ALLENTOWN, PA -- In 2010, Downey native Bobby LaFromboise made a throw that resurrected his career – and it was not from the mound.
While fielding balls during batting practice with the High-A High Desert Mavericks (Seattle Mariners high-A minor league affiliate), the lefty starting pitcher threw a ball sidearm to the third baseman. His coaches took notice.
“I wasn’t even really thinking about it,” said LaFromboise, who normally threw from a three-quarters arm slot. “I was just doing what I usually do and they saw something in it and they took me out on the mound to try it out. And it worked out.”
The result was simple: have LaFromboise try throwing sidearm in games and since guys with low arm slots hardly start games, he would be relegated to the bullpen.
It was a happy accident for the now-Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Philadelphia Phillies Triple-A affiliate) reliever because left-handed relievers are valued so highly in baseball. So while no starting pitcher welcomes the switch to relief at first, it has helped LaFromboise’s stock as a ballplayer.
“I’m just happy I still have a career in this,” he said, meaning baseball. “Somebody saw something in me and I’m glad they said something about it because that’s why I’m here.”
Putting the lefty sidewinder in a new role was not as easy as it sounded, however. His delivery on those batting practice throws to the infield were not quite what his delivery is now. It was something he had to work on.
“It was a process,” he said. “Obviously, I wasn’t used to it. They had me bending down a little farther than I usually go to kind of work on the angle. And eventually, it just kind of got to the point where I was comfortable the way I was throwing it.”
As starter with a common arm slot, LaFromboise did not stand out. An eighth round draft pick in 2008, he was not topping out any prospect lists. In 2010, he went 6-4 with a 4.30 ERA in 14 high-A starts at 24 years old, not exactly MLB prospect numbers.
As a reliever, however, he has shined in Triple-A and worked his way up to the big leagues, making a handful of appearances in each of the past three seasons.
The 29-year-old is 0-1 with a 3.63 ERA in 27 career MLB outings for the Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates spanning back to 2013. He has also struck out 23 batters in 22.1 innings.
He has been especially tough on left-handers not because he can overpower them, but because he can deceive them. His fastball hardly tops 90 MPH. But with his sweeping slider and funky windup, he is able to keep left-handers off-balance. They have hit just .211 off of him with a mere .573 OPS in 38 big league at-bats.
While shutting lefties down may be his selling point, LaFromboise said he does not take facing them lightly and admitted there are still some tough left-handed outs.
Although he did not crack the Phillies Opening Day roster, LaFromboise made a strong impression during the spring. He allowed just one run in eight outings (1.04 ERA) so even though he did not make the major league team, he is pleased knowing the major league coaches knows what he is capable of doing.
“Anytime you can go into Spring Training and show what you’re capable of doing, it’s always a good sign,” he said. “Now I just have to keep it up.”
After pitching 11 games for the Pirates last season and allowing just one run in eight innings (1.13 ERA), LaFromboise was claimed off waivers by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last December. But in January, he was placed on waivers again and claimed by Philadelphia, ending his prospective tenure with the local ball club.
“It was an exciting month,” he said. “It was a fun month, talking to all my friends and family about it. They were all excited about it. I don’t really care. I’m just excited I have a job and I’m here.”
Tom Joyce is a freelance sportswriter who has written for several daily and weekly newspapers in Southeastern Massachusetts and Boston Baseball Magazine.