John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
PORT ST. LUCIE -- Three days in Mets' camp and I've heard the same tout from three different people on the inside: "Watch Familia. He's back."
On Thursday when I told Jeurys Familia what I was hearing, he smiled and said, "Believe it. I feel great."
It started with his well-publicized weight loss, and indeed it's rather stunning to see him in person, how dramatically different he looks after dropping some 30 pounds during the offseason -- from 270 to 240.
"The guys are telling me I look like a model now," Familia said with a laugh. "Even in the winter in New Jersey, I'd go out to a restaurant with my wife and people would recognize me and say, 'Holy cow, how did you lose all the weight?' It feels good to hear that."
It's only natural to be skeptical, of course, new look or not, after the reliever's disastrous 2019 season that saw him pitch to a 5.70 ERA and walk 42 hitters in 60 innings.
However, Familia and others say the weight loss has made a perceptible difference in his delivery, allowing him to lengthen his stride and release the ball more out in front of the rubber, which should make it easier to repeat and control, while adding velocity as well.
"The ball is coming out so easy at 95, 96, 97 even early in camp," Familia said. "I was surprised to see that but I have more flexibility now, and I can extend and finish better.
"Last year I was having a problem with my hips -- they were too tight and I wasn't extending on my stride. I don't know if it was because I was overweight but so far I don't have that problem.
"For me, pitching and throwing strikes is about repeating my delivery and right now I'm able to repeat the way I did in the past when I had success."
In addition Familia believes he has a new weapon: At the advice of new pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, the right-hander has changed his grip on his split-finger pitch, widening his fingers to reduce velocity and add more sink to make it more of an off-speed pitch.
"The way he was throwing his split, his fingers were really close together," Hefner explained. "So there wasn't much velo separation -- his sinker and his split were essentially the same pitch.
"His last time out (Tuesday) he was throwing the split at about 88, and his sinker and four-seamer were at 96, which is enough separation to get big-league hitters out. He's looked great so far."
Familia said he had largely stopped throwing the splitter because it looked too much like his sinker to hitters, but with the widened grip he said, "I've gotten some swings and misses on it because it's more off-speed now."
So is this the new/old Familia? The guy the Mets thought they were getting when they signed him to that three-year, $30 million contract in December of 2018?
And can he be at age 30 something close to what he was back in 2016 when he led the league with 51 saves, or even 2018 when he was solid if not dominant?
Obviously he'll have to prove it when the games count, but if Familia becomes a dependable reliever again, it increases the Mets' chances of having one of the deepest bullpens in baseball -- depending on a bounce-back from Edwin Diaz, as well as a healthy Dellin Betances and more dominance from Seth Lugo.
If so it would make for a great payoff to Familia's dramatic weight loss, something he decided he needed to try in response to his problems last season.
"Man, honestly, I tried to do everything I could," Familia said. "I just didn't have it. Then when you don't have success, the manager isn't going to put you in certain situations, and you might be off for five or six days. That makes it harder. It got to the point where I'd come to the ballpark some days and I was so frustrated I didn't feel like doing anything."
By season's end Familia said he was determined to do something drastic, setting a goal to get back to his old playing weight of 240.
"It started with eating better," he said Thursday. "I was always hungry at night, and I'd eat whatever was in the house. I didn't eat as well as I should have. I'd have chicken wings, pizza, soda, fast food -- now I'm staying away from all that.
"I'm eating five smaller meals a day. I eat more vegetables, salmon, protein shakes. It was really hard at first, I had to cheat a few times and eat at night, but now I've changed my habits.
"If I'm hungry at night I just have a shake. On the weekend I might still have some pizza or chicken wings, but during the week I stay on my routine, and I feel the difference. My body recovers faster, my delivery is easy for me.
"When you have a goal in mind you work for that goal. You can get there."
Familia got there, all right. Now the question is whether it translates to results, and his early work has been promising. In addition, he doesn't seem to have any ego about a late-inning role, which could be important with all the arms the Mets have in the pen.
"Honestly, all the hard work is because I want to get back on track and help this team," he said. "I'm not looking to be the closer, the set-up man ... whatever inning they have me pitch, I just want to get the job done."
So we'll see. Maybe the people telling me the old Familia is back will be right. Meanwhile, keep the salmon coming.