In a season full of inconsistencies for the Vermont Lake Monsters, there have been few bright spots. The offense has struggled to put together explosive performances on consecutive nights while the pitching staff tries to avoid the one bad inning that has haunted them.
Don’t count Bubba Derby among them.
The sixth round pick out of San Diego State by the Oakland A’s has been dominant on the mound for Vermont. On a staff that rarely allows pitchers to go more than three innings per outing in an attempt to relieve arm stress, Derby has recorded 35 strikeouts in just 29.1 innings of work, the highest mark on the team.
The latest spurt of dominance came Wednesday against Tri-City. Getting his ninth start of the season, and eleventh appearance overall, Derby struck out five batters in three innings of work, giving up just one hit and pushing his scoreless innings mark to 13.2.
“To be honest I didn’t feel 100 percent today,” Derby said of his performance. “Two days off (for the All Star break), I enjoyed it, had fun, relaxed, but coming back today I felt a little sluggish. Going from everyday moving, doing something, to the past two days not doing much, I felt a little sluggish, a little off, but it’s days like those where you got to find it.”
Derby struck out the side in the first before giving up an infield single to Bobby Wernes. Lake Monster shortstop Richie Martin ranged up the middle for Wernes’ soft grounder, making a diving stop, but was unable to beat the runner at first.
Derby followed by inducing a pair of fly outs and a strikeout to work around trouble.
Derby went back to work in the third, working a pop out and groundout to first, before striking out Tri City centerfielder Johnny Sewald for the second time.
Kyle Friedrichs followed Derby on the mound for Vermont, surrendering seven runs in 0.2 innings of work, giving up six hits in the process, taking the loss for Vermont as the Lake Monsters fell 9-2.
Over his previous nine outings, Derby has struck out at least three batters eight times, including his last five appearances. Derby has given up the fewest earned runs (2) among pitchers with at least 20 innings of work, while the next closest is Heath Bowers with eight earned runs in 24.1 innings.
“Obviously it makes my job a little easier knowing I’m not going to be out there for three hours pitching the whole time,” Derby said. “I try to keep things as simple as possible. Just go out there and throw strikes, whether it’s for three innings, whether it’s for nine innings, or one.”
In Derby’s eight three strikeout performances, Vermont has gone 5-3, including Wednesday’s route, with the previous two losses coming by just three runs overall. The loss to Tri-City ends a three game winning streak in appearances by Derby as Vermont tries to catch Lowell and State College for the lead in the Stedler Division and the Wild Card. Vermont is five games behind both.
“It’s mostly just throwing strikes,” said Derby of his pitching approach. “You put it up there and you can only control one thing and that’s throwing it over the plate. Obviously you want to miss barrels but you can’t control whether they hit it or not. You’ve got defense behind you for days. If you get ground balls or you get fly balls, they’re going to track it down.”
While Derby is consistently inducing swings and misses, he’s also limited base runners all together, boasting a 0.72 walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP), the lowest among Vermont’s 20 inning pitchers and fourth lowest overall, while the three pitchers below him have thrown a combined 23.2 innings.
Derby’s dominance didn’t just start in Vermont. In three seasons with the Aztecs, Derby compiled 270 strikeouts in 233 innings of work, including 131 his junior season. Derby accounted for 25.6 percent of the Aztecs 510 strikeouts his junior year, while leading the league with 100 strikeouts his sophomore season.
Prior to his sophomore year, Derby was still searching for a decisive out pitch. His changeup often cut on him and he was using his slider as his secondary pitch until one day while sitting on the couch, Derby stumbled upon the pitch that is quickly becoming his out pitch.
“One day during the fall I was sitting on the couch watching TV, holding a baseball, and out of no where I grabbed a changeup grip. I looked at and I was like, ‘what is this? This feels good.’ So the next day playing catch I tried it out and my buddy couldn’t catch it, it was hitting him. From there I thought I could dabble with it a little.”
What followed was over 200 strikeouts in just two seasons, leading the Mountain West Conference. Derby asked around, attempting to see if anyone else had stumbled upon his newfound changeup. He was alone.
And alone he left batters at the plate, whiffing at thin air as his change ‘drops like a splitter and pronates out like a changeup.’
“If I’m throwing that thing and it’s on, I trust it. If they hit it hopefully they hit it into the ground, if not hopefully they’re swinging over it.”
In Vermont, the pitch is slowly growing upon the staff. James Naile recently adopted the pitch, leading Derby to naming his creation.
“I told myself, if one person throws it, that’s one thing, but if you got two people throwing it, you gotta name it. So I put a name to the thing, and the best name I could think of was ‘The Falcon.’ The way you grip it is like a talon, I think that’d be a great name for it. So I started calling it the falcon and it’s been the pitch that has been working for me ever since spring at San Diego State. “
As the Falcon wrecks havoc on opposing hitters, Derby’s ERA continues to drop, plunging to a 0.68 mark. He hasn’t allowed more than two hits in any of his three innings outings and has surrendered just four runs overall. Opposing hitters are batting just .174, including a .167 mark with runners in scoring position.
While Derby’s ERA and opposing batting averages quickly drop, his efficiency steadily rises, something Vermont desperately needs on a roster starving for consistency.