Aumont hopes to follow path of Big Unit
Righty is built like five-time Cy Young Award winner, who struggled early in his career
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Every now and then, Phillies bullpen candidate Phillippe Aumont will dig up some video of Randy Johnson. Transfixed, he watches the Big Unit in his prime blow away hitter after hitter. The images are a touchstone for a pitcher whose career has been marked by flashes of brilliance against a backdrop of inconsistency.
"Every time the Diamondbacks would be on television, I'd pray that he'd be throwing," Aumont said, sitting in front of his locker in the Bright House Field clubhouse on Friday. "I'd just look at him. He was this massive figure on the mound. His facial expression just had no fear. It was aggressive. Like, 'I'm about to throw this ball through your chest.' And I thought it was great. I loved it."
That Aumont feels such an affinity for Johnson shouldn't be a surprise even though he's right-handed, is being used as a reliever and grew up speaking French in Quebec, while the five-time Cy Young Award winner Johnson was a lefty starter from California.
The common bond is that they're both big, tall power pitchers. Aumont is listed at 6-foot-7. Johnson is 6-foot-10. And there's something else, too, something Aumont researched over the winter that gave him comfort and hope.
Here's a simple baseball truth: Sometimes it takes big pitchers longer to develop.
When Johnson was 25 years old -- the same age Aumont is now -- he got off to an 0-4 start with a 6.67 ERA and was traded by the Montreal Expos to the Mariners. He amassed huge strikeout numbers but also led the league in walks in 1990, '91 and '92. The word around baseball was that the M's were close to giving up on Johnson after he went 12-14 with a 3.77 ERA in '92. He was 29 years old when that season ended and had a 49-48 record for his career.
Sometimes it takes big pitchers longer. Johnson turned out to be the classic example. The following season everything came together. He lowered his walks from 6.2 to 3.5 per nine innings. From 1993 until he retired following the 2009 season, Johnson went 254-118.
Aumont is coming off a dismal season. He spent half the year at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. In 22 big league appearances, he averaged almost two baserunners per inning. His offseason studies help keep that in perspective.
"[Johnson's] the guy I always idolized," Aumont said. "This offseason I was looking around a little bit. What I've heard and what you can see [from the stats] is that he didn't really get through his wild stage until he was [almost 30]. So that's why when I go to bed at night I'm like, 'You know what? I still might be struggling with mechanics. I still might not be able to consistently get the corner I want or get the result of the pitch that I want. But if I keep working it will come to me and eventually I'll get it. Some guys get it really early. Some guys get it later. That's just how it works.'"
It's still so very early in camp, but Aumont has already re-opened some eyes.
Phillies senior advisor Dallas Green was a big pitcher once and understands what Aumont is going through.
"It's just getting control of your body. Getting a feel for your body," he said. "He has a tendency to get frustrated because he is tall and gangly and gets frustrated because the body doesn't feel right, the ball doesn't feel right coming out of his hand.
"I've talked to him about that. I said, 'Hey, we all get frustrated. We all get mad at ourselves. But you can't transfer that to the hitter or the fans.' I said, 'You've got to keep yourself under control.' That goes along with the body language and everything else. It's so important. He's just going to take time."
New pitching coach Bob McClure also understands that Aumont remains something of a work in progress.
"There are exceptions to every rule. But it's like tall golfers," he said. "The moving parts, in order to get them to coincide with each other on time takes a little bit longer. It takes work. He's still a young man and working on your delivery is something you repeat, repeat, repeat. It's like shooting free throws. But it will definitely happen."
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said the organization is willing to be patient.
"Hey, arms like this don't come around very often," he said.
At the same time, how long the Phillies can wait is limited by baseball's rules to some extent.
Aumont has one option remaining. After that, in order to be able to send him back to the Minors, he would have to clear waivers. It's unlikely he'd go unclaimed.
"We're in an era where 95, 97 [mph] is really something special. And he has that," Green noted.
Aumont understands the need for patience, but that's easier said than done.
"It's very hard," he said. "Patience is something that doesn't come naturally to me. I want it right now. But it takes time. It took me a little while to figure that out. I'm a totally different person coming into this camp than I was last year."
Aumont has revamped his mechanics. He's standing more upright now. That's a change he began thinking about a year ago while playing in the World Baseball Classic. Greg Hamilton, a longtime friend and confidant, is director and general manager of Team Canada.
After watching Aumont throw, he noticed something right away but at first didn't think it was his place to say anything. Finally, Hamilton couldn't help himself.
"Phillippe, I watched you pitch the other day. I didn't want to say anything, but I feel like I have to. Why when you're on the mound are you trying to be a 5-10 guy when you're 6-7?" he asked.
Aumont didn't have a good answer. It was just something that sort of evolved, a mix-and-match stew of assorted ideas, suggestions and theories. So over the winter he bounced the idea of standing tall again off a couple more people he trusted in the Phillies organization. Then he pantomimed it without a baseball in his living room until it started to come naturally to him. Since arriving in Clearwater he's worked with McClure on his arm angle and keeping his shoulders more square to the plate.
"I went into the offseason with the mindset of coming in and being ready right away," Aumont said. "I feel much better physically. I feel much better mentally. I don't know. I guess 2013 was just a bad year in general. Nothing was coming together. I just wanted to stay positive and forget about last year. You can't change it. So it makes no sense to look back at it."
It's not like he hasn't had his moments. In September 2012, Aumont didn't allow a run in a four-game stretch, holding opposing hitters to a .143 average while walking just one of the 16 hitters he faced during that span. It's just that he needs to be able to repeat his delivery.
Not every big pitcher becomes as successful as Johnson, of course. But sometimes the ones that make it are late bloomers. That's something both Aumont and the Phillies are keeping in mind.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.