, 'Oh, fastball,'" Magovney said of his changeup. "They're more geared up for the fastball and then all of a sudden it's a good 8 to 9 miles an hour slower than my fastball. They're on their front foot and they're just trying to save themselves and usually it's just a groundout."

The groundout was the end of a rough inning for Magovney, as he surrendered three runs and four hits and walked and hit a batter. Magovney may have struggled because he was without an important accessory that day: his lucky socks.

Throughout his first five starts of the season - in which he went 5-0 - Magovney wore the exact same pair of black Nike Elite socks.

"I wore them for my first start and I got a win, so [I thought], 'Gotta wear them again next week,'" Magovney said.

He wore the socks only on the days he pitched because he said he didn't want to "ruin them."

Magovney's lucky socks were a known commodity to his teammates. Ginader shares Magovney's appreciation of footwear. The two often talk about socks and "don't shy away from spending extra money for a really nice, comfortable pair of socks," according to Ginader.

But after the Bulls played Ball State March 29 at Monroe Community College in Rochester, Magovney lost his pair.

"He was like 'Where are my socks? I need my socks,'" recalled senior pitcher Cory Folk.

Magovney thought he had placed them inside his bag, but he could not find them upon returning to Buffalo.

"I've been trying out new socks every time. I don't know what's going on," Magovney said. "I lost them and I haven't won a game [since], so I gotta figure something out."

At the time of his start against Akron April 26, Magovney had not earned a win since losing the socks. His struggles without his lucky socks are similar to the struggles he faced as a freshman for the Bulls in 2011.

With three senior pitchers ahead of him, Magovney was a reliever his freshman year. He had been a starter his entire life, and was then asked to come out of the bullpen.

Magovney relied on velocity as a freshman. He tried to simply overpower batters rather than focusing on the mechanics and the locations of his pitches. In one of his first outings as a Bull, against Kentucky, Magovney learned the hard way that his power pitching method was not going to work for him at the college level.

"I think he learned a lesson early," Brian Sr. said. "They hit him pretty hard when he came out [against Kentucky]. He thought he had to throw it by everybody, but he learned real quick that one through nine in an order in Division I college, everybody can hit. He had to learn how to rely on more than just a fastball because everybody at that level can hit a fastball."

Magovney's upper-80s fastballs might have blown away batters at the high school level, but "at the D1 level, everyone can hit a 90, 88, 87 mile an hour fastball," Brian Jr. said.

He finished his freshman season with a 5.65 ERA.

In addition to struggling with his velocity, Magovney had to accept that though he had been a dominant athlete in a small town, he was now just another arm coming out of the bullpen at a big school.

"He [was always] the best athlete back home," Ginader said. "I think coming to Buffalo was a little humbling for him because he was around a lot of great athletes and a lot of other guys could do everything he could. I don't think he was used to that."

The experience was both "humbling" and "encouraging," according to Magovney.

"I came from a small school, so I was the best pitcher to come out of there in quite some time," Magovney said. "And coming here it kind of made me realize once I started getting hit around that, yeah, you might be good there, but now you're at a totally different level and you have to be able to pitch, not just throw."

It was at that time that Magovney began to develop his arsenal of pitches outside just his fastball, starting with what is now his favorite pitch.

The Slider

Magovney places his middle finger on the right-hand seam of the ball, leaving his index finger firmly between the two seams. He kicks up his leg for a high windup, and when he heaves his arm down, he snaps his wrist, letting the ball roll off his thumb.

The ball hurls toward the inside of an Akron right-handed batter in the fourth inning. The batter falls for it, fending off the slider with the part of the bat closest to his hands, resulting in a popup to right field.

It was the result Magovney was looking for on just his first pitch of the at-bat. He likes when the batter swings at his slider when it is early in the count, but prefers to get the hitter out looking later in the count, not wanting the ball to be put into play.

Magovney loves the look on batters' faces and the buckle of their knees when he gets them to whiff on his slider.

"It gets people off balance," Magovney said. "It always makes me laugh when I get the hitters to buckle in the box and their knees shake a little bit. It's usually a good sign I'm throwing it well."

The out was the last out of a 1-2-3 fourth inning and the first of four straight scoreless innings by Magovney to help lead the Bulls to a 6-3 victory over Akron. Magovney was credited with the win to improve his record to 6-1 on the season - his first win in over a month without the lucky socks.

The Buffalo pitching staff wanted Magovney to have another strikeout pitch besides his curveball and originally had him try throwing a cutter - a pitch similar to a fastball but with more movement. That pitch eventually developed into Magovney's slider, a pitch that has been a major reason for his success in Buffalo.

Throwing the slider began his transition away from fastballs and toward throwing breaking balls. In his sophomore year, last season, Magovney became a starter and posted a 7-4 record with a 4.26 ERA.

Magovney enjoys pitching because he likes to be in control.

He also played point guard for Coach Delaney at Immaculate Heart Central on the basketball team and he likens that position to a pitcher in baseball.

"I liked [playing point guard] because I was in control of everything," Magovney said. "It's kind of similar with pitching as well. I'm in control of what I do and I can control what the other team does as well."

Just as the point guard determines who gets the ball and distributes passes to his teammates, the pitcher determines where the ball is thrown and how the batter and his defense have to react. The offense runs through the point guard in basketball; the defense runs through the pitcher in baseball.

If Magovney made bad decisions at point guard, it would result in turnovers and possibly a fast break for the other team. If he throws a bad pitch, it might result in home runs and walks for his opponents. The pressure doesn't bother Magovney. He craves it.

"I can kind of alter what happens throughout the game," Magovney said. "I feel in control. I always liked being in that position ... I'd rather have it fall on my shoulders if it's a win or a loss. If it's a loss, yeah, I'll take it on my shoulder. If it's a win, the team wins."

Magovney doesn't mind his inability to 'wow' others with his velocity and rack up strikeouts. He says he understands he must throw pitches that will end up as groundouts and pop outs, relying on his defense to make an out in the field.

"He knows he doesn't have an overpowering fastball, which is a good thing about him is that he knows that about himself," Folk said. "So I would say he's very crafty in that regard. He pitches to his strengths, which ultimately makes him successful."

 

email: sports@ubspectrum.com


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