The first thing you notice is the music. The gentle strum and pluck of an acoustic guitar echoing through the clubhouse at Chase Field in Phoenix. Arizona Diamondbacks ace Brandon Webb is seated near his locker, a shiny guitar resting across his lap. Look closely enough and you’ll see that guitar’s story—right there on its fingerboard. Built exclusively for Webb, the Guild CV-1 has a custom inlay that reads, "2006 Cy Young Winner Brandon Webb." It was presented to Webb before a game last April. And truth be told, he cherishes the guitar nearly as much as the award.
Though many starting pitchers adopt a grinder’s mentality on game days-retreating to a world of self-absorption by studying video, reflecting on their games and loosening their limbs—Webb plays guitar to relax. "I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself," says Webb, 28. "A lot of [pitchers] start getting prepared that morning and don’t talk to anyone when they get to the field. I’d be pretty worn out if I did that."
There’s wonderful symmetry to Webb’s receiving the instrument in recognition of his stellar season [16-8, 3.10 E.R.A.]. It was baseball that stalled his musical career, when he was eight and a wild pitch broke his knuckle.
It hardly strains the imagination to find the common ground between athletes and musicians. The way rap stars lean heavily on their biggest hits to sell concert tickets—Would Kanye leave the stage before rocking out "Stronger"?—baseball’s best pitchers rely on go-to pitches. A six-two, 230-pound right-hander, Webb owes much of his success to the two-seam sinker that sends many batters packing. The pitch is especially devastating against right-handers, as it bores down on their hands, forcing them to pound the ball into that heel of dirt beyond home plate. In 2006, SI.com called Webb’s sinker arguably the filthiest pitch in baseball and compared it to Mariano Rivera’s cutter, Barry Zito’s curve and Brad Lidge’s slider.
"It’s the best pitch in baseball, period," crowed former San Francisco Giants catcher Mike Mattheny.
"People ask me all the time how I throw the sinker," Webb says. "I’m like, ‘Dude, I hold it on the two seams and throw it.’ It’s basically just my natural arm action."
While Webb has always trusted his talent—"The ability to make changes from one pitch to the next is what separates the great players from the good ones," he says—he hasn’t always trusted his teammates’ talent. In 2004, Webb’s second year in the majors, he doubted a suspect Diamondbacks D and tried to strike out every batter. He struggled, leading the league in walks .
The following season, Webb changed his approach and showed some faith in the reformed infield, which featured Craig Counsell and Royce Clayton. "Having good command of a sinker will induce a lot of ground balls," he wrote last season during a Q&A with fans on Dbacks.com. "If you have a good infield behind you, then I believe it’s one of the best pitches you can throw."
Still, Webb soon discovered that being a one-trick pony—even with a trick as nasty as his—sets limitations. In order to become an exceptional pitcher, he needed to develop a second exceptional pitch. Over the past couple seasons, Webb has spent dozens of hours mastering his change-up. "I got a real good feel for the pitch last year," he says. "And it got me out of a ton of jams."
As a lanky boy in Ashland, Ky., Webb shared the same dream as countless kids before him. His father, Philip, believed his son had the physical tools to play college baseball, and maybe beyond, but he didn’t know if Brandon had the heart.
The first true test of Webb’s character came a couple years later. "My shoulder was hurting," Webb says. "During my senior year of high school, I had to get an MRI." Though his shoulder proved healthy, pro scouts and college recruiters were scared off by a rumor that he’d torn his rotator cuff. He missed his chance to explore some high-caliber programs. Much as he’d wanted to follow the path of a blue-chip recruit, considering factors like weather, coaching and competition, Webb never let the snub bring him down. Eventually, he signed with the University of Kentucky—a big school in the powerful SEC, where he could advance at his own pace.
Only 100 miles from home, Lexington was a good fit for Webb, as it matched his self-described "country boy" manner. But Webb began to realize that underneath burned the white-hot embers of a competitor. "A lot of times in college or the minor leagues, something wouldn’t go my way and my confidence would start slacking," he says. "I learned that you need to have a short memory in this sport. After a bad pitch, a bad inning or a bad game, you have to forget about it. That’s one thing I’ve really tried to improve."
Many lessons learned early in his career came from Curt Schilling, who served as Webb’s mentor in 2003—Webb’s first season with Arizona and Schilling’s last. Webb has a weakness for what can be described charitably as comfort foods [on game-days he favors pancakes and eggs from IHOP]. But Schilling, now 41, stressed to him the importance of maintaining peak physical condition. On Schillings advice, Webb began a rigorous off-season training program that included throwing the ball more than 100 times a day. "It really helped me toward the end of the season," Webb told Baseball Digest. "I felt a lot stronger."
Despite signing a four-year, $19.5 million extension with Arizona in 2006, Webb’s fitness regimen still retains a certain countrified flavor—all blue-collar, smacking of grit and determination. In place of fancy machines and personal trainers, Webb has a chiropractor buddy in Ashland who gives him the key to a makeshift gym. Four days a week, he moves some of the medical tables against the wall to create space for throwing. He also lifts weights, stretches with oversized rubber bands and does some cardio.
"On Mondays, I’ll do upper-body stuff," he says. "Maybe back and shoulders, then [abdominal] work. Tuesdays, I’ll do some kind of lower-body lifts. I take Wednesdays off; then, I repeat the first two days with a few changes—upper-body with chest and back on Thursdays, and another lower-body day on Fridays.
"Keeping your arm healthy is a huge thing," he continues. "Getting it strong with long-tossing before I go into spring training is important."
If the primary objective of every pitcher is to stay off the DL, Webb’s devotion to his training has been a resounding success. Last year, he led the National League in innings pitched [236.1]. To maintain this durability, Webb ices his arm for 20 minutes after each start, and he regularly withdraws to the D-backs aquatics room, where he’ll do contrast work in a pair of whirlpools, jumping from hot water to cold. "I do that every day for recovery purposes," he says. "It kind of shocks the body."
"Brandon’s the whole package," Schilling told SI.com. "Great stuff, great poise, great personality. And he’s only reached the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential."
Webb still gets nervous. As he begins his fifth season with Arizona, he reflects on the butterflies that continue dancing through his stomach before each start. "I get nervous every time I step on the field," he says. "If I didn’t get nervous, it would mean I didn’t love what I was doing."
Webb’s skittishness usually subsides after an inning or two—thanks to his long hours of off-season preparation and the help he gets from his catchers, who study video of the hitters they’ll face. Also, to keep from feeling any pressure, he treats the afternoons before starts like any other day. He’ll jam with some teammates on their guitars or play video games—then he’ll hit the field for stretching and long-toss exercises. "I go into it a little lackadaisically," Webb says. "I won’t really start to get focused until about an hour before the game. That’s when I lock in."
Never was Webb more locked—in than last August, when he pitched a remarkable 42 consecutive scoreless innings—including a franchise record three straight shutouts. He was so magnificent during the streak that D-backs outfielder Eric Byrnes started calling him "Orel" in homage to former Dodger great Orel Hershiser, who holds the major league record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched .
Sure, Webb appreciates the attention, but he tries to leave his job behind when he exits the ballpark. He reminds himself that baseball’s only a game by devoting his time [and money] to a number of local charities. Brandon’s Locker provides clothing and supplies to critically ill children at St. Josephs Hospital; K is for Knowledge is a youth reading program; and his K Foundation encourages less fortunate kids to follow their dreams.
And following dreams is one subject Webb knows something about. He tells rookies to work hard, to push past what they think is possible. After all, hard work will be rewarded.