Sampson's tough '09 a blessing in disguise
Without demotion, righty wouldn't have perfected changeup
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Chris Sampson has always been taught to make the best of a bad situation, which was advice he was able to put to good use when he was forced to finish last season pitching at Triple-A Round Rock after a frustrating season with the Astros.
Sampson, a workhorse member of Houston's bullpen since 2006, appeared in 49 games for the Astros last year, but he battled shoulder and inconsistency problems in the second half of the season. He pitched in six games for Round Rock after he was sent down in mid-August and wasn't among the players the Astros summoned to the Majors when the rosters expanded in September.
It was during his time in Round Rock and following a conversation with teammate Roy Corcoran that Sampson started tinkering with a new grip on his changeup, a pitch he had been trying to master for years. Armed with his new changeup and his trademark sinker, Sampson is hoping to bounce back in 2010.
"Had I not gotten sent down, I might not have gotten an opportunity to talk to Roy about his changeup and not learn the changeup," Sampson said. "I have a new pitch for this year, and good Lord willing, I'll make this team and do my part in contributing again out of the bullpen in Houston. I'm doing what I can and forgetting about last year and keep looking forward."
Sampson, 31, went 4-2 with a 5.04 ERA last year, mostly in middle relief. Former Astros manager Cecil Cooper used him often prior to the All-Star break, throwing Sampson into 41 games during which the right-hander responded by posting a 2.83 ERA.
The heavy workload took its toll when Sampson developed knots in his shoulder and was forced to the 15-day disabled list on July 11. He appeared in eight games upon returning from the DL and allowed 16 earned runs and 18 hits in only 7 2/3 innings, leading to his Aug. 13 demotion.
Sampson, whose $815,000 contract for 2010 nearly doubled his previous salary, came to Spring Training trying to win a job and make a good first impression on new manager Brad Mills and new pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. So far, so good. In his first seven appearances of the spring, he's allowed nine hits and three earned runs in eight innings.
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"He's been throwing the ball well," Mills said.
Sampson has made a living inducing ground balls with his two-seam fastball, which sits between 88-89 mph, and he won't blow anyone away. Always looking for new ways to keep hitters guessing, he tried different grips on his changeup for six years, and last year finally found one that felt comfortable in his hand, giving him more control.
"I've been working on that religiously in Spring Training and throwing it against hitters and seeing what I can do with it, and for the most part, for the majority of the time, it's worked well," he said. "It's more of a feel pitch than anything. With a slider and a fastball, you know your grip and you throw those pitches a little harder. You don't have to feel the pitch come off your finger tips.
"You have to have the same arm speed [with the changeup], but it has to be 10 mph off your fastball with less velocity. For me, it's a feel pitch. It's been a struggle to find a comfortable grip and get it consistent, but this year -- knock on wood -- it will be a good pitch for me."
Corcoran, who on Monday was sent to Minor League camp by the Astros, had success with his changeup with Seattle in 2008 and convinced Sampson to grip the ball as if he were going to throw a two-seam fastball.
"Hopefully, I can keep the same arm speed and make it look exactly like my fastball with less velocity," Sampson said.
Because he's not going to overpower anyone with his fastball, Sampson's goal is not to throw his changeup for strikeouts. He needs the changeup to look like a fastball out of his hands and get the hitter out in front and hit it off the end of the bat.
"My game is just missing barrels," he said. "I'm not a strikeout pitcher, I'm not a power pitcher. I just go and throw strikes and try to miss barrels and get a lot of ground balls. I've been in the league for three years and hitters know me and know what I have, and if I could add another pitch and set them back and make them think about another pitch, that's to my advantage."
With the Astros making a renewed commitment to infield defense with the signing of third baseman Pedro Feliz and putting rookie Tommy Manzella at shortstop, being a ground-ball pitcher figures to help Sampson even more this year.
"He's got that sinker and breaking ball that allows him to keep the ball on the ground, and if he's able to do that, we've got guys that can catch it and throw it," Mills said. "That's going to make him better and us better."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.