Changing arm angle on curve has changed how Brandon Lyon is viewed

Brandon Lyon stretches during a spring training workout Brandon Lyon stretches during a spring training workout at Tradition Field. (Feb. 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Brandon Lyon never resolved to reinvent himself.

By experimenting with his pitches, by tinkering with his arm angles during innocuous games of catch, he was simply enduring the monotony to which he has long been conditioned. There was never a moment in which the veteran reliever sought to discover the weapon that might revive his career.

He found it anyway. That's how the Mets' newest relief pitcher ended up here, on a rainy afternoon in spring training, trying to convey exactly why hitters all of a sudden couldn't hit his curveball.

"You probably really never figure out your stuff completely,'' Lyon said. "It was just a work in progress. Trial and error.''

Baseball often is rigid in its first impressions. Rare are the players who can change the way they reach their goals. Yet there was Lyon last season, fooling the best hitters on the planet just one year after surgery on his wrecked right shoulder.

The Mets noticed, signing the 33-year-old to a one-year deal as part of their efforts to rebuild the bullpen on a budget.

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"He's a totally different guy now because he's had to reinvent himself a couple of times,'' said J.P. Ricciardi, the Mets' special assistant to the general manager. "He's been banged up a little bit. But he's another veteran guy. He throws strikes. He knows the role. Those kind of guys are invaluable.''

In his first 10 big-league seasons, Lyon never racked up the strikeouts. Instead, he leaned on the movement on his fastball to generate just enough grounders to keep him out of trouble. It worked well enough to earn stints as the closer with the Diamondbacks and then the Astros.

But after shoulder surgery derailed him in 2011, Lyon delivered one of his stronger seasons in 2012, when he went 4-2 with a 3.10 ERA and struck out 63 in 61 innings with the Astros and Blue Jays.

Perhaps more remarkable is how he did it. Lyon changed his arm angle slightly to keep his curveball from breaking out of the strike zone too quickly. As a result, his strikeout rate jumped to 9.3 per nine innings, easily the best of his career.

Much of that spike could be traced directly back to the effectiveness of his curve, which, according to Pitch F/X data, generated a swing-and-miss rate of 21.4 percent.

If Lyon can replicate that success this season, he could emerge as a key piece within the Mets' revamped bullpen. They can use his versatility.

Frank Francisco's lingering elbow issues cost him his job as the Mets' closer, putting hard-throwing righthander Bobby Parnell first in line to take over. But if Parnell's latest audition goes poorly, Lyon could become a viable option.

"He's closed, he's pitched in the middle, he's not intimidated by anybody that walks in that batter's box,'' manager Terry Collins said.

"That's why those guys, a lot of times when you start the season, they make a big difference. They've been there and they know how to make all the adjustments that need to be made.''

Lyon knows all about making changes.

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"When I came in the league, it was probably my worst pitch,'' he said of his curveball. "So it's an evolution. You try to keep getting better. I'm still learning every day.''

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