SAN DIEGO -- For a guy who was throwing in the mid to high 90s, a big-bodied pitcher with tons of movement, Padres reliever Ryan Webb wasn't nearly as dominating in the Minor Leagues as he probably should have been. This was the conclusion Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley came to after a review of Webb's Minor League statistics from his first five seasons in professional baseball, 4 1/2 of which were spent in the A's system. "For a guy throwing 95 mph, he gave up a lot of hits, which led me to believe he wasn't making pitches or guys were seeing him too good," Balsley said. "He was giving up too many hits compared to his talent level and stuff."
Webb, who was traded to the Padres on July 5, 2009, in the deal that sent Scott Hairston to Oakland, allowed 160 hits in 117 2/3 innings in 2006. Two years later, it was 165 hits in 130 innings. Every season, more hits than innings pitched. So after watching Webb in the second half of 2009, Balsley, in agreement with manager Bud Black, made a decision in Spring Training to alter Webb's delivery -- dropping his arm slot to change the eye level and the view that hitters had of the ball coming out of his hand. "This was a change for Ryan's career, not necessarily to help the Padres, but more for it to help him in the future," Balsley said. "It's a huge credit to him. Doing that takes a lot of courage ... to make a drastic change like that. It showed me he was mentally tough. "That's a pretty big change for any pitcher to do that. I was pretty impressed how Ryan handled it." Webb, 24, stunned Balsley with how quickly he flourished with the change in delivery. Webb was 3-1 in 54 games with a 2.90 ERA and allowed one run in 12 critical innings with 11 strikeouts during the month of September with the Padres in a pennant race. "I didn't expect him to make pitches this year; I expected him to more rely on stuff and movement," Balsley said. "And as soon as he learns to spot his fastball and control his movement, he's going to be good." Webb's rise could prove important for the Padres in 2011, especially if they decide to move All-Star closer Heath Bell, who is arbitration-eligible for the last time and could see his $4 million salary in 2009 jump to $7 million. If the Padres opt to hang on to Bell, Webb's emergence as a trusted arm in the bullpen -- coupled with the success of late-inning specialists Luke Gregerson and Mike Adams -- could again give the Padres a formidable bullpen to count on. Webb was actually one of the first players moved out of the Major Leagues last March during Spring Training, though it wasn't because the team didn't see upside and potential in him. The decision was made to give him time to adapt to his new arm angle, an approach that Balsley and Black carefully weighed before implementing. To be clear, Balsley said, this isn't a move made haphazardly or hastily. And it's not even a change that all pitchers can make. Balsley speaks from experience. At the urging of mentor Mel Queen, when Balsley was a pitcher and later a coach in the Blue Jays organization, he dropped his arm slot. So did Roy Halladay, who was also mentored by Queen. "It takes a big horse of a guy to do that," Balsley said. "I wouldn't say that Ryan and Roy are similar, but they have similar physiques [Webb and Halladay are both 6-foot-6 with big, muscular frames]. But it's not something that's easy to do because it takes different muscles and it takes time. "I've seen firsthand the success pitchers can have with a lowered arm slot. I saw it work for Roy. He was over the top, too. For a first-round pick, Roy got hit a little too hard. So they changed his arm angle." Webb isn't the first Padres pitcher Balsley has asked to change his arm slot. There was Ben Howard, who threw in the high 90s as an over-the-top pitcher. Howard pitched two seasons (2002-03) for the Padres. Tom Davey (2000-02) made a similar change. For Webb, the adjustment came surprisingly easy. "I made the adjustment with my arm angle and went to Triple-A and just had a good feel for it and had some success," Webb said. "The second time I was sent down, I worked on some more stuff with the changeup. It's something I worked on more than I did earlier in the year." Webb had a 0.87 ERA in 17 games with Triple-A Portland before finding a home at the back end of bullpen in the final month of the season. Webb also earned appearances in several high-leverage situations, earning the trust of Black and Balsley along the way. "To contribute anything to this bullpen is an honor, [with] the guys in this bullpen. It's amazing. They're the best in the league," Webb said. "To be trusted in critical situations with the limited experience I have really showed a lot of trust on their part. It was nice." Time, opportunity and results will tell if Webb will get a chance to close games. But one thing is certain, general manager Jed Hoyer is high on Webb's upside and what it can mean for the bullpen in 2011 and beyond. "I think we have two that could do it [close games] next year in Adams and Gregerson [if the team decides to trade Bell]. I think both can step into that role and do it well," Hoyer said. "I think Webb in time [can close]. As far as his stuff, I think he can do it."